A new Catholic talk radio network won't begin broadcasting until at least next month in Southern California and nine other major markets, but already the privately financed company has stirred controversy and concerns among church leaders here.
The San Diego-based network would double the Catholic presence in a religious broadcasting field dominated by 1,600 Protestant evangelical outlets. But some bishops have worried about the free-wheeling nature of talk radio and the socially conservative interests of the new network's backers.
Those worries are needless, said John Lynch, chief executive of the nascent Catholic Radio Network.
"We will have a very balanced presentation [to] put ourselves above liberal and orthodox controversies," he said.
In April, the network agreed to purchase 10 stations from Children's Broadcasting Corp. for $57 million. Those stations would become the core of the Catholic Radio Network. But Father Joseph Fessio, a member of the network's board, cautioned that negotiations are still incomplete.
"There will be a network, but whether it will be with 10 stations, including L.A., is uncertain because of difficult negotiations," Fessio said. "These next few weeks are very crucial for us."
The network would be heard in Southern California on KPLS-AM (640), which would cover an area from San Diego to the San Fernando Valley once that station's power is boosted to 50,000 watts, according to Lynch. The station is now heard primarily in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Because of the strongly conservative interests of the fledgling Catholic network's promoters, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland declared last month that the network was unwelcome in his archdiocese.
In Southern California, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has made no public comment, but spokesman Father Gregory Coiro said the Los Angeles archdiocese has concerns about religiously traditional Catholics who often criticize American bishops perceived to be straying from doctrine and Vatican policies.
"We keep getting assurances . . . this will not be a vehicle for intra-church squabbles, but it is hard to know until they are on the air," Coiro said.
Late last year, Mahony complained strongly to the Vatican about cable television's Mother Angelica, a controversial conservative nun who urged Catholics to disobey the Los Angeles cardinal's pastoral letter on the Mass.
A set of programming principles mailed to Mahony by the Catholic Radio Network said that no network host or spokesperson will attack clergy by name, especially bishops.
But Coiro said that would not necessarily be a safeguard. For example, when Mother Angelica questioned Mahony's orthodoxy on her independent Eternal Word Television Network, she technically did not name him because she referred merely to "a cardinal in California." Mahony is the church's only cardinal in the state.
Coiro also wondered whether the network commentators and talk show hosts would reflect positions taken by the pope and U.S. bishops on social issues that find support among liberals in secular politics.
"Will they have people opposed to capital punishment?" Coiro asked. "The U.S. bishops have called for universal health care since World War II--are they going to embrace that?"
The prospect of the new network has spurred Mahony and the Los Angeles archdiocese to discuss giving support to Hollywood-based Family Theater Productions and its 44 half-hour drama programs in Spanish that are followed by 30 minutes of discussion with callers.
One bishop who is enthusiastic about Catholic Family Radio's evangelistic possibilities is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. Chaput is on the network's program review committee with two conservative figures instrumental in forming the network: Fessio, who is editor of Ignatius Press in San Francisco, and Nicholas Healy Jr., vice president of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
Chaput believes that the network "would be a force for reconciliation," said Francis Maier, chancellor of the Denver archdiocese and ex-editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper formerly based in Encino.
"Given a reasonable amount of time, [the network] will demonstrate goodwill toward the church," Maier said.
About $71 million has been raised so far for the purchase and the network's start-up operations, said Lynch, who was president of Noble Broadcasting and has owned stations in Chicago and San Diego, where he helped develop a sports talk format. The investors include Thomas Managhan, founder of Domino's Pizza, and Karl Karcher, founder of Carl's Jr. restaurants.
"Our investors, mainly Catholics who donate to the church, say this is one of the first times they can do some good for the church and at the same time receive a return on their investment," Lynch said.
The network will include national and church news plus commentators and talk show hosts such as Alan Keyes, who was a candidate for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, and other figures in politics, business and sports, Lynch said. Cardinals Francis George of Chicago and John O'Connor of New York have been asked to participate, he said.
"It will sound a lot like a local, conservative talk-news station," said Chris Lyford of San Rafael, Calif., who has worked to encourage the formation of Catholic radio stations. A former program director for a Catholic station in Portland, Ore., Lyford said that 10 to 12 Catholic-run radio stations are operating full time around the country.
Doug Sherman, who lives in the Lake Tahoe area, runs one of those stations in Reno, KIHM, with a format heavy on doctrinal teaching, evangelizing, rosary recitations and Masses.
Nearing the purchase of a second station in Sacramento, KSMH-AM (1620), Sherman has mailed fund appeal letters contending that "extremely anti-Catholic programs" on some Protestant radio stations mock Catholicism as idolatry.
"When the Catholic faith has been discussed on radio in the last 30 years, it's usually been from a non-Catholic perspective," Sherman said in an interview. "We want reliably Catholic radio."
Terms such as "reliably Catholic" and "orthodox" Catholic translate as socially and religiously conservative to Father John Geaney, marketing director for Paulist Media Works in Washington.
Geaney said his religious order produces half-hour Catholic programs reflecting "the broad spectrum of the church," from peace and justice issues to cordial Catholic relations with Jews and Muslims.
Geaney said Catholics should seek a stronger presence on radio, but said he would prefer a programming service similar to National Public Radio. "It won't be easy" for the new network to make money, he said.