Catholic Radio Becomes Available Nationwide on Sirius Satellite Radio

Before the end of 2003, retired organizational psychiatrist Denise Weisbrodt was like the majority of the nation’s 65 million Catholics. She was unable to receive a signal to listen to her favorite Catholic radio station on her home radio.

It's Everywhere! It's Everywhere!

EWTN has changed that. At the end of the year, EWTN announced that it had reached an agreement with Sirius Satellite Radio to have its English and Spanish-language stations added to Sirius’ radio line-up.

The stations were added just prior to the new year. That means that Catholics across the country can now listen to digital Catholic radio on inexpensive satellite radio receivers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week anywhere in the U.S. EWTN’s agreement with Sirius makes Catholic radio available not only in homes but also businesses, automobiles, trucks, boats and RVs.

“We are delighted to be the first Catholic programmer to be included in a U.S. satellite radio service. This new digital technology will enable people across the country, particularly those who are not served by terrestrial Catholic radio stations, to have access to EWTN’s radio programming.”

Ave Maria Communications, the Starboard Network and EWTN have been competing to get their programming on one of the nation’s two satellite radio networks — Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio.

XM May Be Next

EWTN, the world’s largest Catholic radio network, had been in discussions with both the New York-based Sirius Satellite Radio network and Washington, D.C.-based XM Satellite Radio to have the networks consider adding a Catholic channel to their lineup. They will continue the pursue an agreement with XM. EWTN launched its satellite-delivered radio in 1996 and is also available worldwide on the “Sky” satellite platform.

Ave Maria and Starboard, both of which air original programming in addition to EWTN programming, were in discussions with XM Radio.

Weisbrodt, who lives more than 20 miles away from Saginaw’s Catholic radio station, WMAX-1440 AM, sees the prospect of a Catholic satellite channel as promising. While recently spending the day painting her hallway she pulled up the station on her home computer and cranked the volume so that she could listen. While it’s nice to be able to listen over the Internet, she finds it undependable. “I kept losing the signal,” said Weisbrodt.

Weisbrodt was not alone: “Listeners of Catholic radio are the last unserved niche in American media,” said Mike Jones, vice president and general manager for Ave Maria Communications. “Whereas 95% of Americans can tune into Christian radio stations that are not Catholic, Catholic radio currently reaches less than 5% of the nation’s population.”

“How many radio stations can Catholic philanthropists buy?” asked Jones. “Can they purchase 100 or 500? I don’t think there are enough philanthropists to buy 1,600 stations, and that’s what evangelical Protestants own. To bring Catholic radio to every Catholic in the country, satellite radio is the platform.”

Sirius Satellite Radio is one of only two companies that hold an FCC license to operate a national satellite radio system. The other is XM Satellite Radio. Both companies provide more than 100 digital channels that can be listened to using portable, automobile, or home satellite radio receivers.

While both companies provided Christian music and talk channels, neither had offered a Catholic music or talk channel in its lineup.

The advantages of satellite radio include a wealth of channels, exceptional clarity, nationwide availability, and largely commercial-free listening. All of Sirius’ music streams are commercial free; 50% of XM’s are free of advertising. Sirius expects to have nearly 300,000 subscribers by the end of the first quarter of the year; XM expects to have 1.3 million.

Both companies have been looking at the possibility of adding Catholic programming.

Ave Maria first began discussing the possibility of satellite radio two years ago. In February, they approached XM. “We understood that XM had bandwidth available,” said Jones, “so we approached them.”

XM has limited bandwidth for adding new channels. Last year the network added their 101st channel — the Playboy channel — to its radio lineup. The additional channel does not come standard with the service. Subscribers are required to pay an additional fee, above the standard $9.99 subscription fee, to receive the channel.

Jones estimated that between 6 million and 8 million Catholics might consider subscribing to a satellite radio service if Catholic programming were available. He believes that the Catholic market represents a largely unserved niche. In August, Jones was told by XM executives to put together a proposal. He expects that he will have the opportunity to present it soon.

To support that effort, Ave Maria started collecting signatures on a petition that Jones hopes to present to XM. To date, the group has received more than 6,000 signatures from folks like Denise Weisbrodt who said they would be far more likely to subscribe to a satellite radio network if it had a Catholic channel.

Starboard has not yet sent a proposal to XM, but is talking with the company.

Jack Lusby of Westminster, Maryland, is an XM stockholder. He believes that the addition of a Catholic channel would increase XM’s subscriptions and profitability. More importantly, he feels that such a channel could have spiritual benefits: “The addition of Ave Maria Radio to XM would provide all believers and non-believers with another opportunity to hear the Word of God,” Lusby wrote on the online petition.

Chance Patterson, vice president for corporate affairs at XM could not comment specifically on Ave Maria’s proposal, but did confirm that they have submitted one: “We have been in discussion with Ave Maria representatives,” said Patterson. “It’s unclear whether there will be an opportunity to bring this programming onto XM. We receive numerous proposals each week and take them seriously.”

Patterson said that once tapes are sent in, XM’s executives evaluate them: “We evaluate what it would sound like on the air, what the idea is behind the show, how similar it is to something we already have, and whether it would attract new listeners,” explained Patterson, who added that a decision would likely be made in the upcoming months.

Grassroots Excitement

The petition effort has received the support of an impressive number of lay Catholics, programmers, and station owners from coast to coast. Nearly 1,000 signatures alone were obtained through the efforts of St. Joseph Communications’ president Terry Barber.

Catholic radio hosts are also excited by the possibilities: “A lot of people want to receive Catholic radio, but can’t,” said Greg Popcak, who hosts the Ave Maria program “Heart, Mind and Strength” with his wife daily on 30 stations nationwide. “This is the same kind of push that Mother Angelica did through the Dish network.”

“Long ago, our Foundress, Mother Angelica, recognized the importance of radio as a medium for carrying out EWTN’s mission of Evangelization,” said Warsaw. “EWTN has been pleased to be part of the growth of community-based Catholic radio in the U.S. during the past decade.”

“We are grateful to SIRIUS for recognizing the need for Catholic programming to be included in their line-up. We thank God for this development,” he said. Amen to that.

Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register and editor of Saints of the Jubilee available at 1stbooks.com. He resides in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

(This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register and was adapted by permission of the author.)

Tim Drake

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Tim Drake is an award-winning journalist, the author of six books on religion and culture, and a former radio host. Widely published, and a long-time contributor to the National Catholic Register, he serves as Senior Editor/Director of News Operations for the Cardinal Newman Society.

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