Ave Maria Radio flourishes despite odds – including flesh-eating bacteria
The Integrated Catholic LIfe
August 24, 2012
By Patti Maguire Armsrong
Fifteen years after the switch was flipped on at 1290 AM, WDEO (“DEO” is Latin for God) in Ann Arbor, MI, Ave Maria Radio is still leading the charge in Catholic Radio.
In 1996, Mother Angelica, the foundress of EWTN, the world’s largest religious network, offered programming to any Catholic radio station. Ave Maria was the first to accept the offer. It was an appeal to become a missionary because the field lacked a Catholic presence. Radio was either secular or Protestant Christian in 1996, although there were “Catholic Hours” on other stations and one Catholic station that played music.
Ave Maria Radio has now flourished for fifteen years, overcoming even an attack of flesh-eating bacteria on Al Kresta, President, CEO, Chairman of the Board and host of, Kresta in the Afternoon. During the winter of 2002, it seemed doubtful that he would live to ever witness the 15-year anniversary.
Attacked by flesh-eating bacteria, his life hung in balance for weeks. Kresta said the suffering was offered up for Ave Maria Radio and he grew closer to God in the process. “Suffering is the Catholic way of life. We understand ‘Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him’ as written in Hebrews 12:2,” he said. “Suffering shapes us and renders us fit for heaven.”
During the tragedy, listeners also grew closer to Kresta and the station. “It was amazing to see the outpouring of support, for Al,” said Teresa Tomeo, host of the syndicated show “Catholic Connection”. Kresta’s ordeal brought publicity to Ave Maria and ignited the community. “Al was well known in Michigan,” she said. “He had been involved in the prolife movement, owned a bookstore, he had worked at an evangelical radio station and had been a pastor, and now he was on Catholic radio.” She said that people of all denominations prayed for him, sent cards and offered to do anything they could for the family, which included wife Sally, and six children. Although Kresta’s left leg was amputated, he said he rejoiced that his life was saved. After a six-month recovery, he returned to Ave Maria.
According to Kresta, Ave Maria is about learning. “We aren’t commercial radio. We aren’t entertainment radio. We’re not even therapeutic radio. We are educational.” He said that listeners do not shy away from education because they seek the truth and not just shallow information dressed up as news. “In some ways, spirituality and news are opposite poles,” he said. “We‘ve got the momentary vs. the eternal. News is only aware of change while religion tries to concentrate on the eternal, even within change. I keep sanity by remembering that we don’t know what this world is coming to, but we know who’s coming to it.”
Nick Thomm, executive producer of Kresta in the Afternoon, began working for Ave Maria Radio shortly before their first pledge drive. “There was a lot of trepidation,” he said. “There was no way of knowing what kind of support we would get. With radio, there are no subscriptions, so we didn’t have a way to measure how many listeners we had.” Over 1,200 pledges poured in.
Thomm is a graduate of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He explained that working in Catholic radio is not just a job but also a calling. “We have a desire to serve God through our work, and we pray for those we serve.”
It is from this philosophy that when Thomm suffered from a brain tumor and Kresta lost a leg to flesh-eating bacteria, both men said they offered up their suffering for the ministry of Ave Maria and their listeners. In turn, there was an outpouring of prayers and cards to them from their fans.
Prayers are the backbone of Ave Maria. The staff prays for each other, their ministry, and their listeners. The chapel on site holds 4 daily Masses open to both staff and the community. Two convents of nuns, The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the Servants of God’s Love, pray for the station and for all prayer requests. People can email or call Ave Maria Radio to add their intentions.
A Different Kind of Evangelization
According to Kresta, Catholic radio is different from nondenominational Christian radio. “Protestants are always fighting about teachings because they leave a lot of questions unresolved. Catholics don’t have this,” he said. “People will call in to learn the best answer to a question, but for the most part, they understand it’s not a debatable issue.”
Over the past 15 years, Ave Maria has not only been involved in evangelization efforts on the radio but has initiated other projects such as their recent “Stop HHS” campaign. When the HHS Mandate was passed earlier this year, Ave Maria led an effort in the country by starting an educational web site www.StopHHS.com and petition drive, which has collected over 100,000 signatures. The site brings awareness and the latest news about the mandates attack on our religious freedom. Kresta is the official spokesperson for the Stop HSS and is passionate to let others know how important this is not only for us as Catholics but for all peoples of all religions in our nation. “We want to help ensure our freedom continues here in America,” said Kresta. We need to pray – our nation is at a crossroads.”
In the fifteen years since he’s been on Catholic radio, Kresta said that the audience is changing somewhat. “We get more calls from non-Catholics who don’t necessarily plan to become Catholic but are just calling for information.” he said. “Our audience is also growing younger. We see more twenty-somethings whereas initially, most of the audience was over forty-five.” He said he would like to continue to see this trend and he would also like to reach more of the Catholics who don’t understand that you can be enthusiastically for the poor and promote social action without being a dissident.
Dr. Ray Guarendi’s syndicated program attracts an audience seeking help but is not always looking for religious answers. He is an author and practicing clinical psychologist who hosts Ave Maria’s The Doctor is In program from 12-1pm ET, Tuesday through Thursdays. Before doing radio, he was a frequent guest on National Talk shows including Oprah, Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer. “I stopped doing them after awhile because I could not always predict the direction of the show,” he said. “I didn’t want to be involved in some of the topics.”
“I don’t do standard therapy over the radio,“ he said “but I hope that what I say makes sense to people even if they are not religious. If they listen and it makes sense and is fun to listen to, maybe some will go deeper and consider the Catholic faith.”
Although many callers have serious problems, Guarendi often mixes humor with advice whenever possible. “The relentless tsunami of human suffering can be hard to take,” he said. “Humans are not built to take so much human sadness. That’s why I joke around so much.”
Tomeo, also came from the secular media. She spent 20 years working in radio and television in the Detroit market. After a reversion back to her Catholic faith, she left secular media and met Kresta working at an evangelical station. “Al offered me a job to work at Ave Maria,” she said. “It was exciting to work at a Catholic station; to actually freely talk about my Catholic faith.”
“We are a unique staff, very close,” Tomeo said. ”And since we are small – just a skeleton crew, we are used to doing a lot with a little and all pull together.”
Although Ave Maria is small staff-wise, they are doing big things. They have become the largest producer of original English language Catholic radio programming in the world, producing over twenty different titles. Three programs – Kresta in the Afternoon, Catholic Connection with Teresa Tomeo, the Doctor is In with Dr. Ray Guarendi and Colleen Kelly Mast – are heard over the EWTN global Catholic radio network’s nearly 200 stations as well as EWTN’s Sirius satellite radio channel, streaming audio on the Internet and iPhone and Android apps.
EWTN, the network that helped launch Ave Maria, now syndicates some of their programing. Doug Keck, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Office extended his congratulations for their anniversary. “All of us here at EWTN want to salute the faith-filled professionals of Ave Maria Radio for their 15 year ”Fiat” to the work of Catholic media evangelization! Our Lady is surely pleased to lend her name to such a great mission!”
To celebrate 15 years on the air, Ave Maria is hosting a concert featuring country music superstar, Collin Raye, and Nashville recording artist Andrea Thomas at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan Campus in Ann Arbor, MI, Saturday, August 25th at 7:30 pm.
“We thought that having a concert would be a wonderful way to celebrate with our community the revolution that God has accomplished through Ave Maria and Catholic radio at large,” says Mike Jones, Vice President and General Manager of Ave Maria Radio. Doors to the celebration concert open at 6:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $18, $28, $36, and $46. Go to www.MUTOtix.com or call 734-763-TKTS (8587) for tickets and information or visit Ave Maria’s 15th Anniversary web site at www.Ave15.com.
Patti Maguire Armstrong is a speaker, Catholic author of nine books and winner of the 2011 About.com “Reader’s Choice Award”.