Radio was the church’s new evangelization medium 75 years ago, and lay people in the Diocese of Wilmington were pioneers on the airwaves when they launched the “Catholic Forum of the Air” on WDEL on April 9, 1939.
The broadcasting trail they blazed back then has continued for some 3,900 shows, becoming one of the longest broadcast religious shows in the world.
Not only has the diocesan program proved long-lasting, its Wilmington founders were instrumental in starting a national association of church radio evangelizers, now called the Catholic Academy of Communications Professionals.
Dorothy Arthur, a parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua Church who lives in Jennersville, Pa., was one of “Catholic Forum of the Air” founders.
For this month’s April 6 broadcast of “Catholic Forum,” Arthur, 94, told Krebs that the radio program had literary roots.
It was during a book forum run by Mother Agatha at Ursuline Academy that the idea for “Catholic Forum of the Air” began, Arthur recalls.
At a meeting of the book club attended by J. Gorman Walsh, who ran WDEL, a woman asked, “Why don’t we have a radio program for the Catholics?”
Walsh, Arthur said, responded, “Madame, no one has asked for it.”
Mother Agatha then told Walsh, “I’m asking for it. Thank you very much.”
Mother Agatha announced that Wilmington attorney Joseph A.L. Errigo would handle the details.
No surprise, the first Catholic Forum broadcast was a radio version of Mother Agatha’s book forum discussion.
Errigo found other lay people to help produce the weekly show including: Arthur, a college student at the time; an insurance broker, Paul Taggart, who later entered the seminary and became an iconic Wilmington priest; Joseph P. Desmond, a Boy Scout executive; and Mary O’Hara, who because an Ursuline, Sister Magdalen O’Hara.
“These were people who felt it was reasonable to state what the Catholic church teaches” on the radio, Arthur said, noting that at the time radio stations were required to provide programming to community groups.
Arthur recalled the show producing radio dramas written by its members, interviews on Catholic subjects such as education or even church music, issues, news features and a constant “snagging some helpless person to be at the other end of the microphone. We were quite imaginative.”
The constant search for material spurred the radio evangelizers to find scripts that might have been used in other dioceses.
Soon, the “Catholic Forum” became an exchange center for ideas and scripts for other U.S. radio shows.
Finally, the Catholic radio producers decided to meet and, based on “Catholic Forum of the Air’s” mailing list, they met at Fordham University and founded the Catholic Broadcasters Association.
“That happened from Wilmington,” Arthur said, “because we didn’t have enough sense to mind our own business.”
That practice of sharing programming ideas nationally lasted. Gene Donnelly, a previous diocesan director of communications and “Catholic Forum” host and producer, recalls using material from the Passionist Fathers. He also used contacts with UNDA (Latin for wave), the church’s world broadcasting group that formed from the Catholic Broadcasters Association and other international groups, to find out what radio archive material might be used for “Catholic Forum.”
Donnelly oversaw the transfer of a recording studio from St. Mark’s High School to the diocesan Chancery building, where programs were recorded on audio tape and delivered to WDEL each week.
Donnelly noted that Kevin Scott, now at St. Elizabeth High School, and Robin Bryson of WDEL helped with control room work and duplicating tapes for distribution during his 29 years doing “Catholic Forum” and other radio shows including a live rosary broadcast, a Mass from St. Francis Hospital and a diocesan-produced program that used top-40 hits to introduce commentaries on the lyrics.
“Donnelly said the “Catholic Forum” and other shows aired on some 30 stations on the Delmarva peninsula.
“We never charged anybody anything” for airing the various shows, Donnelly said. “We felt it was a nice pat on the back for Wilmington.”
Both Donnelly and Krebs have high praise for WDEL for its steadfast loyalty in broadcasting “Catholic Forum.”
Krebs, who now records the show digitally instead of on tape reels, said the new technology has made recording away from the studio easier.
Bishop Malooly’s homilies at ordinations or other important events can be recorded with ease on location.
“Catholic Forum’s” content has been fairly constant for 75 years.
Krebs recalls from his nearly 14 years at the microphone such nationally renowned guests as musician John Michael Talbot, novelist Anne Rice and Baltimore Ravens’ center Matt Burke.
“Seventy-five years is a long time and there’s been a lot of changes” since “Catholic Forum” began, Krebs acknowledged, citing the worldwide web and Facebook. But he praised WDEL for its commitment to carrying the show for decades and also thanked the diocese for its commitment to communications.
While “Catholic Forum” is a hallmark of media evangelization, Krebs noted, the diocese has continued to keep pace with communications technology. His office maintains the diocesan website, www.cdow.org, which highlights both guests on “Catholic Forum” as well as diocesan ministries and videos.
Look for the diocese’s commitment to evangelizing in all media to continue.
As Arthur, the sole surviving founder of “Catholic Forum of the Air,” told Krebs on the April 6 program, “There is no end to what can be explained or discussed or shared out of the teachings of what Jesus told us.”