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Vatican Wants Radio To Be A Vital Voice

Even in the marble corridors of the Vatican, there’s such a thing as a bottom line. In the case of Vatican Radio, the service must continue to show that it is a vital voice of the church.

Indeed, the Vatican Radio service is one of the most expensive items in the Holy See’s budget. Last year, Vatican Radio operations cost the Vatican about $24 million. Only 5% of that figure was offset by the station’s earnings from the sale of compact disks and cassettes.

Not that the Holy See is about to pull the plug on Vatican Radio. In fact, the staff has increased by 15% since the station celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1981, and broadcast hours rose from 16,384 in 1985 to 17,563 in 1990.

Father Pasquale Borgomeo, the station’s director general, believes that joint ventures with other radio stations are a way to expand Vatican Radio’s audience. He wants to convince Catholic stations all over the world to pick up Rome’s programs, and send him theirs in exchange.

“We could increase our audience on frequencies that are much more popular than shortwave frequencies,” he says.

Naturally, Father Borgomeo and other Jesuit executives would love to make use of advanced technology, like a satellite able to cover all of Latin America. But satellite feeds, new transmitters and new antennas are expensive. A 500-kilowatt shortwave transmitter, for example, carries a pricetag of about $500 million.

Software, not hardware

“The less we spend on transmitters, the more we can spend on new programming,” Father Borgomeo argues. “More soft, less hard is the way to go.”

One piece of hardware that Vatican Radio’s technicians are anxious to see installed is a new computer which will automate the entire 24-hour broadcast cycle, feeding programs to the 27 antennas and turning the 600-ton rotatable antennas to the precise bearing. These giant Telefunken antennas bounce shortwave signals off the ionosphere, like stones skipped over an inverted sea.

The computer is being designed and built by Nuovo Pignone, a part of Italy’s state owned ENI oil and energy conglomerate.

No television

For a number of reasons, Vatican Radio’s brief does not include television. One is the cost of tv equipment. Another is that a Vatican television unit would duplicate coverage already handled capably by RAI, the Italian state radio and tv network.

Videocassettes are the extent of the Holy See’s small in-house tv group. Vatican Radio’s role is limited to providing audio equipment and technicians for all of the Pope’s tv appearances.

However, behind the optimistic mood at Vatican Radio is the knowledge that of the 1.35 billion Christians in the world, some 900 million are Catholics. And the number of Catholics is growing steadily, particularly in Africa. By the year 2000, which for all Christians will usher in the third millennium of Christ, Vatican Radio may be speaking to a potential audience of 1 billion Catholics.

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