The Federal Communications Commission has approved the merger of Relevant Radio and Immaculate Heart Radio.
Both are nonprofit, listener-supported radio chains. Relevant’s stations are principally in the Midwest and East, while Immaculate Heart’s are in the West and the Plains states.
On the air, the combined company is known as Relevant Radio. Off the air, the corporate entity will be known as Immaculate Heart Media, a nonprofit, nonstock entity with its headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which had been Relevant’s home base.
Combined, the two stations have about 120 AM and FM stations and “repeater” towers broadcasting the signals into smaller cities.
Immaculate Heart Radio’s most popular programs are “The Patrick Madrid Show” and “Heart to Heart With Mother Miriam,” according to Immaculate Heart Media spokeswoman Kathy Jensen. Relevant’s most popular shows are “The Drew Mariani Show,” which also airs on Immaculate Heart, “Morning Air” and “Father Simon Says.”
It’s “a very small community in Catholic radio,” said Karen Moran, who got her start writing news releases pro bono and now produces two Immaculate Heart shows. “There’s a lot of sharing.”
Immaculate Heart got its start about 20 years ago, and Relevant was established about 15 years ago. Moran said there had been conversations about merging the two operations from time to time, as the two chains had little geographical overlap and did not directly compete with each other in any city.
“We had been having informal conversations for years. We recognized we have very similar missions,” said Father Francis Hoffman — better known to listeners as “Father Rocky” — an Opus Dei priest living in Chicago who has been associated with Relevant Radio since 2003 and is now its executive director.
“The earnest conversations began in January 2016, we reached an agreement in principle in January 2016, we reached an agreement in May 2016,” he told Catholic News Service in a July 25 telephone interview. “Once we had raised two-thirds of what we set out for our (capital) campaign”— he credited St. Joseph, “our consultant,” for its success — “we announced it to the public Oct. 3, 2016.
“We submitted the formal application to the FCC in Washington — I think it was Jan. 23 of this year. It was formally approved by the FCC May 24. We had our closing documents signed on the merger July 3,” he told Catholic News Service.
Relevant Radio broadcasts around the clock in 20 of the top 50 markets, including the United States’ four largest media markets — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Its stations’ signals reach into 39 states with a potential audience of 133 million listeners — including, by Relevant’s estimates, up to 60 percent of all U.S. Catholics.
Listeners won’t detect immediate changes as a result of the merger. Father Hoffman said efforts are being made to air programs on a national, regional or local basis.
Even in today’s tech-drenched world, “radio is immediate, it’s free, most homes have the equipment to tune in to their local stations, whether it’s a radio, a laptop, their phone or Alexa,” Jensen told CNS. Research shows 90 percent of Americans will listen to a radio station for at least two hours a day. “A majority of the Americans listen to the radio in their car,” she added. “We love traffic jams because that means people have more time to listen.”
But why Catholic Radio? “There’s certainly a need in our world with so much contentiousness. The news is not often good,” Jensen said. “I think people are looking for hope. … So many times we’ll have listeners who call in and say, ‘I heard what I needed to hear,” I had a problem and am wrestling with an issue and I heard a possible solution.'”
One goal, Father Hoffman told CNS, is to air entirely self-produced programs between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. “Those are basically the multitasking hours — they listen to the radio while they’re driving the car, cooking in the kitchen, working in the garage. Over time, they will all be branded Relevant Radio programs. We’ll reserve evenings and weekends for other organizations that would like to make their programming available to a wider public.”
Other merger-related work includes “common employee benefits policies — we’re almost there — and we have to integrate all the systems. There’s a mountain of technological work that has to happen,” Father Hoffman said.
One of those integrative tasks is finding common email handle. People at Immaculate Heart use the email extender “@ihradio.com” — sometimes a bit too close to iHeartRadio, the nation’s largest radio chain.
“It’s the strangest thing. A lot of people say, ‘I have the iHeartRadio app and I can’t find Immaculate Heart Radio,'” Moran said, before pausing to add, “That could be a great crossover.”