Catholic Herald staff
For 30 years, a trucker from Duluth has been fasting and praying, asking God to bring a Catholic radio station to his city.
His prayers were answered Friday, March 4, when Real Presence Radio Network, a nonprofit lay ministry out of North Dakota, went live at 88.1 FM, WWEN, Duluth/Superior.
Steve Splonskowski, executive director of the 15-station network, relayed the trucker’s story in a March 9 phone interview. Real Presence, which broadcasts Catholic programming in six dioceses, consults the same source – God – before launching each station.
“We tell the Lord, ‘Lord, we are willing to go wherever you want,’” he said.
Real Presence was founded in 2000, a response to St. John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization, by a group of Catholic laypeople in the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. The stations broadcast a mix of syndicated Catholic programs, Masses, devotionals and more on FM and AM stations.
Four years ago, a caller asked if Real Presence would consider coming into the Duluth market.
“That just kind of planted a seed,” Splonskowski said.
When they heard a station was for sale in the Duluth area, Real Presence talked with then-Fr. James Powers, now Bishop Powers, and Bishop Paul Sirba, of the Diocese of Duluth. Both expressed support for a Catholic radio presence, so Splonskowski said they continued to pursue the possibility.
Real Presence borrowed $200,000 and purchased the station.
With divine guidance – and after engineers had worked out a few technical kinks – the WWEN signal went live after a few days’ delay in early March.
Stations in the Real Presence network are 100-percent listener supported, Splonskowski said. They hold pledge drives in the spring and fall, broadcasting live from each community with stories and testimonies from local listeners.
Although they receive money from neither government nor dioceses, Real Presence invites bishops to speak on a rotating basis, allowing Catholics to hear from the six leaders on the stations’ combined coverage map.
WWEN, whose monthly operating budget is $6,344, broadcasts across a 40- to 60-mile radius and primarily covers the Duluth/Superior metropolitan area, according to Splonskowski.
Real Presence has seven full-time employees, including Splonskowski, who joined the nonprofit in 2007. He and his wife have seven children; they live in Hawley, Minnesota.
The radio network aims to reignite Catholics’ spiritual fire, he said.
“Our goal is to evangelize Catholics who are in the church and Catholics who are on the fringe of the church,” Splonskowski added.
They have also learned radio is a useful tool for evangelizing non-Catholics, and RCIA candidates and catechumen frequently cite the stations as contributors to their faith journey.
“It’s really personal, and it’s not in your face,” he explained. Listeners can learn about the church in private, with no pressure. In one RCIA class in Fargo, five people said they wanted to join the church because of Catholic radio.
One time, a woman, non-Catholic, called the station literally from inside her closet to tell them she was listening, according to Splonskowski.
Getting the unchurched through the doors is a major challenge for parishes, he said. A bishop or priest can preach a great sermon, “but how do you get them in?”
Radio is a valuable evangelization tool because there are no doors, Splonskowski said, and listeners can connect with local parishes without pressure.
“For that very reason, we’ll have announcements from all across your area from local parishes,” he added. They encourage parishes to send in events and broadcast them regularly.
“We’re a conduit for the bishops,” Splonskowski said. “We do not exist, nor do we even start, without the bishop’s full approval.… we work hand-in-hand with them. We’re just a mouthpiece for the bishop.”
A letter from Bishop Powers to the radio network expressed joy in having a new Catholic presence on the airwaves.
“What a blessing to begin my tenure as Bishop of Superior, aided by such an amazing medium for evangelization and communication,” the bishop wrote.
While Splonskowski is aware of the vastness of the 16-county Diocese of Superior, he’s uncertain whether the network will expand further into Wisconsin, e.g., central Wisconsin.
Whenever someone calls and suggests a new station, “We pray about that,” he said.
His response to callers is, “I want you to tell the Lord that you want us there.”
Real Presence figures if God wills it, everything will work out.
“We’re just coming into those areas, hopefully, as an answer to prayers,” Splonskowski added. “We will go wherever the Lord wants us.
“The Lord will provide,” he concluded. “He always does.”
Editor’s note: Real Presence Radio Network programming can also be heard at http://yourcatholicradiostation.com/programming/live.php.