Service, but only now is it seriously aligning itself with the modern world. Edward Pentin takes a closer look at how one language programme is driving internal reforms to help the station to reach out to more listeners.
Opening up the Vatican's airwaves to a global audience
w 4 e have such a dearth of understanding
right now; we know so much but we understand so little," laments Sean Patrick Lovett in his third floor office overlooking Rome's Castel Sant' Angelo. As the director of the English Language programme at Vatican Radio, it is Lovett's task to bring Vatican news and comment to a large worldwide audience.
"I don't need to know statistics; I don't need to know how many children died of AIDS in Africa last year," he explains. "What I need is to understand why this is happening and what 1 can do to make some contribution to alleviating. to solving that issue."
South African-born Lovett believes there is currently a "hole" in Catholic communications, an overload of information that has lessened the impact of the content. "With the written word we can go into more detail," he explains, "but do we remember it?"
Radio, he believes, is radically different. "It hits you emotionally — you don't remember the details but you remember the issue. You have a feeling that somehow you should be involved." Television, he contends, is cumbersome and more manipulative but, because hearing is the first sense developed in the womb, radio is "more truthful because it really speaks to the heart".
Lovett's conviction in this regard has strengthened after 26 years of working for Jesuit-run Vatican Radio, and through his other two jobs: as a freelance consultant in communications, and as a lecturer in media communications at Rome's
Gregorian University. In 1982 he became Vatican Radio's youngest and first lay director of a language programme, and has been involved in various papal eras at the radio, from Pope Paul VI, to the year of the "three popes" and the current "travelling pontificate" of Pope John Paul Q.
But perhaps most significantly, Lovett was employed at Vatican Radio during the Cold War and its eventual end. For most of its 72 year history, the Pope's radio station served many people who were not allowed to practise the Faith in communist countries, and for Whom balanced reporting was hard to come by.
It was a time when Vatican Radio defined itself very much as the "voice in the Catacombs", says Lovett. "We were the only ones reaching out to eastern Europe." Indeed, so effective was its outreach, the Bulgarian Government saw it necessary to place a spy in one of the offices. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the radio's raison d'être vanished, and for over 10 years the station suffered a kind of identity crisis.
t was not until the Jubilee Year that an opportunity came to edefine itself; the uniqueness of the event hastening Vatican Radio's transformation. The result was to retain its vast shortwave programming in 40 languages, but also to give the English and Italian language programmes a live channel beaming 12 hours a day to Rome on the FM wave band, and to the world via satellite.
Live programming with talk-shows, interviews, liturgical progranunes, news and music programmes are all part of what is called "One0-Five Live", a project spearheaded by Lovett to give the station a more contemporary feel. Although Vatican Radio already has its own official website, the One-O-Five Live team also decided to set up a website of its own so that people all over the world could listen to the FM progranuning. And barely one year on, the One-O-Five Live site, which has both Italian and English pages, attracts around 2,000 visitors a day.
"What's interesting about the internet site is that the radio said it didn't have any
money to create it," explains Stephen Banyra, 43, the site's webmaster who was previously director of English news coverage. "Neither I nor my other colleague on the site have any formal training — it's very much a home-made affair."
In fact, the entire site cost less than 500 to create, just enough to buy the books and software needed to get the site up and running. "We create all our own graphics, and learned how to write in HTML code. And we're thrilled the site's been such a big success."
What pleases Banyra most is the way the site attracts all kinds of people all over the world in a way not apparent when the station simply broadcast on shortwave. Unlike what he calls the "institutional" look of the official site, the One-0Five Live web pages reach out in a "compelling" manner.
"We receive letters from people who tell us they're non-churchgoers or they're Jewish or they're from various Christian denominations," Banyra explains, adding that all correspondence is replied to. "Our site is colourful, we're trying to give it a commercial feel. It reflects the FM channel by being dynamic and represents a real breakthrough for Vatican Radio."
Banyra is also sure that the internet site promotes greater media exposure for the Vatican, "We're able to pick up the phone and tell journalists we've got an interview with a top ranking Vatican official, point them to the site, and they can listen to it and write a story about it. Vatican Radio has been appearing in the news at least 10 times more often than it did prior to the launch of the website and I'm sure that pleases the Secretary of State."
The One-O-Five Live website is also increasing its audience by another means. "We're trying to create a radio community whereby radio stations come to the site, download the audio files and rebroadcast them," Banyra explains. "In that way One-O-Five Live expands exponentially." And he and colleague, Matthew Sherry, have recently improved the sound quality of the downloads by making available MP3 files of CD
The Curia has only criticised the site on one occasion, when it demanded an interview regarding economic fallout from the Boston sex abuse scandal in the United States be taken off the website because there were ongoing sensitive discussions with Cardinal Law at the time.
There is, in fact, a freedom to the station which other broadcasters do not have. "People think we're constricted because we're the Vatican," says Sean Lovett. "But actually we have amazing freedom. We're not advertising generated so we don't have to be pleasing certain people all the time.
"We're very aware of our uniqueness and the spiritual and political dimension", he adds. "There's no other radio in the world that has to hold up those two columns. Every word you say, even if you say it's going to rain tomorrow, has a spiritual dimension because it's the Pope's radio station. And because the Vatican is a sovereign state, there is a political dimension."
But is there not a danger, that by giving the radio this contemporary feel, Vatican Radio will lose its uniqueness and in the long term perhaps render itself irrelevant? "I do believe One-OFive Live sounds different", Sean Lovett counters. "We open with a Latin Mass, close with the Rosary, and stop for the Angelus at midday. But in between these it's not too much of 'Oh God loves you and everything will turn out well in the end' stuff. 'Neither is it only peace and justice and 'we have to make this a better world or we're going to go to hell.' I think we're constantly discerning the balance between those two — seeing the spirituality of politics and the political aspect of Christ's gospel."
Lovett praises London's popular Christian station, Premier Radio, but believes it cannot be compared to the Vatican's. "They're very fortunate, they have a well defined market. What is Vatican Radio's market? Are we broadcasting only to Rome? No, we're broadcasting to the entire world. Who arc we broadcasting to? All people of good will, young and old, all colours, all creeds, all nations. No other station in the world has to respond to that challenge."
So is he happy with the fruits of One-O-Five Live so far? He pauses before chuckling to himself. "I'll be happy when we're broadcasting 24 hours a day; I'll be happy when we truly become a point of reference to other Catholic and non-Catholic journalists, not just radio stations,"
But there is little doubt Sean Lovett believes passionately in radio as a medi um for communication. As the interview comes to an end, he recalls one of his favourite stories of an Italian nun who spoke on the radio about her hospice in Rome for unmarried pregnant women. While on air, she made an appeal to anyone thinking of having an abortion to visit her hospice first.
"She called us the following day to say that she had just seen a young girl in the city who had her appointment at the abortion clinic that morning and instead of going there, she went to the
hospice. Her intention was to have the baby. So I know there's one person living today thanks to a radio broadcast," says Lovett emphatically. "I know because we've stayed in touch and I know the child's name.
"And who knows how many people have been helped, saved, or are living in a better state today thanks to something they've heard in these radio broadcasts?"
The One-O-Five Live website is at www.105live. vaticanradio.org