WRIGHTSTOWN, Wis. — As far as numbers go, Catholic radio stations represent merely a drop in the bucket. Of approximately 2,000 religious radio stations nationwide, only about 77 are Catholic, of which only 46 are currently on the air.

Yet even a tiny ripple can become a wave, and proponents of Catholic radio say the time is ripe for growth.

While the numbers still remain relatively small, historically there are more Catholic radio stations on the air than ever before. With new stations being added each year, most think the future of Catholic radio is bright indeed.

The Catholic Radio Association is one organization that is responsible, in part, for the industry's recent growth. Originally set up to support just three radio apostolates and two individuals, the association opened up membership to all Catholic radio apostolates earlier this year. The association currently has approximately 30 members.

“The association is designed to help people establish Catholic radio stations, bring people together and provide products and services to its members,” said Catholic Radio Association Executive Director Stephen Gajdosik.

Currently the association is working with groups in Denver, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Fargo, N.D., to set up stations, as well as with groups in smaller markets in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Louisiana. International in its reach, the association has also helped Archbishop Lawrence Burke of Nassau, Bahamas, to obtain the first-ever blanket FM license for the Bahamas. Gajdosik expects that by the end of the year at least three major cities that never had Catholic radio before could have a station.

Other organizations have seen similar growth. Starboard Broadcasting, a Green Bay, Wis.-based company, currently operates five stations throughout Wisconsin. In the near future, it hopes to expand to Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis. In addition, Catholic radio consultant Avila Radio recently helped with a contract to begin a full-time Catholic radio station in Atlanta.

The recent pattern of steady growth might come as a surprise on the heels of the demise of Catholic Family Radio just a year ago.

Rising from the Ashes

Many might remember the attempt to launch Catholic Family Radio. In 1998, Ignatius Press' Father Joseph Fessio, mutual fund guru Peter Lynch and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan attempted to launch a $37 million, 10-station network it had purchased from Children's Broadcasting Corp.

“Before they even began airing,” said Michael Dorner, editor of Catholic Radio Update, “they had to sell three of their stations in Dallas, New York and Phoenix.”

Catholic Family Radio began broadcasting in 1999 in Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo., with a broad range of religious and political programming. It had hoped to purchase additional stations in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York. However, unable to generate advertisers, the network was discontinued in February 2001 and sold to Salem Communications, a Protestant-owned chain of Christian stations.

“Some in the industry said that with Catholic Family Radio's failure they expected all Catholic radio stations to go down the tubes,” said Sherry Kennedy Brownrigg, president of Starboard Broadcasting and former general manager of KVSS in Omaha, Neb. “But that's just not the case.”

“One of Catholic Family Radio's fundamental flaws was that it was operated as a for-profit venture,” Gajdosik said. By comparison, the stations that have been developed since that time have been not-for-profit.

Instead, Catholic radio stations have adopted a public radio format. “The burning question remains how to support Catholic radio,” Dorner said. “Those that are making it are asking listeners to support them through freewill donations.”

In fact, although Monaghan took a financial hit with Catholic Family Radio, he shows no sign of giving up on radio.

Monaghan's Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Ave Maria Foundation recently ceased publication of its 6-year-old Catholic newspaper, Credo, in order to put additional resources toward Ave Maria Radio, which operates two southeast Michigan AM stations (WDEO and WMAX). The Ave Maria Satellite Network currently distributes Kresta in the Afternoon and Catholic Answers Live. With additional resources, it hopes to grow as national distributors of Catholic programming.

“It's clear that the future of evangelization lies in electronic media,” said WDEO host Al Kresta. “If we're going to reach people with the message of the Gospel, we've got to meet them where they live. And like it or not, this is less a society of readers and more a society of listeners and viewers.”

The key for most Catholic radio stations is their ability to tap into existing satellite feeds for programming. There appears to be no shortage. “For every 24-hour period, there are almost 48 hours of programming available now,” noted Avila Radio President Jim Duffy.

Others, such as KVSS in Omaha, Neb., and WBVM in Tampa, Fla., do some of their own programming. Starboard, for example, offers local bishops an hour of programming per day. In addition it airs four hours of local programming and the remainder is from satellite feeds from St. Joseph Radio Presents, Catholic Answers Live and EWTN.

About half of all Catholic stations are EWTN affiliates, meaning they broadcast EWTN programming either in part or in full. “EWTN offering the signal to their satellite made Catholic radio possible,” Duffy said.

Overcoming Challenges

The challenges to starting a station, however, are very real. FCC regulations, the lack of available frequencies, a difficulty in finding sponsors as well as hostility in some dioceses make the endeavor precarious.

It is difficult in some dioceses to start a radio station, Dorner said, because the bishops or chancery do not want EWTN programming.

Not only that, but the initial cost alone to purchase a station can range between $175,000 and $3 million.

Yet, time and time again Catholic lay people, feeling called to start stations, are doing just that.

Two years ago, lamenting the loss of Catholic Family Radio in the Twin Cities, businessmen Terry Betthauser, Mark Hapka and Doug Heider formed a nonprofit, Twin Hearts Media, and began seeking a station to purchase. Earlier this year they had a contract to purchase Minneapolis station KSSM, but within weeks of its closing they decided to team up with Green Bay, Wis.-based Starboard Broadcasting.

While the two groups are still in the process, the station has been providing full-time Spanish language Catholic programming since July to the Twin Cities' 300,000 Hispanics. Once the sale is complete, Starboard hopes to not only operate a Catholic radio station in the Twin Cities but also to produce its own original programming, including a daily two-hour morning show hosted by EWTN's Jeff Cavins.

“Given all of the challenges and cross-purposes, I'm amazed that any Catholic radio stations get started at all,” Dorner said. “That proves that the hand of God is involved.”

Gajdosik said he has seen great success when Catholic radio is responsive to and run by the local community.

“When you own it, you control it and know what is best for your area. The reason Catholic radio is succeeding now is because God wants it to,” he said. “If you look at the efforts of those God has called to Catholic radio it is, by and large, those who have no money and no radio experience. The Catholic Radio Association exists to assist individuals such as these.”

Starboard's Brownrigg agreed. “Any time a new station was going on, in the past, they would have to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “The Catholic Radio Association has enabled these groups to get what they need.”

Experienced or not, the Church cannot afford to ignore radio as a medium. According to a recent Barna Research Group study, Christian mass media reaches more adults with Christian messages than do churches. That study showed that while 63% of adults had attended a church service during a month's time, 67% had given time to Christian media.

“The Second Vatican Council specifically called for Catholic radio and the media to be leaven,” Gajdosik said. “No other medium can proclaim the message of Jesus Christ as intimately or effectively as radio. Catholic radio is truly an answer.”

“As more and more people get a taste of Catholic radio, more people will want it. As our bishops see how powerful a tool it can be for them in fulfilling their role as teacher of the faith, they will either welcome lay groups to establish stations or establish them themselves,” he said.

“When you receive a letter from a listener saying that they fell in love with Jesus or learned something about their faith they didn't know before, it makes it all worthwhile,” Gajdosik added.

Duffy's impression is that Catholic radio efforts will steadily increase over the next four to five years. To date, at least 17 additional stations have been applied for but are not yet on the air.

Others aren't quite as optimistic. “I am upbeat about Catholic radio,” Dorner said, “but I know how few Catholics financially support the Catholic press, so only time will tell.”

Tim Drake is the Register's

Culture of Life editor.