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Talkin’ God in drive time new radio network’s goal

With its recent $57 million purchase of 10 AM stations in major markets across the country, the new Catholic Radio Network will be America’s largest system of radio outlets with a Catholic orientation. Starting Sept. 1, the network, known as CRN, will employ a 24-hour, all-talk format with a basic “faith and values” approach, according to network officials.

An impressive lineup of nationally prominent Catholics has been recruited as investors, board members and supporters, leading many observers to regard CRN as a serious new force in the radio industry. The network is based in San Diego.

Tentative plans call for talk shows anchored by strong radio personalities in the morning and evening drive periods, with some variety in other time slots -- potentially including a live call-in show featuring one of America’s eight cardinals.

“I’m not in this to be a small player,” said CEO John Lynch, a veteran radio executive. “I firmly believe that we can be a major presence in the country.”

Programming will be broadly pitched at America’s 70 million Catholics, according to Lynch, who said CRN won’t replicate what he called the confrontational, “preaching to the choir” tone of Mother Angelica’s television network, EWTN.

At the same time, Lynch acknowledged that key figures involved in the network -- himself included -- come mostly from the “orthodox, conservative” wing of the church, and that programming will to some extent reflect that orientation. CRN will feature some “strong commentaries,” Lynch said, from such “Catholic luminaries” as Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio.

Lynch described his aspirations for the network in terms of “stealth evangelism.” He says CRN will mix serious commentary with some lighter material, perhaps including University of Notre Dame football games or local Catholic high school athletics in the various markets.

The 10 stations included in the deal, announced April 17, are WJDM-AM in New York, KPLS-AM in Los Angeles, WAUR-AM in Chicago, WPWA-AM in Philadelphia, KAHZ-AM in Dallas/Fort Worth, KIDR-AM in Phoenix, KKYD-AM in Denver, KCNW-AM in Kansas City, Kan., WZER-AM in Milwaukee, and WWTC-AM in Minneapolis. Eventually, Lynch hopes for a 50-station network.

Lynch hopes to attract “new Rush Limbaughs and Dr. Laura Schlessingers” to anchor key network time periods. He said Fr. Tom Hartman, who appears on “Good Morning America,” is one early possibility, but the network is reviewing a wide variety of options.

“We’ve had morning people from big stations, famous people in the business, say things like ‘I’m a deacon in my church, and I would like to be part of this,’ “ Lynch said. “I’ve had programmers calling me saying, ‘I would like to do some good for the rest of my career.’ “

“The general idea is to appeal to a broad spectrum of people,” Lynch said, “and not hit them over the head.”

Lynch is particularly enthusiastic about the idea of a call-in show in which one of the cardinals could answer listener questions, Lynch said, “making themselves available to the wide body of the church.”

Lynch said CRN would also offer a Catholic perspective on social and ethical questions. “We’ve talked about doing a show on Jack Kevorkian,” Lynch said, “where we’d bring him on and someone to counter him, give both sides.” Whatever CRN eventually offers, Lynch said he’s determined to see it become an important force in popular culture.

Lynch believes that the network’s all-talk format fits well with demographic trends in the radio business. “We have a large population of aging baby boomers. It’s axiomatic that as boomers get older, they turn away from rock and roll and toward talk. We’ve got a huge potential audience.”

The creation of the network comes against the backdrop of a decade-long expansion in religious radio, with 1,240 stations now airing religious content full-time, an increase of over 30 percent in 10 years, according to the National Religious Broadcasters. One-tenth of all the radio stations in America today specialize in religion, making it the fourth most popular format, behind country, news/talk and adult contemporary, according to the NRB, a trade association for religious broadcasters.

The vast majority of this growth has been driven by Protestant Evangelicals. Though popular in Latin America and Europe, Catholic radio in America has remained a fringe phenomenon, with one count putting the total number of full-time Catholic stations at 14 before the creation of CRN.

Prominent Catholic figures such as Fessio of the Ignatius Press, Nicholas Healy of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and William Clark, former national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan, have been involved in planning for the network and serve on its board.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of the Denver archdiocese has agreed to act as episcopal adviser. Tom Monaghan, the former Domino’s Pizza executive who has long been a supporter of church causes, is a “major investor” in CRN, according to Lynch.

Access to investors such as Monaghan has allowed CRN to raise “more than what we need” to fund the initial 10-station deal, Lynch said. He hopes to expand quickly, with outlets in Washington, Boston, St. Louis and San Diego as top priorities. Lynch said CRN could pick up stations either through purchase or affiliation.

Lynch argues that Catholic radio can succeed on a mass scale. “There’s no reason why Catholics can’t use the mass media to evangelize effectively,” he said. “If you make it compelling, if you make it interesting, America’s Catholics will support it. There are millions of us out there.”

Fran Maier, chancellor of the Denver archdiocese, said Chaput is especially intrigued by radio’s potential to reach Hispanics, whom the archbishop believes rely heavily on radio for both information and entertainment.

Chaput will insist that content not be “polemical or divisive,” Maier said. “The archbishop is very concerned that the tone of the network be correct, that pastors and other bishops are reassured about its intent,” he said.

While claiming it was “no judgment on Mother Angelica,” Maier said it was important to Chaput that nothing like the TV nun’s run-in with Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles archdiocese happen on the new radio network.

CRN will be a commercial network, meaning that it will carry advertisements. “The only way we could afford to get into the major markets is to be commercial,” Lynch said. Individual programs may do on-air fund solicitation, Lynch said, but the network itself will rely on direct mail campaigns and other off-air techniques to supplement its advertising income.

In terms of other players in Catholic radio, most observers agree that WEWN, the radio arm of Mother Angelica’s EWTN cable television network, is the service with the widest reach. WEWN is not a network but rather a provider of programming that is now carried on 31 stations around the country, according to EWTN figures. The service is also available on shortwave radio and over the EWTN Web site, www.ewtn.com.

Another growing Catholic radio service is the syndicated program “Catholic Answers Live,” a call-in show also originating from San Diego. Emphasizing Catholic apologetics, the show is carried on WEWN and is syndicated in 22 markets around the country. “Catholic Answers” has a host, Jerry Usher, and a guest; during May, guests included William Donohue of the Catholic League and Capuchin Fr. Benedict Groeschel. A list of stations carrying the show is available at its Web site, www.catholicanswers.com [see links, below].

National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998