LOS ANGELES—In the 1950s, at the dawn of the age of television, Bishop Fulton Sheen's dramatic presentations of Catholic doctrine and his vivid social commentary earned him top ratings on network TV. And while successful Catholic forays into media since then have managed to attract solid Catholic audiences — Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), for example — nothing like Bishop Sheen's impact on the American mass public has been duplicated for more than a generation.

Backers of the Catholic Radio Network (CRN) hope to change all that.

With a tentative launch date of Oct. 3, the lay-owned and operated radio network, backed by San Francisco-based Ignatius Press and the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and with Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput as episcopal adviser, will broadcast 24-hour Catholic radio to 10 major markets across the United States. CRN hopes to be available to an even wider global public over the Internet and through satellite technology.

“Seventy million Catholics in this country, and [few] Catholic radio [stations],” San Diego-based CRN president and CEO John Lynch told the Register. “Sixteen hundred Christian radio stations on the air, and only a handful are Catholic.”

As Pope John Paul II has often pointed out, said Lynch, “Catholics have done a poor job of using the mass media to evangelize.

We need to get out there in the mainstream,” and make an impact.

Network executives have repeatedly assured U.S. bishops that they would work in cooperation with local Church authorities, a stance that Archbishop Weakland asserts is called into question.

Representatives of Ignatius Press and Franciscan University initially signed a purchase agreement last April for 10 AM radio stations in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis, Kansas City (Kan.), Dallas, Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and New York, with an option to purchase up to three more stations. With Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval secured, CRN hopes to “finalize” the $70 million financing package in the next few weeks, Lynch said, and be up and running.

New Catholic programming on these stations, CRN executives say, won't be in place until the end of the year. Much of the current programming on the newly purchased stations is “beat radio,” and negotiations are underway to move to classical music programming on the 10 stations as a transitional phase until the full 24-hour complement of Catholic programs is ready.

Next year, if all goes well, Lynch hopes to do a second round of acquisitions that would add 40 to 50 more major radio outlets to the network. “There's never been a time,” he said, “when a Catholic voice in society has been more needed. We need a family values network.”

According to a Sept. 4 article in the Tidings, the Los Angeles arch-diocesan newspaper, investors in the for-profit venture reportedly include Karl Karcher, founder of the Anaheim, Ca.-based Carl's, Jr. Restaurant chain and Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza.

And according to the same article, staff recruitment is being handled by Bill McMahon, a media consultant who is credited with bringing talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh to the air-waves.

The talk radio connection is one of the things that makes the CRN effort particularly unique.

When Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, president of Ignatius Press, which publishes Catholic books and magazines, including The Catholic World Report and Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and Franciscan University vice-president Nicholas Healy, Jr., approached veteran broadcaster Lynch last spring to spearhead the project, Lynch told them that his vision centered on “a national talk radio network.”

Lynch, who has a broadcasting degree from Drake University, was the long-time president of Noble Broadcasting, and owner of stations in Chicago and San Diego, Ca., where he helped develop the Extra-AM690 sports talk format.

“We need a mass appeal Catholic radio,” Lynch told the Register. EWTN, he said, serves those who are already committed. “What about those on the periphery, Catholics who are no longer practicing their faith, the unchurched? The key to that audience is going mainstream, for a format that's strong, controversial, timely, and sharp.”

Program hosts, said Lynch, would have to subscribe to the teaching of the Church and the Pope. “While we're not politically slanted one way or the other,” he said, “we're on the orthodox side of the Church.”

Lynch's programming plans will feature not only 24-hour Catholic talk radio, but national and Catholic Church news on the hour and three daily time slots for commentary on the issues by Catholic clergy and other notables.

“People like William Bennett, [Republican Senator] Rick Santorum, [Calif. Attorney General] Dan Lungren — people from all walks of life.” Lynch also indicated earlier this year to the Register that Dr. James Dobson had been approached about contributing to the network's programs.

A recent Catholic News Service article reported that CRN backers had also contacted Chicago's Cardinal Francis George to do a “Call the Cardinal” show for the network.

While Lynch indicated that there had been “a tremendous [positive] reaction” to the announcement of the project, CRN, even before its first show has aired, drew fire from at least one quarter.

Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert Weakland, in a recent interview with the Milwaukee Catholic Herald, said flatly that “I don't want them [CRN] in the archdiocese.”

He cited concerns that CRN would be a forum “for a one-sided presentation” of Catholicism and would sow “confusion among Catholics about who speaks for the Church.”

While he indicated that there was nothing he could legally do to prevent the network from broadcasting, he regretted that the network's leadership does not reflect “a broader range of views, something that would show the true image of where the Catholic Church is today.”

Milwaukee is one of the 10 target cities for CRN's initial push.

Part of the problem is that network executives have repeatedly assured US bishops that they would work in cooperation with local Church authorities — a stance that Archbishop Weakland asserts is called into question by the fact that the network intends to proceed with plans to broadcast in his diocese despite his objections.

Archbishop Weakland said in a recent Tidings interview that “no matter how well-intentioned the Catholic network is,” the fact that they would go against his wishes as chief shepherd of the archdiocese, “shows a bad ecclesiology.”

In addition, Archbishop Weakland was critical of the talk-radio format itself.

“How do you control [the range of views callers represent]? Callers are anonymous, nobody takes responsibility for what they say. It's no way to search for the truth,” he said.

Church spokesmen in Los Angeles, who had a bout with outside media criticism of their bishop last year, were more circumspect.

(EWTN's Mother Angelica made on-air remarks about whether Los Angeles Catholics questioned Cardinal Roger Mahony's directives as part of her critique of a pastoral letter on the Eucharist he issued last year. She later apologized for her remarks.)

Cautious optimism would be the right way to characterize the Los Angeles archdiocese's appraisal of the CRN project so far, said Capuchin Father Gregory Coiro, director of media relations for the archdiocese.

“The folks who are behind CRN have a sincere desire to launch a viable tool for evangelization,” he said. “I hope it's that. We've been assured that nobody wants to see the station used to cause squabbles like the one Mother Angelica caused.”

Father Coiro said that Father Fessio, one of the network's principal backers, had told him that CRN wanted to be a forum for issues, not a launching pad for bashing individuals or members of the hierarchy. Still, Father Coiro indicated that he understood Archbishop Weakland's concerns.

“A bishop is responsible for the Catholic teaching in his diocese,” he said. “These people [CRN executives] seem to be orthodox. On the other hand, they're defying the express wishes of the local bishop. There seems to be a definite contest of wills there.

”Talk radio,“ he said, ”has a talent for bringing out all sorts of opinion. But if [CRN] becomes a place where opinions can be sifted and some commonality reached, it's a good thing.

“We'll give a listen,” he said. “We'll see.”

CRN executives say that they understand Archbishop Weakland's concerns, but that his reactions are “premature.”

“It's illogical to judge something before it's even on the air,” said Lynch. “[Archbishop] Weakland's going to be our greatest fan when he sees what we do.”

Francis Maier, chancellor for the Denver archdiocese, admitted that “any bishop would have concerns about a Catholic radio station broadcasting in his area,” but that Archbishop Chaput had been careful to keep the bishops [of proposed station sites] appraised of program philosophy and the intentions of broadcasters.

“If we don't do a good job,” he said, “we'll hear about that, but we do expect to be heard out before being written off.”

About the specific purchase of the Milwaukee station over Archbishop Weakland's objections, Maier indicated that the Milwaukee purchase was part of a package deal that network investors were not in a position to forego.

“It's not that the network can say, ‘OK, we won't buy the station in Milwaukee.’ In the way this is set up, to walk away from Milwaukee is to walk away from the whole deal,” Maier said.

Archbishop Chaput, said the chancellor, has long been a proponent of Church involvement in the mainstream media.

“On his very first day in Denver,” said Maier, “the archbishop said, ‘I want a radio station.’”

But while it proved financially impossible for the archdiocese to launch its own project, Father Fessio approached Archbishop Chaput late last year with the idea of mounting a larger Catholic radio effort. Those discussions went on fast-forward during last April's conference on the new media and evangelization held in Denver, which brought key investors together with Church leaders and broadcasters in the meeting of minds which produced CRN.

“What appealed to the archbishop,” Maier said, “was that he knew some of the people involved, he understood their motives — that they want to build up the Church, not divide it — and, more importantly, it was a fit with his emphasis on evangelization.”

“Everything with [Archbishop] Chaput is about evangelization,” said Maier. “If it's about the preaching of the Gospel, he's for it. If not, it gets a lower priority. [CRN] is a very logical, a very positive thing to be doing. Of course, they are going to be bumps in the road, mistakes that will be made. The archbishop understands that. But getting the Church involved in radio is really worth doing.”

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.