Next time you get in your car, look at the radio. Somewhere, probably just to the right or left of the buttons for preset stations, there might be a button marked “seek.”
Proponents of Catholic radio, especially the low-power FM stations that popped up about 10 years ago, are hoping that seekers — people who are looking for God — will use that button to find a path to salvation.
People in more places around the United States could have the opportunity to find the Church on the radio dial in the near future, as the Federal Communication Commission prepares to make more frequencies available for low-power FM stations, which broadcast at 100 watts or less (see sidebar).
Organizations should start preparing now to file an application when the FCC opens the window for them, likely in the summer of 2013, said Stephen Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Association.
Originally, Gajdosik said, the FCC was expected to start taking applications later this year under the provisions of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, but the FCC is still considering changes to the rules — including possibly allowing low-power stations to transmit at up to 250 watts.
“We’d like to see at least 300 applications,” Gajdosik said. “This delay actually gives us more time to get ready.”
Gajdosik said that if that many low-power FM Catholic stations take to the airwaves, it would come close to blanketing the entire United States with Catholic messages on the air.
That would be music to the ears of Dr. Matheis Carrico, a physician from Owensboro, Ky., who is the president of the board for WIMM (Immaculate Mother Mary), a 100-watt station at 107.9 FM.
Carrico joined the board five years ago, he said, because Catholic radio helped him find the truth and beauty of his Catholic faith — not to mention win over the love of his life, who was an evangelical Protestant and has since become Catholic.
Carrico had fallen away from the practice of the Faith in college, he said. Life got a little harder in medical school, and he went back to church. He also starting dating the woman he still calls “the girl of his dreams.” But when she challenged him about the teachings of Catholicism, he had no answers for her.
“I realized that for this relationship to work out, I had to learn about my faith,” Carrico said.
He talked with his pastor and started reading books, but being a medical student at the time, he really didn’t have much time and wasn’t getting far.
Then one day when he was driving home, he was searching for information about his beloved Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. As the radio scanned for stations, it landed on WMJK, the Catholic station in Lexington, Ky., airing “The Catholic Answer,” and it was all about the biblical foundations of purgatory, the very topic his girlfriend had questioned him about.
“I was driving laps around Lexington so I could listen to the rest of the show,” Carrico said.
After that, he tuned in every day, and shared what he learned with his girlfriend. The two now are married and have three sons.
Radio, said Carrico, appeals to seekers because it’s a medium you can receive passively, often while driving or washing the dishes or doing some other task, but it is received in depth. It’s also anonymous, so listeners don’t have to risk anything — not even someone judging them — by tuning in. Then they find that they’re hooked.
On the air
WIMM is one of two stations that Father Gerald Baker helped start. The other is WSPP (Sts. Peter and Paul) at 93.5 FM in Hopkinsville, Ky. Baker, now pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church in Morganfield, Ky., is not on either board because he is involved with a newer full-power Catholic station, but he remains as spiritual advisor to the boards of both stations.
The stations that Father Baker helped start are not owned by parishes; rather, specially formed nonprofits run them, just in case parish administrations changed and radio was no longer a priority,
“We simply wanted to promote EWTN broadcasts,” Father Baker said. “We did that so we could maintain control of the broadcast.”
The stations are supported by private donations, with monthly bills averaging $600-$900. While there is some local programming, such as a recording of the Rosary, “you don’t have to have someone there on a day-to-day basis,” Father Baker said.
Father Ted Skalsky, associate pastor of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dodge City, Kan., said his station, KODC (102.1 FM in Dodge City), runs English and Spanish programming from EWTN Radio, as well as broadcasting a Sunday Mass on the following day. “I had originally hoped to do more original programming, but that’s more complicated,” he said.
Father Skalsky said that from the feedback he hears from parishioners, more Spanish-speakers are listening than English-speakers. While maybe a little over half the parish’s population speaks Spanish primarily, the vast majority of baptisms, first Communions and confirmations are in Spanish.
The station provides a lot of catechesis for people who may not have been well-educated when they were young, said Father Skalsky, noting that most people who do have good educations move away to find better job opportunities.
Now one of the people who helped set up KODC has separated himself to apply for a new license — one that would broadcast exclusively in English. If that happens, KODC will move to an all-Spanish format, Father Skalsky said.
That’s one of the advantages of Catholic radio: programming in Spanish as well as English is readily available. Existing stations take advantage of programming not only from EWTN but also Relevant Radio and Radio Maria.
Changes included in the 2010 Local Community Radio Act will make it easier to create low-power FM stations in urban areas, and Gajdosik would like to see applications coming from heavily Spanish-speaking cities such as Miami and Houston.
“In a city the size of Houston, you might have a few on the air in Spanish,” he said. “You would have things citywide.”
And while a low-power FM station would not cover an entire city, it could cover hundreds of thousands of people in a densely populated urban area.
“What’s it worth to reach everyone in your community, or reach hundreds of thousands of people in an area of a city?” he said.
The Catholic Radio Association can provide technical assistance both with applications, and, once they are approved, getting a station set up, he said.
When stations want to start with local programming, “Out the gate, they can do relatively simple things, like Mass. Ideally, we’d like to have the bishop on the air once a week, or at the least, once a month.”
To Gajdosik and Catholic radio operators, the payoff is clear. While the low-power FM stations are too small to have their listenership counted by ratings agencies, the Catholic Radio Association sponsored a survey of more than 2,550 listeners in 2010. The survey found that 94 percent of listeners said they were more “spiritually engaged and inspired”; 29 percent had returned to the Church; 48 percent said they attended Mass more often and 63 percent said they felt “better equipped to pass on the Catholic faith” to their children.
It works, Gajdosik said, because it reaches the people who are looking for something — both non-Catholics who are looking for a spiritual home and Catholics who want to know more about their faith.
“As St. Augustine said, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,’” he said. “They are searching, and they hear Christ, who really is the content of the station. It rings in their soul like a tuning fork.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.