Vatican Radio: Around the World in 80 Years

«Is Not the Catholic Church the First Global Social Network?»

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ROME, FEB. 19, 2011 ( «Around the World in 80 Years» is the slogan of the celebrations for the 80th anniversary of Vatican Radio (1931-2011).

On Feb. 10, a commemorative event was held at the Conference Hall of the Vatican Museums with Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State; Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of Vatican Radio; Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums; and Monsignor Peter Bryan Wells, assessor of the Secretariat of State. 

The following is a L’Osservatore Romano translation of Monsignor Well’s speech, which was given in Italian.

* * *

Your Eminence, Your Excellencies, Rev. Fr. Director General, Priests, Collaborators and Friends of Vatican Radio, all:

I am honored to be representing the Secretariat of State today at the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the founding of Vatican Radio, which began its service as proclaimer of the Word of God, of the teaching of the Holy Father and of the authentic Magisterium of the Church in 1931, by happy coincidence, the year of the 150th anniversary of the birth of L’Osservatore Romano.

I will not hide a certain emotion, even a certain trepidation in speaking with you today — not only because the relationship between Vatican Radio and the Secretariat of State is constitutive, as the Statutes of the station say: «Vatican Radio, for its programming and doctrinal and informative content, answers to the Secretariat of State, which exercises vigilance over the broadcasting Station, which [in turn] is bound to follow with care the directives that are imparted to it» (art. 2.1 of the Statutes of Vatican Radio, 1 Sept. 1995) — but also, as the same Statutes indicate, because the larger public easily attributes an authoritative character to the programming produced by Vatican Radio, and it is therefore necessary to assure that Vatican Radio content is «fully in tune with the Magisterium and with the activity of the Holy See» (art. 2.2. of the Statutes of Vatican Radio, 1 Sept. 1995). It is precisely because of this that I am aware of how heady and how demanding has been the work that Vatican Radio has heretofore advanced. The celebrations of the important milestones reached throughout these 80 years are, therefore, undoubtedly worthwhile and joyful.

Allow me to join myself to these by offering a brief reflection focused more on the challenges of the future, challenges which arise out of the success of the past, in order that these last might not only live in our memory, but also be a stimulus on the way that is unfolding before us.

We are all aware that there is a veritable revolution underway today in the world of media. As the Holy Father stressed recently in his Message for the 45th World Day for Social Communications (24 January 2011): «The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship.» Technical as much as it is cultural, this upheaval directly involves radio broadcasting both in its technological aspects, and in those concerning content. Classic media, including radio, can no longer ignore the power and pervasiveness of the new media. Just think: a recent study found that cell phones are habit-forming — they call it «mobile addiction,» and since the advent of smart phones, it can become so severe as to force those who suffer from it to go without food rather than be separated from the device that allows them to send and receive calls and text messages (cf. Then consider that Nielsen polling data for Western nations show people under 35 spend many more hours online than they do watching television (cf. 2008/ nielsen_reports_tv.html). One may also note how the new media have served as the catalysts for phenomena in the public sphere, such as the «Manifestation de la Honte» in Belgium and the «Jasmine Revolution» in Tunisia.

These events indicate that radio broadcasting services cannot fail to take into consideration the emergence of a series of other technological instruments, from the podcast to the iPad, from social networks like Facebook, to micro-blogging platforms like Twitter. The new means of communication are to be thought of as interlocutors, not as competitors. Radio should look on new media as an opportunity, not as a threat. Herein lies the spirit of «convergence» among media, to which the Holy Father pointed in his Discourse to Managers and Employees of the Vatican Television Center, 18 December 2008. Commenting on the way that the boundaries between the various media are fading and how, at the same time, their synergies are increasing, Benedict XVI expressed himself in the following terms: «[T]oday the Internet requires an ever-increasing integration of written, audial and visual communication, and thus is a challenge to broaden and intensify the forms of collaboration between the media which are at the service of the Holy See.» To succeed in this task, it will be necessary to think outside the box: to see radio, television, internet and newspapers not as free-standing tools with well-defined competences, but rather as circles to intersect and link together.

For Vatican Radio, such a convergence will have a first beneficial effect on the economic level: the use of new technologies, in fact, allows for a maximization of productivity. I am aware of how difficult it is to speak of these things, and I am also well aware of how much Vatican Radio has been able to do, compared with competitors both public and private.

Certainly, an integrated information process is already underway at Vatican Radio, one that foresees the use of new media and all they have to offer. The new means of communication, intelligently employed and wisely integrated into existing structures, can be important vehicles for the transmission of the Radio’s message, guaranteeing an extremely wide diffusion at an extremely low cost. One need only think of how hubs or web streaming permit a much more rapid and certainly more widespread distribution of information, at a much more measured cost. The principal reason that must push Vatican Radio to embrace new tools and technologies, however, is to be found neither exclusively nor even principally in the economic efficiency that they promise. The phenomenon of the convergence of classic media with new media — specifically, though not uniquely, the confluence of radio and internet — is to be thought of as the inevitable transformation that will give birth to a new specific role of radio service, in the context of a completely transformed system of information. We are not talking about taking away radio’s proper function: reaching listeners. Rather we are talking about using new media to render radio capable of meeting the expectations of listeners who are more and more sensitive to information. I think a new concept of radio is being born. This arises from three considerations. The first is that radio is more flexible than other media, and can find distribution platforms very easily. The second is that radio is a pervasive, though not intrusive, medium: unlike a picture, the voice surrounds and immerses the listener in an environment of sound, without imposing itself on the listener’s space. The third is that the radio is an intimate, relational medium, a place for interiority, for responsibility, and not for the externals and appearances that pictures convey.

The convergence of radio and new media will not destroy the essence
of radio. Rather, this convergence will strengthen radio communications. In the specific case of Vatican Radio, the convergence with new media will include two complementary processes. The first process concerns the harmonization of the work of Vatican Radio with other Vatican communications tools. The second process regards the relationship of the Holy See’s radio station to other Catholic radio stations around the world. The Vatican media outlets have undertaken the first process with determination: the areas of cooperation between the Vatican Television Center, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and Vatican Radio are proof of this. Nevertheless, these developments are only the first stages of a larger, more broadly encompassing phenomenon able to establish the permanent presence of the Holy See in the world of new media.

The second process is even more specific: Vatican Radio has the role of setting the example, of being a beacon, a guide for all other Catholic radio stations. The use of new technological tools can then ensure that Vatican Radio be a source of ideas and services to her sister stations — and at the same time a means by which local Catholic radio services can be shared on a global level. To succeed in this difficult challenge it will be necessary to continue in the direction — long since undertaken — of a new organic relationship between Vatican Radio and other Catholic radio stations throughout the world, a relationship that is now possible precisely thanks to new technologies.

The nature of this new relationship has its roots in the specific role given to Vatican Radio, that of being an integral element among the tools for evangelization available to the Holy See. As the Holy Father explained in his June 20, 2008, Discourse to the International Congress for Catholic Radio Personnel: «By virtue of its association with words [sic – It. la parola] radio shares in the Church’s mission and in its visibility but also creates a new way of living, being and making Church.»

As the Church is by nature universal, so too does Vatican Radio have a universal mission. It resounds in more than forty languages, and presents itself as the instrument par excellence for dialogue with different cultures and religions. Precisely for this reason is it necessary that you, the operators of Vatican Radio, constantly keep yourselves up to date: technically, professionally, culturally.

To just this end, the new tools of communication can be particularly useful, because in them lies the key to the achievement of a truly global reach: I think of the ability to reach millions of people with an idea or a news item sent right to their cellular phones, or the ability to guarantee messages in real time to those who live in war zones or under the harshest regimes. 

To evangelize means to address the difficulties to which the Church is subject. Vatican Radio must be the voice of the Church that contests those who say the Church is not capable of inner renewal, showing instead the tireless desire for purification expressed by Her Supreme Pastor. Vatican Radio needs to be the voice that promotes religious freedom in the world. Vatican Radio needs to be the voice that calls for dialogue and harmony in a world that turns increasingly to hatred and violence to solve conflicts.

All of us here know that the new media are absolutely essential, if Vatican Radio is to succeed in being such a voice. In this day, newswires, newspaper articles and even talk shows have given way to blogs, to the buzz and to going viral. Even before reaching the traditional media, a news item is worked over and modified, and new mechanisms shape and influence public opinion from the very beginning, in order either to make the news item important, world-wide, or to let it die and disappear.

It is no longer enough to go on air, to publish, to write. Today one needs to be present in the marketplaces, to update the web pages, in order to reach a world ever hungrier for news. In other words, not having new technical tools at one’s full disposal, or not knowing about the most current tools, will mean that one’s message will arrive late, will arrive wrong, and might even arrive in vain. In the aforementioned Message for the 45th World Communications Day, The Holy Father has reminded us how the new media: «[are] contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness.» It is therefore essential for Vatican Radio to continue to adapt to these new tools if it wants to be the engine of new forms of consciousness, of awareness: in other words, of a new culture. Come to think of it, the development of a new culture based on a specific relationality is typical of the Church. Is not the Catholic Church the first global social network? Long before the new media existed, the Church’s liturgical language, values, and way of thinking about the human person have bound together Catholics from around the world, whatever their culture, language, age, race or economic status. The globalization of the media cannot frighten us, because we were the phenomenon’s first authors.

I conclude my speech to you, who spread the messages of the Holy Father, by repeating — as an expression of hope, as the driving force and core of your mission — the greeting that opens and closes all your services, and that throughout the whole world, like the notes of Christus vincit, identifies your station — our station: Laudetur Iesus Christus.

©L’Osservatore Romano — Feb. 16, 2011

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