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Radio to save the soul

By John Baccala
Catholic Key reporter

EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Mo. — When Jesus and his apostles preached to their following, they would travel from town to town, covering miles every day. Thanks to today ’s technology, Catholic radio can spread the word of God in a nearly 100-mile radius of Excelsior Springs, using the AM dial.
KEXS AM 1090 is the only Catholic radio station in Kansas City. KEXS has long been known as a religious radio station, but it became a Catholic radio station nearly two years ago, on May 19, 2004, the late Pope John Paul II ’s birthday.
Jim O’Laughlin remembers the day well.
“The first day we had a gentleman come down from KVSS, the Catholic radio station in Omaha, Nebraska. He came down to help us for three days, ” said O’Laughlin, the president of Kansas City Catholic Network, the owner of KEXS. “We didn’t tell anybody we were going on the air because, we figured, we didn’t have any experience in radio and we figured there would be so many mistakes and problems, we didn ’t want anybody catching us making those and never coming back.”
“[By] the end of the day,” O’Laughlin continued, “we were saying, ‘Boy, I’m glad this day is over.’ I was exhausted. Five minutes later, the phone rings and the man on the phone says ‘Hey, I caught you at 7 this morning; I’ve been listening all day. I’ve been away from the church for 30 years and I’m coming back.’ That made my day!”
O’Laughlin is not a broadcaster by nature. He was working in real estate when he said he got the calling. His search for his guardian angel led him to radio, thanks to Claude Sasso, vice-chancellor of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese.
O’Laughlin recalled a conversation he had with Sasso one morning before Sunday Mass.
“He had an offer I couldn’t refuse,” O’Laughlin said.
“I went in [to church], kneeled down and said some prayers before Mass started,” O’Laughlin continued, “and basically God gave me the message that my guardian angel was Gabriel. When I left Mass, Claude Sasso said, ‘Why don’t we get together and get some Catholic programming on the radio?’ I said, ‘Hey, that’s great! It sounds good to me!’”
From that, Catholic radio was born in Kansas City, with a huge assist from cable television.
“We had just gotten cable TV, 200 channels,” O’Laughin said, smiling as he told the story. “I was flipping through for the first time when I stopped on Lou Dobbs’ ‘Moneyline.’ They said, ‘When we come back [from commercial], we’ll talk about how to start up your own radio station.’ I listened to that for 20 minutes, then my wife said, ‘Let’s see what’s on EWTN’ (Eternal Word Television Network).
“I turned that on and there was this special hour-long program on how to start a Catholic radio station. When the program ended, Father Mitch Pacwa (the program host) said, ‘Let’s say a prayer to the patron saint of Catholic radio, Gabriel.’ That’s when I put everything together.”
For the next two years, O’Laughlin said he bought air time on other radio stations in Kansas City. First, he bought small chunks of air time. He bought an hour a week, then an hour a day. Then he bought KEXS.
O’Laughlin said the coincidence of KEXS’ first day on the air being the same day as the late pope’s birthday is not lost on him.  He said Pope John Paul II called for a “new evangelization,” and he quotes a speech the late pope gave to the Catholic Media Association in a radio station brochure.
“Radio offers perhaps the closest equivalent today of what Jesus was able to do with large groups through his preaching, ” Pope John Paul II said. “Radio is an intimate medium which can reach people on the street, in their cars, or in their homes. It may be the most effective means of reaching large numbers of people who may not want to read or may lack exposure to Catholic publications, but will be willing to ‘eavesdrop’ on Catholic stations or programming.”
Unfortunately, O’Laughlin said, Catholic radio is hard to find. According to the Federal Communications Commission, as of December 2005, there were 17,655 radio stations across the United States. O ’Laughlin said more than 1,500 stations have a religious affiliation, and of those radio stations, only 83 are Catholic. Large cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta don ’t have Catholic radio.
“There are 83 Catholic radio stations, and all 83 of the people running these stations have no radio experience, ” O’Laughlin said. “They all got callings like I did. In 1999, there were six Catholic radio stations, and now there are 83 like this station and another 30 or 40 small FM translator stations. ”
KEXS’ primary signal covers almost the entire Kansas City metropolitan area. Under favorable conditions, it can be picked up as far away as Manhattan, and Columbia, Mo. O ’Laughlin however, wants to expand Catholic radio to a wider audience. He has a license to build an FM station in Ravenwood, Mo., and another FM station in Pleasanton. Those stations would broadcast 24 hours a day. KEXS is a daytime-only station, broadcasting from sunrise to sunset.
In the near future, KEXS plans to increase the power of its signal. Currently broadcasting with a signal strength of 1,000 watts, KEXS will boost its signal strength to 7,500 watts, pending FCC approval.
“Instead of picking us up in your car in Lawrence, you could pick us up in Lawrence in your house, ” O’Laughlin said. “We’d reach out to Salina and possibly as far as the Colorado border.”
However, KEXS is a not-for-profit station and depends solely on listener donations.
“In order to expand this station, we need to put up three towers and we need 15 to 20 acres to do that, and we don ’t have the land here to do that,” O’Laughlin said. “That’s roughly going to cost $400,000, and we’ve raised $100,000 of that.”
From their modest studio in Excelsior Springs, KEXS carries programming primarily provided by EWTN and other Catholic programming sources, but does produce local programs like “Catholic Talk Live,” a question-and-answer session with local religious leaders. The station also carries Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann ’s weekly Leaven column (see related story on pages 8-9).
“We’re not a news organization,” O’Laughlin said. “We don’t cover things like The Catholic Key does; that’s not our job.”
“Our main thing is to try and get people to heaven,” he added.
From the chapel inside the KEXS studios, complete with pews and an altar, O’Laughlin said the mission statement of Catholic radio is to “save souls.” He wants to take KEXS “where God leads us.”
“He owns the station,” O’Laughlin says. “Any time I try to do it my way, he sort of corrects me!”
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Catholic Key photo by John Baccala
Paul Powers poses questions to Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann during a recent broadcast of “Catholic Talk Live.”