How willing are Catholic radio listeners to put their money where their ears are?
How does $4 million sound?
That was the price that Catholic Dallas millionaires Mary Catherine and Donald Huffines paid last year for a radio station in Washington, D.C.
Purchased on behalf of the couple’s favorite Catholic radio network — Guadalupe Radio Network (GRN) of Midland, Texas — WMET 1160 AM has been on the air since May with 24-hour/seven-days-a-week Catholic programming.
“I appreciate the reverence, the seriousness and the commitment to the magisterium which I hear in Catholic radio,” Mary Catherine Huffines told Our Sunday Visitor. “GRN is very committed to that, and so we have a very trustworthy relationship with them regarding where they stand on these issues.”
In fact, in increasing numbers, the same sort of relationship between faithful Catholics and Catholic radio is forming all around the country.
There’s every reason in the world to have anticipated the failure of Catholic radio when it first began hitting the airwaves in the late 1990s. In a mostly secular market made up of culturally degrading pop music, scurrilous and contentious talk radio and the constant factoid-filled chatter of sports, news and weather, competition is stiff and better financed than the programming offered by Catholic radio.
Yet the Huffineses paid $4 million for WMET, a 50,000-watt station that reaches more than 4 million people. The nation’s capital has the ninth-largest radio market in the country — and GRN is banking on the proposition that as Catholic radio grows in popularity, it will become one of the most important modern tools of catechesis and evangelization.
And Catholic radio has the numbers to back that claim up, according to Catholic Radio Association (CRA) President Stephen Gajdosik. GRN is a member of the Charleston, S.C.-based organization.
The more than 160 Catholic radio stations currently broadcasting, Gajdosik said, are a far cry from the few that the country had back when Catholic radio first came on the air.
“In 1997, there were seven stations, and today there are about 165,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “So on average, Catholic radio has grown by a station a month, and with over half of the U.S. population now covered with a Catholic radio signal, the average growth has been a million people a month over those 12 years.”
Catholic radio currently serves an estimated 150 million people, Gajdosik said. “We don’t know how many people listen, as the stations aren’t followed by Arbitron ratings.”
While the CRA couldn’t provide a specific ratings-based number, Gajdosik said that he can estimate the number based on the general population of the markets in which Catholic radio operates.
With Catholic radio stations in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — the third-, fourth- and ninth-largest U.S. markets, respectively, Gajdosik said — Catholic radio stations are also edging their way into the Houston (sixth), Atlanta (seventh) and Boston (10th) markets, not to mention a large number of midsized and smaller markets around the country.
Out upon the waves
A Christian radio pioneer and host of “Al Kresta in the Afternoon” for Ave Maria Communications (AMR), Ann Arbor, Mich., Al Kresta said that Guadalupe’s purchase of WMET may be a “turning point” in the growth of Catholic radio.
“People [interested in Catholic radio] are learning how to purchase buyable radio stations in major markets,” he said. “That is something to watch for.”
Kresta started broadcasting about Christ as a Protestant in 1987 and 10 years later entered the Catholic Church and became a full-time Catholic radio voice for Ave Maria. When AMR began, Kresta said, it was financed by pizza Mogul Tom Monaghan. But, reflecting the growing popularity of Catholic radio, Kresta said, in 2005 AMR has been paying its own way — or rather, its listeners have been paying its way.
“Our primary source of revenue is asking listeners directly, and we also do some sponsorships and underwriting,” he said. “But the vast majority of our revenue comes from listeners directly.”
Beside the commercial support listeners give to Ave Maria and other Catholic radio operations around the country, Kresta also looks to his listeners’ response to events of the day as a good gauge of how the growth of Catholic radio reflects the continued growth of the Catholic faith in the country.
As a case in point, Kresta points to the reaction among listeners to the news that President Barack Obama had been invited to speak at and receive an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame in 2009.
“I think in the response that upward of 70 bishops had some word of rebuke for the Notre Dame’s officials,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. And I think the reason for it is that the lay faithful are being more active.”
Tuning into the Holy Spirit
With headquarters in Midland, Texas, Guadalupe was founded in 1998 and now boasts a total of 15 English and Spanish stations. After buying two stations (one in English, one in Spanish) in 2006 in the fifth-ranked Dallas-Fort Worth market, GRN became the first Catholic radio network to operate in one of the top-10 radio markets in the country.
“When GRN here in Dallas opened a station, I became a very avid, passionate listener,” Mary Catherine Huffines said. “I liked the variety of programming from the strong preaching of Father [John] Corapi to the good advice of Dr. Ray Guarendi to Catholic Answers, where everyone was getting catechized with simple and sophisticated questions.”
GRN President Len Oswald said that WMET, the first station Guadalupe operates outside of Texas, is bringing the message of Christ’s one true church to the nation’s capital.
“We had the feeling that no city in the U.S. needed to hear the positive message of Catholic radio anymore than our nation’s capital,” Oswald said. “The programming will impact families and allow them to understand what the Catholic faith truly is about.”
In sending its signal to the nation’s corridors of power, Oswald said, Catholic radio has a presence in the ninth-largest radio market in the country.
“We don’t have a target audience,” he said, responding to whether GRN hopes to influence political decisions. “We want to reach out to everyone in that area and rely on the Holy Spirit to allow the people who need to hear the programming to hear it and change their lives in a positive way, and the community as well.”
A real estate developer, Donald Huffines said that the economic state of the country and his own spiritual state — going in opposite directions — made the WMET purchase attractive to him.
“When the financial crunch came, this station became available and the price became much more flexible,” he said. “It was an opportune time in 2009 to be on the buy-side of radio.”
In addition, he said, although Catholic radio hadn’t influenced his becoming Catholic — a decision he made prior to the radio purchase — nonetheless, Catholic radio has become for him a source for constant and continued education in the Faith.
“Having recently converted to the Faith, I found I liked Catholic radio and enjoy it,” he said. “I find it tremendously beneficial to a vast number of people, and compared to Protestant radio — there’s about a 20-1 difference in terms of radio stations — there’s a lot of catching up that Catholics can do.”
Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.
Maximizing Benefits (sidebar)
When it comes to Catholic radio maximizing benefits, Don and Mary Catherine Huffines may be on to something.
Green Bay, Wis.-based Relevant Radio Network’s (RRN) new executive director, Father Francis “Rocky” Hoffman, reported that Relevant Radio’s recent pledge drive registered a 7.7 percent increase in donations. With 30 Catholic stations — including two in the prized third-ranked Chicago market — RRN is the largest Catholic radio network in the country.
Giving is increasing, Father Hoffman said, because listeners know that, dollar for dollar and minute for minute, Catholic radio is a more efficient educational investment than other Catholic institutions of learning.
For example, he said, based on his own cost analysis, a high end Catholic university such as Notre Dame costs $500 per hour of instruction; a Catholic retreat center costs about $150 per hour of instruction; Catholic high school costs $125 per hour of instruction — and Catholic radio costs only $6 per hour of instruction.
“And that is not to cast aspersions on any other kind of education — I’ve been involved with universities, high schools and retreat centers; they all bring special advantages with them,” he said, but the one advantage that Catholic radio has is its accessibility.
“Radio to my knowledge is the only media that allows you to multitask,” he said. “You cannot be driving the car and watching TV, surfing the Internet or reading a newspaper.… You can do all these things and listen to the radio.”