Radio Networks Set to Offer Nationwide Catholic Radio

SANFORD, Mich. — Like the majority of the nation's 65 million Catholics, Denise Weisbrodt is unable to listen to her favorite Catholic radio station on her home radio.

Ave Maria Communications, EWTN and the Starboard Network hope to change that.

All three Catholic networks are competing to get their programming on one of the nation's two satellite radio networks — Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio. If they are successful, Catholics across the country by the end of the year may be able to listen to digital Catholic radio on inexpensive satellite radio receivers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week no matter where they live.

EWTN, the world's largest Catholic radio network is in discussions with both the New York-based Sirius Satellite Radio network and Washington, D.C.-based XM Satellite Radio to have the networks consider adding a Catholic channel to their lineup. EWTN launched its satellite-delivered radio in 1996 and is also available worldwide on the “Sky” satellite platform.

Ave Maria and Starboard, both of which air original programming in addition to EWTN programming are in discussions with XM Radio.

Weisbrodt, a retired organizational psychiatrist who lives more than 20 miles away from Saginaw's Catholic radio station, WMAX-1440 AM sees the prospect of a Catholic satellite channel as promising. While painting her hallway recently she pulled up the station on her home computer and cranked the volume so she could listen. While it's nice to be able to listen over the Internet, she finds it unde-pendable.

“I kept losing the signal,” she said.

Weisbrodt is not alone.

“Listeners of Catholic radio are the last unserved niche in American media,” said Mike Jones, vice president and general manager for Ave Maria Communications. “Whereas 95% of Americans can tune into Christian radio stations that are not Catholic, Catholic radio currently reaches less than 5% of the nation's population.

“How many radio stations can Catholic philanthropists buy?” asked Jones. “Can they purchase 100 or 500? I don't think there are enough philanthropists to buy 1,600 stations, and that's what evangelical Protestants own. To bring Catholic radio to every Catholic in the country, satellite radio is the platform.”

There's an Audience

Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio are the only two companies that hold FCC licenses to operate a national satellite radio system. Both provide approximately 100 digital channels that can be listened to by using portable, automobile, or home satellite radio receivers.

While both companies provide Christian music and talk channels, neither currently offers a Catholic music or talk channel in its lineup.

The advantages of satellite radio include a wealth of channels, exceptional clarity, nationwide availability, and largely commercial free listening. All of Sirius’ music streams are commercial free, as are half of XM's. Sirius expects to have more than 300,000 subscribers by the end of the year; XM expects to have 1 million.

Both companies are looking at the possibility of adding Catholic programming.

“We are actively seeking to put Catholic specific programming on our service and are in discussion with suppliers of Catholic programming,” said Ron Rodrigues, senior director of public relations with Sirius. “If all of the pieces come together, we may have Catholic programming before the end of the year.”

Ave Maria first began discussing the possibility of satellite radio two years ago. In February, they approached XM.

“We understood that XM had bandwidth available,” said Jones, “so we approached them.”

XM has limited bandwidth for adding new channels. Last year the network added their 101st channel — the Playboy channel — to its radio lineup. The additional channel does not come standard with the service. Subscribers are required to pay an additional fee, above the standard $9.99 monthly subscription fee, to receive the channel.

Ave Maria's Jones estimates that between 6 million and 8 million Catholics might consider subscribing to a satellite radio service if Catholic programming were available.

Currently, EWTN reaches about 8 million homes worldwide. Ave Maria has 300,000 listeners in 19 markets. Starboard airs in 13 markets.

In August, Jones was told by XM executives to put together a proposal. He expects that he will have the opportunity to present it soon.

To support that effort, Ave Maria started collecting signatures on a petition that Jones hopes to present to XM. To date, the group has received more than 6,000 signatures from folks like Denise Weisbrodt who said they would be far more likely to subscribe to a satellite radio network if it had a Catholic channel.

Starboard has not yet sent a proposal to XM, but is talking with the company.

Jack Lusby of Westminster, Md. is an XM stockholder. He believes that the addition of a Catholic channel will increase XM's subscriptions and profitability.

More importantly, he feels that such a channel could have spiritual benefits.

“The addition of Ave Maria Radio to XM would provide all believers and non-believers with another opportunity to hear the Word of God,” Lusby wrote on the online petition.

Chance Patterson, vice president for corporate affairs at XM could not comment specifically on Ave Maria's proposal, but did confirm that they have submitted one.

“We have been in discussion with Ave Maria representatives,” said Patterson. “It's unclear whether there will be an opportunity to bring this programming onto XM. We receive numerous proposals each week and take them seriously.”

Patterson said that once tapes are sent in, XM's executives evaluate them.

“We evaluate what it would sound like on the air, what the idea is behind the show, how similar it is to something we already have, and whether it would attract new listeners,” explained Patterson.

Patterson added that a decision would likely be made in the upcoming months.

The petition effort has received the support of an impressive number of lay Catholics, programmers, and station owners from coast to coast.

Nearly 1,000 signatures alone were obtained through the efforts of St. Joseph Communications’ president Terry Barber.

Catholic radio hosts are also excited by the possibilities.

“A lot of people want to receive Catholic radio, but can't,” said Greg Popcak who hosts the Ave Maria program “Heart, Mind and Strength” with his wife daily on 30 stations nationwide. “This is the same kind of push that Mother Angelica did through the Dish network.”

Each of the Catholic networks is hopeful.

“For some time EWTN has been in discussions with both Sirius and XM,” said Michael Warsaw, EWTN president. “While no final agreements have as yet been reached, these discussions are continuing.”

“Both of these satellite radio providers understand the Catholic demographic in the United States and are genuinely interested in providing Catholic programming,” he added.

Said John Bitting, president of the Eastern region for Starboard, “The satellite networks will add a channel based upon who can bring the best programming with the most listeners.”

Tim Drake writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota