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Catholic Radio: Lay-Led Expansion

For years a handful of Catholic radio pioneers has blazed the trail, either through establishing full-time Catholic stations or by purchasing time on existing stations and airing Catholic programs. Now Catholic radio is burgeoning in the United States, and the reasons are complex.

Twenty-five years ago KNOM hit the airwaves in Nome, Alaska, providing full-time Catholic radio to the listeners of that northern region. In the years since then, full-time Catholic stations have become reality in places such as Tampa, Florida; Cleveland, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; Reno, Nevada; Jacksonville Beach, Florida; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and St. Louis, Missouri. In addition, organizations such as WEWN, St. Joseph’s Catholic Radio, and the Lay Catholic Broadcasting Network, as well as individuals such as John and Barbara Marion, Dom Lettieri, and Bob Kirby, have introduced Catholic programs on existing stations around the country. 

Until recently the growth of Catholic radio has been slow, especially when compared to the number of stations owned and operated by our Protestant brethren. In most areas, stations and frequencies are abundant and available, yet Catholics have failed to use this powerful medium well. Of an estimated 1,200 stations carrying Christian programming in the United States, only one percent are Catholic. And while many non-Catholic stations provide some degree of inspiration and spiritual nourishment to Catholics, it is common to hear Catholicism bashed on some programs. Many Catholics have been led to doubt their faith by regularly listening to Protestant apologetics or Bible study programs.

This is not to disparage the good that is being done by Protestant stations. Still, the need is great for the continued proliferation of radio stations that can present the timeless truths and unified message of the Christian faith as they have been entrusted to, and handed on by, the Catholic Church.

The good news for Catholics is that this is beginning to happen on a large scale. Why are Catholic stations beginning to spring up? One reason is availability of quality programming.

Because Mother Angelica’s global radio network, WEWN, provides twenty-four-hour Catholic programming, many are realizing the relative ease with which they can launch their own Catholic radio stations. WEWN beams around the world by means of its shortwave signal, and it recently began offering its programming to AM and FM radio stations for re-broadcast at no charge. Armed with this cache of excellent programming, an owner can set up a full-time Catholic station without the need to hire a full staff of announcers and without having to develop all of its own programming.

This is precisely what AM 1590 KIHM in Reno, Nevada, has done. At the start of this year KIHM became the nation’s first Catholic radio station to re-broadcast the entire slate of WEWN programs. David Vacheresse, who worked at WEWN for three years, was hired as KIHM’s station manager. His role is primarily to make the station known in the Reno area and to secure on-air sponsorships from businesses and individuals for the non-profit station, which is owned by Thomas Aquinas School in Tahoe City, California. 

“Carrying WEWN gives us the opportunity to concentrate on building up the local listenership and heightening people’s awareness of the station,” he says. “It also allows us to develop local programming as time and resources allow, while providing twenty-four-hour Catholic radio to our listeners right away.” Vacheresse is pleased to note that one of the first local programs he has put on KIHM is a live call-in show hosted by Bishop Phillip Straling of the Diocese of Reno.

People from all over the country are contacting KIHM to learn more about how they can start Catholic radio stations in their areas. KIHM general manager Douglas Sherman, a homebuilder by trade, says he fields as many as three phone calls a week from people interested in duplicating what has been done in Reno.

“There is a tremendous surge of enthusiasm and interest among Catholics around the country for establishing full-time Catholic radio stations,” Sherman says. “Very few of these people have any radio knowledge or background. They are simply dedicated laypeople who have a strong sense of evangelization and a deep love for the Catholic faith.”

Following KIHM, four more full-time Catholic stations have gone on the air in the past few months; most of them also re-broadcast the WEWN signal. The most recent of these is WRYT, another non-profit AM station near St. Louis, Missouri. General manager Tony Holman, whose background is in mortgage banking, was quick to confirm how easy it is for someone with no radio experience to establish a station with the help of WEWN programming. “I’m a perfect example of that,” Holman says. “The main thing is to get a station and then later work on mixing in more local programming, such as a little more music.”

Holman and others around the country have been assisted by the Lay Catholic Broadcasting Network, a non-profit organization based in San Rafael, California; it provides guidance and direction to those with little or no radio experience. By offering support, information, and connection to others in the Catholic radio apostolate, LCBN is a catalyst for the upsurge in Catholic progamming. Chris Lyford, LCBN founder and executive director, hosts the “Sunday Morning Catholic” on KMXN-AM and KTOB-AM in Santa Rosa, California. His desire is eventually to start a full-time Catholic station in the Santa Rosa area. 

In the last year LCBN has hosted two Catholic Radio Institutes. Lay evangelist Ralph Martin was the keynote speaker at the first gathering of Catholic radio enthusiasts, held last August. The session was attended by a dozen people. The second Catholic Radio Institute, held in February, featured Mitch Pacwa, S.J., and was attended by fifty people from all parts of the United States. The scheduled keynote speaker for the next institute in the spring of 1998 is Scott Hahn.

Holman put his finger on perhaps the most important element in the entire renaissance of Catholic radio today: “Having a regular prayer life keeps you going. It’s one of the keys,” he says. Those attempting to further the national development of Catholic radio realize the urgency of the times in which we are living. They rely upon the mercy and grace of God to see their desires for Catholic radio fulfilled. In addition, many are placing themselves and their ministries under the patronage of our Blessed Mother. Several stations have chosen call letters honoring Mary, including WBVM in Tampa, Florida and KBVM in Portland, Oregon (“BVM” stands for “Blessed Virgin Mary”), WMIH in Cleveland, Ohio (“Mary’s Immaculate Heart”), WQOP in Jacksonville Beach, Florida (“Queen of Peace”), and KIHM (“Immaculate Heart of Mary”).

At the rate things are going, by the Jubilee Year 2000 many parts of the United States will be blessed with Catholic radio. This should really come as no surprise, as many believe that the new millennium will bring with it a new period of grace for the Church and the world. Referring to Catholic radio as the “wave of the future,” Scott Hahn says: “I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit is moving in a powerful and unique way. This is not something that people would have seen ten years ago. God is working in a way that is really marvelous. It’s a springtime.”

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