Low-powered Catholic radio stations seen as opportunity to evangelize

DULUTH, Ga. — Ken Chivers and Mark Alestra huddled around a computer Oct. 14 for the inaugural broadcast of Ablaze Radio in a converted storage room turned radio studio at St. Monica Church in Duluth.

Ken Chivers offers some suggestions Oct. 19 to Ablaze Radio volunteer Valeria Longhi just before she prepares to record a radio promotion spot in Duluth, Ga. Ablaze, a low-power station, is the newest Catholic radio station on the air in the Atlanta Archdiocese. (CNS photo | Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

“We looked at each other and said, ‘We can do this,’” said Chivers about the new church ministry. “So we did it. It was kind of overwhelming. All of the work and the dreams were a reality. It felt very, very good.”

Alestra, whose background is in the broadcast industry, sweated the technical side of the operation. He wanted a week to test the equipment and its connection to the tower a mile away.

“I didn’t get my week,” he said. “I got maybe a day. There was definitely a lot of prayer on that day.”

Listeners to 98.1 FM that afternoon heard first the station identification, followed by a spiritual reflection from Fr. Jack Durkin, St. Monica’s pastor, over the airwaves.

Ablaze Radio is the newest Catholic radio station on the air in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. It was preceded by one at St. Joseph Church in Dalton, and there are a few more in the works.

It’s a project that dates back to 2013 when the Federal Communications Commission for the first time in a dozen years accepted applications for low-powered FM stations. Catholic radio enthusiasts saw these inexpensive stations as an opportunity to spread the faith.

Ablaze Radio WNRE-LP covers an area of about 15 miles, nearly twice its expected distance, with an estimated 100,000 listeners. It includes Duluth, Suwanee, Johns Creek, Sugar Hill and Lawrenceville.

In fact, parishioner Tom Walker can hear the station from his Alpharetta office.

“Fr. Jack’s sermon was coming in beautifully. It was a little bit of, wow, it really happened,” he said about listening to the station during his commute.

“Catholic radio has been a big factor in my own journey of faith,” he told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese. “I had a lot of opportunity to hear long stretches of Catholic radio. It’s a powerful evangelizing tool.”

Walker is credited with dreaming up the idea. Walker, who works in the information technology industry, once faced long stretches of highway driving from the Atlanta area to Florida and Alabama. To pass the time, he listened to the Eternal Word Television Network, a global Catholic TV and radio network.

He described himself as a lifelong Catholic but with lukewarm faith. Listening to Catholic radio changed that. Now, he’s a guardian at the parish perpetual adoration chapel, in the early morning hours on Sunday.

“The more I do it, the more I want to do it,” he said, crediting Catholic radio for drawing him to a deeper faith.

Inspired by the spiritual message he heard on the radio, he also picked up on something more down to earth: the opportunity presented by low-powered FM stations. EWTN promoted the stations as a tool to evangelize, requiring little radio experience.

It is a mission embraced by the 200 members of the Catholic Radio Association, with member stations across the country.

“Georgia is just catching up right now. The Southeast … is not as well represented as the rest of the country,” said Stephen Gajdosik, president of the association.

Unlike low-powered FM stations, a commercial radio license can cost millions of dollars. People have long predicted radio’s demise: FM radio was going to knock out AM stations. Television would replace radio. The Internet would replace them all. But Gajdosik said it has never happened. As media splinters, people consume more of it. Radio pulls in listeners at a higher rate now than seven years ago, he said.

“When they are in the car — and we spend a lot of time in the car — the radio is on.”

Gajdosik said parish stations can be a “lever” to promote and build up their ministries.

Groups from five parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese each applied for a license for a low-powered station. Two are now up and running, those in Dalton and Duluth.

The Radio Ministry at St. Joseph’s in Dalton was on the air before the parish launched its own low-powered station. The ministry started in 2011 when Georgia passed tough laws targeting undocumented immigrants. In response, the parish, which is overwhelmingly Hispanic, rented time from a local station to broadcast Mass and host call-in shows to answer questions from concerned members.

Years before Pope Francis “told us to go where the people are, that’s what we were doing,” said Fr. Paul Williams, pastor.

Fr. Williams said he is relying on his computer skills learned during his days at Georgia Tech, in addition to a broadcast engineer, to serve Radio San Jose at 99.5 FM with the call letters WSEF-LP.

Radio San Jose broadcasts two Sunday Masses, one in English and one in Spanish, and music. A goal is to produce three-minute “capsules of the faith” with evangelical, biblical and inspirational Catholic moments, Fr. Williams said. Meanwhile, the broadcast is primarily popular Spanish Catholic music, he said.

For other pastors, Fr. Williams’ suggestions are to start small, stay parish-based, do it yourself with volunteers and let it grow naturally.

For Chivers, radio is just a tool. The goal for Catholics is to use whatever tool they have to communicate a message of faith, he said.

“If one individual grows in their love of God through their increased participation at Mass and the sacraments, we will be a success,” Chivers said.

Ablaze Radio is on the air 24 hours a day with about five hours of local content. The remaining hours are provided by EWTN. It costs a little under $40,000 to get off the ground and they anticipate an annual cost of about $15,000. They lease space for the antenna and transmitter from a commercial tower on Buford Highway about a mile from the parish. A grant from the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia helped cover some of the cost. In addition, the parish Men’s Club has taken on this ministry to support it financially.

Alestra admittedly wasn’t familiar with Catholic radio. He wasn’t a regular listener to religious stations.

“Now I am immersed in it,” he said. “I listen to it all the time, not only for quality control, but for the content. When you get constant exposure to this, all the other broadcasts are white noise. It’s garbage.”

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Nelson is a staff writer at The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.