Cuts at Vatican Radio could leave the world’s poorest worse off

Emer McCarthy interviewing Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto for Vatican Radio (CNS)

Under Francis, transparency, efficiency and austerity have become the new catchwords at the Vatican. The Pope has set up numerous secretariats and councils to oversee reform. They are focusing on the Vatican bank, the administration of Vatican departments and, last but not least, the Vatican’s various media outlets. These outlets include the Holy See Press Office, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican Television Centre, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Vatican publishing house and Vatican Radio. The commission overseeing reform of the Vatican’s communication system is led by Lord Patten of Barnes. While the former chairman of the BBC Trust says the commission will not be engaging in “a running commentary” on what it is doing, it would appear that Vatican Radio is right in the eye of the storm.

A lot has been said and written recently about Vatican Radio: that it takes the largest chunk out of the budget without generating any cash in return; that it is the Vatican’s largest employer; that its cost and its size do not correlate to the number of people it reaches; and that the medium of radio is out of date. Some of these claims are true and some deliberately misleading. So let’s separate fact from fiction.

When it was set up in 1931 by Guglielmo Marconi, Vatican Radio was at the cutting edge of modern communications. Fast forward 80-odd years and radio broadcasting has shifted from analogue to online digital and satellite broadcasting. This transition has come at a cost and that goes some way to explaining the rising budget deficit in recent years. Yet the change means that every event that takes place in the Vatican is now accessible to people worldwide at the touch of a screen – on a smartphone, tablet or home computer. This leap forward is entirely thanks to Vatican Radio’s web team. What’s more, the commentaries in various languages that accompany live Vatican television feeds, made available to media worldwide, are all provided by Vatican Radio staff.

It has been suggested that Vatican Radio should seek to generate more cash through advertising. In 2009, Vatican Radio began broadcasting adverts on its FM channel, which covers Rome and Lazio. These are understandably vetted to ensure they meet ethical standards that the Holy See seeks to promote. This narrows the field of potential advertisers and the possibility of making serious money. But the idea of introducing advertising across Vatican Radio’s 44 different language programmes is unfeasible. The majority of Vatican Radio programmes are re-broadcast by smaller, poorer partner radio stations across the globe. They are provided free of charge because, quite simply, we cannot put a price on proclaiming the Gospel.

It is true that Vatican Radio is the Vatican’s biggest employer. It broadcasts the Pope’s words to five continents, and that is why it needs to employ a significant number of journalists.

Global news corporations are cutting foreign correspondents, resulting in a copy-and-paste culture, where you can find the same report repeated ad nauseam by all of the major news agencies. Reporting on what the Pope has said is often reduced to a catchphrase (if his words are reported at all). By providing translations of papal homilies and addresses “in real time”, Vatican Radio helps reporters on religion all over the world. Vatican Radio staff also produce the content on the highly popular portal. Cutting staff would obviously cut costs, but it would also cut content. What good is a social media platform to bring the Pope nearer to the Universal Church and the modern-day peripheries without any content?

Others argue that radio itself is out of date. Vatican Radio’s programmes are re-broadcast by around 1,000 radio stations worldwide. Talk radio is flourishing – particularly in Anglophone nations – with the number of local Catholic radio stations almost doubling in America over the last decade. Vatican Radio’s English Section Facebook page has 400,000 likes, with a reach of more than a million per week and three million for special events. Going by the comments, most of these followers do actually take the time to listen to the content provided on that page. Most of our listeners are from America and the Philippines, but they are also Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia and African nations such as Nigeria.

The English section is topped only by our Brazilian section. But this obsession with costs, figures and reach misses the point. The real question is whether Vatican media in general and Vatican Radio in particular are effective. Is it communicating the voice of the Pope and the Universal Church to the world?

One day there was a knock on my office door. It was a young man from Brazil who worked as a porter on a cruise ship docked in the nearby port of Civitavecchia. Once a week he gets a four-hour shore permit.

He had used it visit the offices of Vatican Radio. He wanted to put faces to the voices he listens to every evening in his cabin, when he downloads “his” daily news from “his” Pope.

Last summer my boss, Sean Patrick Lovett, helped to set up a local Catholic radio station in South Sudan serving the sprawling refugee camps along the border that are home to millions of people. Visiting one of the camps, he met a young Sudanese refugee who told him that every time Vatican Radio reports the Pope’s words about Sudan the refugees feel less invisible. That refugee was not a Christian.

The Vatican’s communications apparatus is, undoubtedly, in need of reform. But Vatican Radio’s vision has always been far wider than the confines of Vatican City State. Its vision is, and always has been, about bringing the Gospel to the world – whether to a cabin on a cruise ship or in a refugee tent. One must hope this will not be forgotten as its future is being decided.

Emer McCarthy is a native of Wicklow and a journalist at Vatican Radio for the past 12 years, covering papal events for radio and television

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (3/10/14)


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