Catholic radio expands in L.A. with 93 KHJ

Instead of the Beatles and Motown, KHJ 930 AM is broadcasting rosaries and Catholic talk shows

Back in the glory days of Top 40 radio, 93 KHJ was the king, home to the latest hits and big audiences, not to mention famed DJs Sam Riddle, Robert W. Morgan and the Real Don Steele.

But beginning this month, KHJ became the latest in a growing number of Catholic-themed religious broadcasters.

Instead of the Beatles and Motown, the station is broadcasting rosaries and Catholic-themed talk shows. Among the shows is Patrick Madrid's "Right Here, Right Now," which in recent weeks has touched on everything from music's potential influence on suicide to using the Ten Commandments as a voter's guide during elections.

The station has received the endorsement of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which will broadcast its own programming for an hour a day.

For Catholic radio in America, it is one of the biggest moves yet into a medium evangelists have long dominated. And it underscores how an old technology such as radio still plays an important role in faith in America.

About one-fifth of American adults listen to religious radio, about the same percentage who share their religious faith online, according to a study by the Pew Research Center released this month. Despite the digital shift, the study showed little difference between old media and new media when it came to sharing faith.

Protestants, the study showed, tended to listen to religious programming on the radio far more than Catholics, and white evangelicals were more than three times as likely as Catholics to listen to Christian rock.

KHJ is the latest addition to Immaculate Heart Radio, the nonprofit network created by Doug Sherman in 1997.

Driving across the country, Sherman fished into a grocery bag filled with tapes of Catholic educators to listen to on his journey. Between tapes he scanned the radio dial — station after station of Christian preachers, but never their Catholic peers.

So the man who made his living building houses, who didn't know much more about radio than how to turn one on, raised the money to buy a radio station in Reno and filled it with Catholic programming.

Sherman grew up Presbyterian in Pasadena but converted to Catholicism about 30 years ago. He tries to attend Mass daily and takes a conservative religious stance — abortion is wrong, marriage is between a man and a woman, and liberation theology is out of bounds.

"Either something is in the boundaries of the catechism or not," he said. "It's either faithful church teaching or not."

The for-profit Catholic Family Radio network tried to make a go of it in Southern California in the late 1990s, but went out of business after a few years. Among its investors were Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, and Carl Karcher, founder of Carl's Jr.

Because of the strongly conservative politics of the Catholic Family's founders, some church officials were wary of the network. Milwaukee's bishop said the station was unwelcome in his archdiocese.

In Los Angeles, however, the church has accepted Immaculate Heart, which has maintained close relationships with church officials.

"This new station offers our Church great potential to inspire and educate people and strengthen their faith and Catholic identity," Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said in a letter of support. "In addition, it offers unique opportunities to evangelize and to share the Gospel with those who have left the Church or given up on God."

While Immaculate Heart bought Reno's KIHM for $160,000, the company paid $9.75 million to buy KHJ from a Spanish-language broadcaster. Immaculate Heart will spend about another $300,000 on billboards and other promotions. The company also is in negotiations to buy the gospel station KTYM 1460 in Inglewood, but Sherman would not discuss his network's plans for it.

Sherman, 67, spent two years raising the funds to buy KHJ, and the company is still paying off the bank loans and low-interest loans from donors, whose names Sherman didn't disclose. Its most expensive purchase was a San Francisco station that cost $14 million.

When Immaculate Heart bought a San Diego station in 2012, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was co-chair of the fundraising campaign, and the station is relying on celebrities for KHJ too. Dodgers announcer Vin Scully has recorded a promotional spot for the station and is honorary chair of the launch event at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, along with former professional baseball players Mike Sweeney and Jeff Suppan, and actor Eduardo Verástegui.

In addition, members of the Knights of Columbus fraternal group are putting up banners in the parking lots of every parish in the archdiocese and passing out bumper stickers touting the station.

Like NPR stations KCRW and KPCC, or Pacifica's KPFK, KHJ must make up for its lack of commercials with fundraising appeals and persuade businesses to sponsor programs. Sponsors at other stations have included Catholic cemeteries and colleges and, in Sacramento and the Central Valley, McDonald's franchises.

While Catholics historically haven't taken to the airwaves like evangelicals, the church has had its broadcast stars. The Rev. Charles Coughlin broadcast his anti-Semitic views to a weekly radio audience of 40 million in the 1930s and '40s until the church forced him off the air. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen hosted a radio show before he started broadcasting his popular TV show in 1952.

Immaculate Heart's Reno station was the seventh Catholic station in the country, according to Stephen Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Assn. in Spartanburg, S.C., and was the start of a huge growth spurt. Today there are 300 Catholic stations, including one that recently went on the air covering the New York area. Another 100 are expected to be broadcasting soon, some owned by individual archdioceses.

While Immaculate Heart broadcasts in English, there are Spanish-language Catholic networks such as El Sembrador Ministries, which has TV and radio stations.

Sherman, who lives in Lake Tahoe, said he needs to concentrate on raising money for KHJ before looking for another station. But, he said after thinking for a second, "Tucson and Hawaii are still open."
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