The number of Catholic radio stations in the United States has skyrocketed over the past decade. In 1996, there were only six; today, there are more than 150 -- and that figure could easily double over the next few years.

Industry insiders say the unprecedented proliferation of stations and Catholic radio content owes partly to federal regulation benefiting new nonprofit stations and to relatively new Catholic resources available to aspiring radio-station owners. And judging from the new stations' success, there's a strong market among radio listeners seeking Catholic content.

A rare opportunity

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency responsible for regulating the nation's airwaves, has periodically expanded the number of radio frequencies available.

Most recently, during a one-week period in October, the FCC accepted applications from nonprofit groups for noncommercial educational licenses for full-power radio frequencies between 88.1 and 91.9 FM, a band usually reserved for public radio stations. It marked the first time in a decade that the FCC has given away such licenses.

The application process is more than just paperwork. Applicants must determine what frequencies are available in their area and demonstrate that they have the necessary start-up capital for building and running a radio station.

The FCC added another hurdle this fall, requiring nonprofit applicants who are competing for the same frequencies in the same region to complete a "mutual exclusivity" study by negotiating among themselves as to how their stations might coexist without signal interference.

Daunting as the process is, people interested in starting Catholic radio stations have been able to draw on the resources and knowledge of the Catholic Radio Association, based in Charleston, S.C.

"We had inquiries from over 700 people" about the noncommercial station licenses, said association president Steve Gajdosik.

After providing consultation for inter_ested parties and conducting many engineering studies, "we finally filed 225 applications -- and these are for stations across the country, from Alaska to Florida, and Maine to California," he said.

Gajdosik believes about 70 percent of these applicants will be awarded a license. Last year, the association, which was founded in 1999, helped get 21 new stations on the air. "That would be a slow year in coming years," he predicted. "We could be looking at 100 new stations per year for the next few years."

Filling a real need

But the boom in radio stations could not sustain itself without audiences willing to listen. Experience is showing that Catholics are hungry for what Catholic radio has to offer -- solid catechesis on the faith.

"Catholic radio has a radical fidelity to the Church and offers programming designed to catechize and convert," Gajdosik told Our Sunday Visitor. "That has a profound impact upon people, and it results in people wanting to spread and grow in their faith."

That's because Catholic radio is "a beacon of truth and a source of hope," said Rob Moore, senior director of broadcast operations at Relevant Radio, which bills itself as the largest Catholic talk radio network in the country.

"This format can truly make an impact on someone's daily life," he told OSV. "It is a clear alternative to what is delivered en masse to consumers by other formats."

Jim Carroll, executive director of Spirit Catholic Radio in Omaha, Neb., said local stations don't have to worry about creating, sustaining and financing their own programming. He credited "the availability of solid Catholic programming made available initially by Mother Angelica and EWTN," and later by groups such as Relevant Radio, Ave Maria Radio and Catholic Answers.

The price is right, too. These Catholic media apostolates offer their content at no charge -- which makes it possible for a nonprofit Catholic radio station to reach a potential audience of millions for as little as $100,000 a year.

Interestingly, a recent market study of a Catholic station in a large Midwestern city revealed that its average listener was a married 36-year-old mother -- a "soccer mom," if you will. "That really belies the stereotype that this is your grand_mother's radio station," Gajdosik said.

Breaking the mold

Catholic radio also is flourishing in venues besides AM/FM broadcasts. EWTN has been transmitted on shortwave radio since 1992 and is also available as streaming audio on the Internet, as are Relevant Radio, Spirit Catholic Radio and a few others. A number of programs have taken to the podcast format, as well.

New to the scene is Catholic Radio International, which offers programs for syndication rather than for free.

"What we're doing is bringing public radio production quality to Catholic radio programming and, we hope, raising the level of the art of radio in the Catholic world," said CRI co-founder Tom Szyszkiewicz.

And on the subscription-based Sirius Satellite Radio, listeners can hear EWTN and The Catholic Channel.

"Our philosophy is to be the best talk radio station in the United States, not simply the best Catholic radio station," said Rob Astorino, program director for The Catholic Channel, which uniquely mixes comedy and entertainment with serious talk about faith. "We're breaking the mold of what people expect religious radio to be while still proudly being Catholic. People are being evangelized and they usually don't even know it because our presentation is so different."

"There are lives that Catholic radio can reach and change that may be difficult to reach in other ways," he said. "It is good that such radio is here."

Ten most popular Catholic radio programs

The boom in stations has also spurred new Catholic programming, and many have developed loyal followings. Here are 10 of the most popular radio shows (or podcasts):

Catholic Answers Live (produced by Catholic Answers; heard on EWTN radio network)

Kresta in the Afternoon (Produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard on EWTN and Ave Maria radio networks)

Catholic Connection (Produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard on EWTN and Ave Maria radio networks)

The Catholic Guy (Produced by and heard on The Catholic Channel on SIRIUS Satellite Radio)

The Drew Mariani Show (Produced by and heard on Relevant Radio Network)

Busted Halo with Father Dave Dwyer (Produced by and heard on The Catholic Channel on SIRIUS Satellite Radio)

Morning Air (Produced by and heard on Relevant Radio Network)

Catholic Radio Weekly (Podcast -- USCCB's weekly radio show)

Catholic Insider with Father RoderickVonhsgen (Podcast -- Nominated for People's Choice Podcast Awards, part of the SQPN -- Star Quest Podcast Network)

iPadre Catholic Podcast (part of Disciples with Microphones podcast network)

Gerald Korson, a former editor of Our Sunday Visitor, writes from Indiana.