QUAD CITIES, Iowa — Brian Porter, who works in industrial sales, was a fan of Catholic radio. The problem was that the only way he could receive it in Long Grove, Iowa, was through a short-wave radio. He would listen to WEWN, the EWTN-affiliated radio system, while doing projects around the house. So, when the opportunity became available to put several low-power FM (LPFM) stations on the air, Porter jumped at the chance.
“Catholic radio helped me build my faith,” said Porter. “This is one method for teaching the faith.”
Largely through Porter's efforts, eastern Iowa is now served by seven different LPFM stations. Like full-power FM stations, low-power FM stations have a frequency on the FM dial.
Overall, the total number of religious radio stations in the United States has increased 14% over the past five years. Catholic radio has tripled over that same time period, increasing from approximately 40 stations to a total of 138, 102 of which are currently on the air.
Low-power stations are one of among a number of recent initiatives that are making Catholic radio available to more and more communities across the country.
Unlike their full-powered counterparts, they have a more limited range, often between seven and 15 miles, making them ideal for small and medium-sized cities such as Clinton, Davenport, DeWitt, Iowa City, and the other cities in Iowa where they are found.
While the major Catholic radio networks — Ave Maria, EWTN, Immaculate Heart and Starboard — dominate the market, the vast majority of radio startups are small, independently-owned stations run by individuals like Porter who feel called to get into Catholic radio.
Joseph Flanders was operating a landscaping business when Porter called him two years ago wondering whether he would be interested in starting a station in Muscatine.
“I was in favor of doing it, but wasn't sure how,” said Flanders, station manager for KTDC in Davenport, Iowa. “I wanted to do whatever I could to promote holy mother Church and the wonderful teachings that the Church has.”
Through the help of Porter, and assistance offered by the Green Bay, Wis.-based Starboard Network, Flanders was able to go through the Federal Communications Commission's application process and work on obtaining a construction permit. After approximately a year and a half, the station went on the air in December 2003, operating out of a Knights of Columbus building in Muscatine. An 8-foot satellite dish receives EWTN's radio programs and broadcasts them 24 hours a day to a potential listening audience of 30,000 people in a 10-mile radius.
“Each one of us is called, by our baptism, to proclaim the Gospel,” said Flanders. “This is a prime way to do that.”
At present, there are 22 low-power FM stations, like KTDC, on the air nationwide, with the potential to triple that number. The FCC has approved a total of 65 Catholic LPFM stations, and radio insiders say it may open the window for more in 2007.
Like KTDC, the majority of Catholic radio stations tap into existing programming, such as that offered through Ave Maria and Starboard's Relevant Radio. Independent stations have neither the budget nor the personnel to produce original programming. An Omaha-based non-profit, called New Evangelization Inc., hopes to change that by offering services and products to independent stations (www.neiradio.com).
“Up until now, the industry has been mission-driven,” said John Lillis, executive director for New Evangelization. “We hope to make it more market driven by offering feature content to independent stations.”
“When your programming is coming from outside, many people think your funding is as well,” said Joe Worthing, former marketing director with Omaha-based KVSS and a collaborator on New Evangelization Inc. “We plan to create content for local stations.”
As Worthing explained it, such programming could include a local priest, a weekly news magazine featuring a cadre of news correspondents, shows from Catholic podcasters, and possibly a three-hour morning program similar to National Public Radio's “Morning Edition.”
While Catholic radio is now available nationwide through EWTN's programming on the Sirius Satellite Network, there is still a long way to go. As impressive as the growth may seem, local Catholic radio still pales in comparison to Protestant radio stations, which number approximately 1,500.
“There are multiple Protestant stations in most markets,” said Doug Sherman, president of Reno-based Immaculate Heart Radio, which currently has eight stations on the West Coast, and will be launching its newest station in the Diocese of Albuquerque in September.
“During the last FCC translator application window, the entire Catholic world submitted, at best, 250 applications,” said Steve Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Association. “Protestants submitted thousands.”
The Catholic Radio Association's goal is to have 500 new stations on the air within the next five years.
The Money Problem
What's preventing Catholic radio from expanding faster?
“The fear of money is what holds back a lot of radio initiatives,” said Worthing.
Starting a station can range from $11,000 for an LPFM station to millions of dollars for a full-power station.
“Asking for money is foreign to most folks starting stations,” said Gajdosik. “That kills station after station and effort after effort. Catholics need to learn how to ask.”
In addition to the lack of Catholic stations, another problem facing Catholic radio expansion is the lack of professionally trained individuals to work in Catholic radio.
Franciscan University of Steubenville professor Jim Coyle has a plan to improve that situation. Coyle is piloting a fall online course that would help interested students learn how to plan and produce stories for radio. As part of the course, students would produce short broadcasts that they would post online. Fellow students would participate in conference-call critique, where they would offer constructive feedback on each other's work.
The course combines Coyle's interests in both distance learning and Catholic radio.
“I see a real opportunity and a need to train people in radio production who can serve Catholic radio and do new types of programming,” said Coyle. “We need to use radio to evangelize and educate people who might not be the traditional Catholic radio audience.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.