David Dawson’s job as an independent paralegal 10 years ago had him in his car a lot, so he got to know what was on the radio. And what wasn’t.
“Johnny (Hebert) and I were discussing way back when: Why don’t we have Catholic radio in Baton Rouge?” Dawson recalled. “There’s nothing that represents the Catholic faith.”
Dawson and Hebert’s conversation led to the 2009 creation of Catholic Community Radio on WPYR (1380-AM) in Baton Rouge and, in 2012, WQNO (609-AM) in New Orleans, whose signal also reaches Houma and Thibodaux. They are the first exclusively Catholic radio stations in either city.
Catholic Community Radio gets no funding from any of the dioceses it covers but operates off donations, Dawson said.
Although there have been Protestant and nondenominational Christian stations almost since the advent of radio, American Catholicism didn’t embrace the medium as fully, said the Rev. Chris Decker, the stations’ director of missions and a priest in two St. James Parish churches.
In 1996, the Catholic television network EWTN began offering its program feed to radio stations. From only a handful that existed at the time, there are now more than 300 stations airing Catholic programming full-time or part-time, according to the Catholic Radio Association.
Dawson began exploring the idea in 2006 with Hebert and Mike Norwood. Decker, then a deacon intern at Sacred Heart Parish, had been podcasting discussions with priests about faith and technology. Dawson, assisted by donors, started buying two hours of air time on KKAY, a Donaldsonville station with a signal that reached Baton Rouge. One motivation was hearing programs on other Christian stations that he felt misrepresented Catholicism.
“A lot of misunderstanding: Why are these people saying these things? Why can’t we speak about what we do, but do it in love?” said Hebert, an environmental consultant who also serves as Catholic Community Radio vice president. “Explain our faith — we don’t have to attack anybody.”
The programming was popular enough that KKAY’s station manager, Harry Hoyler, wanted more, so Dawson bought four hours. The next year, when Hoyler was about to retire, he made an offer to Dawson, who already was producing some of the Catholic shows.
“He said, ‘I know you can do this job. Would you like to run a radio station?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Dawson said. “I don’t know where that came from. I think I lost my mind. I went home and told my wife, and she said, ‘I think you should.’ ”
When Hurricane Gustav knocked some local stations off the air in 2008, Dawson looked into buying one to become a Catholic station.
He settled on WPYR, then owned by a Spanish radio station in New Orleans. It went on the air in its new format on Dec. 8, 2009.
“At the time, nobody was aware: ‘What is Catholic radio? Are you going to have, like, the best homilies of so-and-so?’ ” Dawson said. “No, we want something more engaging. It was hard to explain what it was. When it came on the air, that’s when people caught on that this is good stuff.”
In addition to programming national sources, WPYR produces several of its own shows, including the 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. weekday “Wake Up” talk show, the weekday noon Mass broadcast from Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church and Decker’s 7 p.m. Sunday show, “The Catholic Underground.”
Ideally, the radio stations will not replace regular participation in church but will strengthen the faithful and draw back those who have drifted, Dawson said.
“Priests are telling us, ‘You’re making a difference. More people are coming to Mass,’ ” Dawson said. “(New Orleans) Archbishop (Gregory Michael) Aymond was the last to say it. They’re hearing about Catholic radio in the confessional. So, something they heard on Catholic radio made them say, ‘I need to talk about that in the confessional.’ ”
“Folks oftentimes feel if they’re struggling in their faith, that they’re the only one that’s dealing with it, and they tend to keep those types of things private,” Decker said. “When they hear Catholic radio, they’re immediately able to make a connection with another person virtually, and that can lead to a human encounter — going to their priest or going and talking to their children.
“That really has been a great benefit of Catholic radio. As the past three popes have spoken that media’s job is to bring you from a virtual experience of community to an actual experience of community. … Our work has encouraged them to take the next step of inviting God into the conversation and not just trying to do it on their own.”