New Catholic radio station launches in Southern Tier
By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor
The first radio station in the U.S. owned and operated by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate has taken to the airwaves in the Syracuse Diocese.
The station, called Holy Virgin Mary Radio, can be found at 91.9 FM and is transmitting out of Barton, N.Y. The station is run from the Friars’ Mount St. Francis Hermitage in Maine, N.Y. and from the Franciscan Friary in Griswold, Conn.
The station is the first of a wave of similar stations that are planned across the U.S.
Launched on June 12, the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the station is still in its preliminary stages, but the intention is to expand its programming within a year or so. Its founders hope that it will one day reach 125,000 listeners. For now, the transmitter is relatively weak, so the potential listening audience is around 20,000.
Friar Augustine Arts, F.I., is the chief station operator and has seen the project through from its beginning in 2007.
“After I started working on this project, I realized that this was going to be a spiritual battle,” Friar Augustine said, “I didn’t realize how much of a spiritual battle it is, though.”
At times, the battle became more literal than Friar Augustine could have imagined.
He said this was particularly the case when he was called back to Our Lady of Guadalupe Friary in Griswold, Conn., a few days before the radio station was due to take the air. He was putting his electrical training to use on a standby generator while the other friars were praying in the chapel.
“I got the motor up and running and I was pretty pleased. As I was cleaning up, the tools were on top of the radiator of the motor, and as I leaned over to get my tools, the engine sucked my habit into the fan,” he said. His nose was smashed against the engine and he lay there stunned for a moment as smoke started to billow from the machine. He struggled to push himself away from the machine. “I was being pulled down into the fan. I really — I thought I was going to die.”
He knew he had one chance to get out, and that was by pulling himself away from the machine. But the only thing he could reach was the red-hot exhaust pipe. “So I grabbed that, I pulled myself out and I was able to hit the kill switch.”
His face was bloodied and blackened by smoke, his hands suffered second-degree burns, and his habit was in tatters and reeked of burned rubber. He staggered into the chapel for help from his startled brothers. “I looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon,” he said, laughing.
He said he’s convinced this was the devil’s last, best shot at keeping the radio station from the airwaves, but there were plenty of roadblocks before this.
The project started in 2007, when a benefactor learned of a brief application window that the FCC was opening for “noncommercial educational FM stations.”
“He thought we should apply for one at every friary we have in the U.S. and he offered to pay as well,” Friar Augustine said. Despite knowing nothing about building a radio station, Friar Augustine was put in charge. He said he learned almost everything on the Internet. “I’m always on Wikipedia here,” he said.
The site in Maine, N.Y. was the first to receive its permit, but there is a strict timeframe of three years in which to construct the station. As time slipped away, the friars found themselves with just one year left to get the radio station built. It was important to get something on the air soon, but they needed to find a good place to transmit from.
An engineer working with Friar Augustine identified an area that would be ideal for the location of the antenna. “So myself and another brother overlaid the area onto Google Earth, took a laptop and went driving,” Friar Augustine said. They were searching for a hilltop that would provide the largest area of reception.
But after approaching several property owners looking for permission, the brothers were starting to get exasperated. “I basically said, we’re not going to go back until we get this property,” Friar Augustine said.
But as the sun was going down, they still hadn’t found a property. That’s when the brother accompanying Friar Augustine asked to stop and say a quick prayer.
“Five minutes after the prayer we saw a gravel track leading off from the road,” Friar Augustine said. They followed the path up to a farmhouse, and from the farmhouse was a power line that shot off into the woods. “And I thought, ‘That’s strange,’” Friar Augustine said.
They followed the power line and were astonished when it led them to an old radio tower with a tiny wooden shed for broadcast equipment. The tower was built about 50 years ago and had been unused for many years.
They knocked on the door of the house, and a lovely older couple asked them in for a cup of tea. A while later, the brothers walked out of the house with an agreement to rent the shed and some of the property around it.
“Divine providence at its best,” Friar Augustine said.
Radio equipment was bought online with the help of the Catholic Radio Association, but the next problem was what to put on the air.
“Generally the most expensive part of a radio station is your programming. You need a lot of resources and a lot of staff,” Friar Augustine said. Because they wanted to get on the air as soon as possible so they wouldn’t lose their permit, the radio station has picked up the radio feed provided for free by Mother Angelica and the Catholic television station EWTN.
The station cost just over $30,000 to get running. “The most difficult part of it is getting the fundraising for it,” Friar Augustine said. “But we’ve been very blessed. We’ve received a very large donation from Syracuse.” He said the fundraising wouldn’t have been possible without a team of dedicated parishioners from the Southern Tier.
Because of a time lag from the satellite 24,000 miles away, Friar Augustine said making the station available over the Internet isn’t an option — yet. “But we’ve always intended to do live stream,” he said “and hopefully we’ll have the live stream up and running by the end of July.”
For now, Friar Augustine runs the radio station on his computer in Connecticut. He’s able to check the temperature at the tower, the power of the transmitter and what’s playing at the moment. A brother at the Hermitage in Maine goes up a few times a week to check on the tower the old-fashioned way.
Friar Augustine said there are plans to build a studio at the Mount St. Francis Hermitage and hopefully to start producing local content for the station.
There are also plans to get similar stations going in Massachusetts, Indiana, Illinois and Connecticut.
“It is the most interesting, challenging and exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Friar Augustine said, “and I’m doing it in the habit. I’m doing it as a friar, which is amazing.”