National Catholic Register

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Debut Delayed

Cardinal’s knee surgery postpones radio station launch

BY TIM DRAKE

Register Senior Writer

October 8-14, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/4/06 at 10:00 AM

 

NEW YORK — New York City Police Sgt. Martin Browne was disappointed when he woke up on Sept. 26 and turned on his new satellite radio.

That was the day Sirius satellite radio was to launch its Catholic Channel. “One of the key reasons I purchased the radio was to listen to the Catholic Channel,” said Browne.

But instead of the promised talk-show format, the channel was playing nothing but classical music.

Those who run the station in the Archdiocese of New York weren’t much happier. The station is a joint venture between Sirius and the archdiocese. It had to be postponed while Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop of New York, recuperates from knee surgery.

“Cardinal Egan had hoped and expected to be very involved with the launch,” said Joe Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, who is coordinating the new project. “Because of his recent knee replacement and therapy, he hasn’t been able to be as involved as he expected to be. He has asked us to delay the launch for about three weeks.”

The Catholic Channel would be the second channel of its type on the network. Sirius already broadcasts EWTN Radio on Channel 160.

When Sirius announced the partnership with the Archdiocese last May, Chief Executive Officer Mel Karmazin hailed the collaboration as a “significant step forward in our development and mission to provide our listeners with the finest and most distinctive Christian programming in radio.”

Headquartered in Rockefeller Center, a block from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Sirius approached the archdiocese two years ago with the idea of hosting a program. While the archdiocese was unable to do that program, the discussions led to the idea for a full-time channel. According to the company’s market researchers, Catholics were being underserved by radio programming. Of the 17,000 licensed terrestrial radio stations in the country, 1,700 are Protestant in nature and 130 are Catholic. A new Catholic station is added each month on average.

The Sirius Catholic Channel lineup will include morning host Gus Lloyd, a former radio show host from Tampa, Fla.; married couple Dave and Sue Konig hosting an afternoon show on marriage and parenting; and Emmy Award-winning former cable television host Lino Rulli hosting a 5-8 p.m. drive-time program.

Competition?

In addition to talk shows, the station plans to feature music programming, exclusive commentaries from Cardinal Egan, daily Mass live from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Notre Dame football and basketball games.

While some may view the station as competition for other Catholic radio entities, Rulli sees it as a complement.

“We’re just providing additional programming,” he said. “It’s like if someone opens a second adoration chapel in town. That’s not a problem. We’re just giving people more. Every chance we can get, as the Church, to have our message out there is a blessing.”

And there is potential for reaching a large number of people — converted and not. Satellite radio operates much the same way as cable television, offering largely commercial-free listening on a large variety of channels carrying news, sports, traffic and weather, talk, and music. Because its signal is beamed off a satellite digitally, its clarity is exceptional and is available nationwide.

Sirius offers 128 channels, including two run by Howard Stern, the foul-mouthed “shock jock” who switched over from regular radio earlier this year. The network’s more than 4.5 million subscribers purchase special radios for their cars, homes or boats and choose plans ranging in price from $9.95 a month to $29.99 a month.

Washington, D.C.-based XM Satellite Radio, Sirius’ major competitor, leads the market with more than 7 million subscribers. Unlike Sirius, XM does not have a Catholic channel.

As for the Catholic Channel, the Archdiocese of New York has complete control over the programming. According to Rulli, the archdiocese owns the content and Sirius purchases it.

“They tell us how to do radio, but they don’t tell us how to do Church,” he said. “Their attitude is, ‘You know the faith, we know radio.’ They would never say something isn’t theologically correct. It’s up to us to be faithful to the Church.”

But the model envisioned by the archdiocese has raised some concerns.

Said Steve Gajdosik, president of the Atlanta-based Catholic Radio Association: “What will make their ratings strongest is the more Catholic their content is. The more Catholic it is, the more people it will draw.”

Trials, Tribulations

For many, the delay and the format are reminiscent of Catholic Family Radio six years ago. After only 18 months in operation the nation’s first commercial Catholic radio network went off the air. The $60 million effort proved unable to attract advertisers, listeners or ratings. While they had hoped to operate in 50 markets, in the end they sold all 11 of their stations at a tremendous loss.

“Catholic Family Radio sadly collapsed with a content model similar to this,” said Gajdosik. “Those content outlets that try to walk a fine line between Catholic and non-Catholic don’t seem to have a substantial impact. I encourage them to follow the lead of successful Catholic radio, which has been to boldly proclaim the name of Christ.”

More recently, Green Bay, Wis.-based Relevant Radio has faced difficulties of its own. The network has undergone a significant amount of turnover in hosts and administrative and leadership staff during its six years of existence. On Sept. 8, Dick Lyles, who had served as chief executive officer of Relevant Radio since December, departed and was replaced by Trish Leurck, the company’s third CEO in less than 12 months. The company’s efforts to begin a station of their own in New York are on hold during the company’s leadership transition.

“Catholic radio is one of the most difficult businesses I’ve ever been involved in,” said Jim Wright, who started Holy Family Communications with his wife in 1996. They operate four Catholic radio stations in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., and Scranton, Pa. “The Holy Spirit needs to be the No. 1 entity or it will fail.”

‘Heresy Horn’

Catholic author Amy Welborn voiced a different concern. She noted that the programming lineup appeared to be heavily personality-driven and hoped it would include more “Ask the Expert”-style programming and news from the Vatican.

“One of the reasons Catholic radio appeals to people is that they feel they can learn something. … People really do enjoy snagging a bit of education on Catholic matters while they’re driving around,” she wrote on her blog, Open Book. “Though there are good personalities on successful Catholic radio, that is not really what drives its success.”

Responded the archdiocese’s Zwilling: “I’m not sure why personalities can’t teach. Evangelize and educate — that’s what we’re trying to do.”

“I want to be totally professional and totally Catholic,” Rulli said. “We have to be both or this will fail. Joe [Zwilling] has assured me that everyone … has signed on with what the Church teaches.”

While he can’t account for other host’s shows, he hinted at what listeners could expect from his program.

“It will be faithful Church stuff on my show,” said Rulli. “I’m putting in place a ‘heresy horn.’ If my callers say something that’s not in the mind of the Church, I’m going to hit the horn.”

In spite of his concerns, Gajdosik said that he welcomes the diversity of style the channel will offer.

“What people need more than anything is the faith,” said Gajdosik. “Having more Catholic content, in any medium, is a good thing.

“Pope John Paul II said that we have to reach out to people according to their capacity to understand and receive, but there is a difference between content and style,” he said. “Our content must always be Jesus Christ and the faith that he gave us, but the style can range widely.”

Rulli agreed.

“Just because we’re trying to meet people where they’re at doesn’t mean we’re going to go soft on orthodoxy,” he said.

While the archdiocese hasn’t given a firm start date for the channel, Zwilling said, “There’s no question this is going to go.”

Others in the industry feel hopeful about how the channel might impact Catholic radio overall.

“We’re excited. It’s an affirmation of what we’re doing,” said Michael Jones, vice president and general manager of Ave Maria Radio, who has spoken with executives at XM Satellite Radio about the possibility of its adding a Catholic channel. “With three full-time Catholic radio networks, that will lead to more programming and listeners. It will lead to more terrestrial stations, and drive more people to EWTN and Ave Maria programming.”

Tim Drake is based

in St. Joseph, Minnesota.