Religious broadcasters have a reputation in noncommercial media for being well-prepared and ready to pounce on any opportunity to launch new stations. So it was no surprise last fall that many of the applicants for new, full-power noncommercial stations were religious—60 percent, by one count.
But last October's licensing window saw a new force in religious non-coms. There were more applications from Catholic organizations this time around. And that was no accident.
Hundreds of stations currently preach Protestant beliefs over the airwaves, but historically, there have been few Catholic voices ringing in the holy chorus. Dissatisfied with the gap, the Catholic Radio Association mounted a coordinated effort to boost applications from Catholic groups during the recent window. It set an ambitious goal: to triple the number of Catholic stations on the air.
Today, 153 Catholic stations are broadcasting, according to CRA President Steve Gajdosik, compared to about 1,700 Protestant stations. Why the gap? Protestants realized early on the value of radio to spread their teachings, Gajdosik says. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church—accustomed to spreading information through its infrastructure of parishes, dioceses and internal publications—overlooked the importance of radio.
As this 2006 Associated Press article states, Catholic leaders in the 1970s focused their attention on television rather than radio, which set a precedent. A lack of national coordination thwarted their attempts to start a broadcast network encompassing both mediums.
When it came to radio, "our Protestant brothers and sisters were far more visionary than we were," Gajdosik says.
So when word started to spread that the FCC would soon accept applications for full-power noncommercial stations, "it was a no-brainer," Gajdosik says. CRA's bylaws prevent it from owning or operating any stations. So the association garnered support from its board of directors and, in national mailings, promoted the opportunity to its members. One how-to flier (PDF) turned the acronym for "noncommercial educational" (NCE) into "New Catholic Evangelization."
CRA arranged discounted engineering services and assistance from Catholic lawyers who had previously worked with the organization. In the end, CRA recruited about 160 Catholic organizations who filed a total of 227 applications.
Since many of these applicants don't currently operate any stations—an attribute that will earn them credits under the FCC's point system for awarding applications—Gajdosik believes that they stand a fair chance of prevailing over their competitors and receiving permits. He estimates that 70 percent of the applicants will succeed, roughly doubling the number of Catholic stations on the air. "Which is still not bad," Gajdosik says, "but wasn't quite our goal."
The stations built by successful applicants are likely to air local programming mixed with content from Catholic satellite networks such as Relevant Radio, Ave Maria and what Gajdosik calls "the proverbial 800-pound gorilla on the block," EWTN Global Catholic Radio.
One Catholic broadcaster suggests that CRA has put the cart before the horse by focusing on stations rather than programming. "While it is possible this is a winning formula for Catholic radio since it is a micro-niche product, it is definitely counter to movement of the rest of media," writes Michael Kreidler on his blog.
Regardless of what these stations air, if Gajdosik's predictions hold true, the sound of Christian radio could shift in coming years—though Protestant stations are likely to remain the true 800-pound gorilla.
Mike Janssen served as Project Manager on FMC's Full Power Initiative, recruiting arts and cultural groups to apply for noncommercial stations and assisting applicants throughout the process. He is a freelance writer, editor and leader of media workshops in the Washington, D.C., area. Visit his website at mikejanssen.net.