Despite Challenging Headwinds, Vatican Radio Retains Its Relevance and Reach
Just a decade away from celebrating a centenary, Vatican Radio with its long and rich history, awaits a visit from Pope Francis Monday, as it continues carrying the Catholic faith into the peripheries.
VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis visits the offices of Vatican Radio on Monday to mark its 90th anniversary, he will be stepping inside a cherished media operation drastically different, yet no less relevant, to the one created by radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi.
Since Pope Pius XI inaugurated the station on Feb. 12, 1931, Vatican Radio has retained a clear mission: to carry the voice of the Pope and proclaim the Gospel to every corner of the globe.
From being a “voice in the catacombs” for those facing persecution during the Cold War to bringing the “Pope’s voice” via shortwave to the faithful in the world’s remotest rural areas, the radio’s rich history serves to underline its relevance and purpose, both as a tool of evangelization and as means of providing solace and encouragement to the faithful.
“Vatican Radio is a beacon that has a past, a present and a future, supporting faith, freedom, truth and the Church,” Vatican Radio’s head, Massimiliano Menichetti, told the Register May 20. “We inform, research, and explain projects inspired by Pope Francis’ social doctrine and encyclicals — in favor of dialogue, respect for Creation, in defense of the least, families, and those in need.”
“We transmit commentaries on the Gospel, talk about the Christian message through the beauty of art and music. We accompany people by transmitting prayers and daily Masses, also taking to heart the universal language of the Church, which is Latin."
But in recent years, with the revolutionary growth of digital media and the internet combined with internal communications reform, Vatican Radio has faced challenging headwinds, forcing it to confront modern media trends, resist over-zealous attempts to change it in the face of those trends, and adapt itself to preserve its relevancy in our information-saturated age.
Arguably the greatest of these challenges has not been the digital media revolution but radical internal reforms that began in 2015 with the creation of a Secretariat for Communications. As these reforms took hold under its former prefect, Msgr. Dario Eduardo Vigano, focus was placed on digital media, and Vatican Radio’s identity and structure were practically dismantled.
“From the outset, the reforms favored the internet over the traditional experience of radio,” said a Vatican source who, due to continued sensitivities over the matter, spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity. “A policy was developed that aimed at perfecting a digital platform (a web portal, social media, movies).” The reforms, the source added, “were not only dictated by the development of new technology, but also by economic issues — the web was apparently less costly than radio.”
This led to Vatican Radio’s medium-wave frequency being switched off, and initially a significant reduction of its shortwave frequencies which reach the remotest of areas and have historically attracted the greatest audiences.
In 2018, Msgr. Vigano, who had undertaken many of the painful yet necessary reforms aimed at centralizing operations and cutting waste, resigned over the “Lettergate” affair and was replaced by Paolo Ruffini.
A layman with a long and distinguished career in Italian media, Ruffini “had a more moderate reforming vision, tried to rebalance things, and bring back the importance of radio,” a Vatican Radio source told the Register. Under his leadership, Vatican Radio’s visible presence was restored on the Vatican News web portal (which had originally derived from Vatican Radio’s website), and a section and web pages dedicated to the station was created.
The shortwave service was also largely reactivated following pressure from episcopates around the world, particularly those in Africa. “Shortwave is an asset,” Menichetti said, adding that it coincides with Pope Francis’ strong call to reach the peripheries of the world. As an example, he shared the testimony of Father Pierluigi Maccalli, a priest kidnapped in Niger in 2018 and released in October 2020.
“He told us that during his captivity, in the Sahara Desert, they had granted him a small shortwave radio and thanks to that little box, he listened to us in French and Italian and it was also possible for him to participate in the Pentecost Mass with the Pope,” Menichetti recounted. “It was a closeness, he told us, that he will never forget.”
But challenges related to economic cutbacks persist at the station which, along with Vatican communications in general, is one of the largest draws on Vatican finances. Hiring freezes across the Vatican coupled with growing and insatiable demands for rapid news coverage on the internet as well as the radio have placed ever greater burdens on staff who have also had to bear salary cuts.
Some staff also note what they perceive as increasingly politicized content at the station which has, since its inception, been run by the Society of Jesus. “Evangelization is continuing,” said a Vatican Radio source, “but in recent years the content has become more geared to giving a political perspective, to primitive accounts of what’s happening, and it’s lost a little of the spiritual dimension. We keep the Sunday homilies but they’re less prominent than they were.”
Vatican Radio continues to have significant outreach. Today, the station broadcasts in 41 languages via satellite, DAB+ (digital radio), terrestrial frequencies, and the internet, the latter of which has opened it up to new audiences through web-radio, podcasts, social media, videos, photographs, and apps. Vatican Radio news and programming are also syndicated to an estimated 1,000 radio stations across the world and, so far this year, the station has broadcast almost 12,000 hours of transmissions.
Vatican Radio’s Italian channel has expanded in the past few years, and now has a 24-hour programming schedule carried not only on FM, but also digital radio, and a national television channel (733).
In conversations with the Register, Vatican Radio staff said they see the radio as experiencing something of a renaissance, a medium that easily adapts to any new technological platform. The growing popularity of podcasts is also helping.
“Radio is not a medium of the past, but of the present and the future,” said Andrea Tornielli, editorial director at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication. “It allows you to reach so many people around the world who don’t have access to the web.” With the addition of podcasts, he told the Register that he believes “it’s important for the Church to spread her message through both radio and through the web.”
“Statistics and research tell us that radio is in excellent health,” said Menichetti, adding: “We are a structure in continuous evolution.”
He also stressed Vatican Radio’s importance during the COVID-19 crisis. “So many have prayed with us, shared fears and hopes and we have tried never to leave anyone alone,” he said. “Millions of people gathered together with the Pope in prayer, diffused through our broadcasts.”
In his anniversary message to Vatican Radio in February, Pope Francis thanked the staff who come from 69 nations. “It is important to conserve the memory of our history, and to be nostalgic not so much for the past as for the future that we are called to build,” he said.
“Radio has this beautiful trait: it carries the word to the most distant places. And it accompanies it today with images and the written word."