The Michigan Catholic
September 8, 2011
By Robert Delaney
DETROIT — From a modest start in 1996, Ave Maria Radio has grown into the largest producer of Catholic radio programming in the United States.
As it celebrates its 15th anniversary, the Ann Arbor Township-based organization’s programs can not only be heard on the two radio stations it operates — WDEO (990 AM) Ypsilanti and WMAX (1440 AM) Saginaw – but nearly 160 other stations across the country carry at least some its shows.
With all of that, plus also EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, Ave Maria Radio personalities such as Al Kresta, Teresa Tomeo and Dr. Ray Guarendi now have national, even international, recognition among listeners to Catholic radio.
Guiding that growth almost since the beginning has been Kresta, who besides being host of the popular “Kresta in the Afternoon” program (weekdays, 4-6 p.m.) is the organization’s president and CEO.
“It’s amazing,” Kresta says of Ave Maria Radio’s growth over the past decade-and-a-half. “When we started, there were only two or three other Catholic radio stations in the country.”
Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan founded Ave Maria Radio in 1996, when he bought a low-power radio station at 1290 on the AM dial. When Kresta joined the organization in January 1997, he quickly realized the station would have to have a better and more powerful signal if it was to have much impact, and engineered the acquisition of the former WCM Radio, an evangelical Protestant station broadcasting on 990 AM.
Kresta already had a solid decade of talk radio experience behind him, mostly on WMUZ-FM in Detroit, where he started doing his program as a Protestant pastor, and kept it up after returning to the Catholic Church in 1992.
But when Monaghan decided to put all his resources behind the development of Ave Maria University, he gave Kresta two years to build up sufficient financial support from listeners and corporate donors to make it self-sustaining, after which he would no longer subsidize it.
Kresta describes the question of whether listeners would come through with enough donations as “a real cliffhanger.”
“In the fall of 2002, we went to the listeners, and they responded beautifully,” he says.
And then, the following year, Kresta was stricken with necrotizing fasciitis, better known as “flesh-eating bacteria,” which caused him to lose his left leg.
With him out of the picture for a while, the organization had a weak pledge drive that again put its future in doubt, but Kresta was able to return and subsequent pledge drives have been successful.
Kresta sees Ave Maria Radio as part of the New Evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II – the reawakening and deepening of the faith of people already at least nominally Catholic.
Counting all the radio outlets that carry Ave Maria Radio programming, he says a conservative estimate is that about 800,000 people a week listen to at least some of the shows. And since Ave Maria Radio doesn’t charge other stations that carry its shows, Kresta says, “The whole Catholic radio world is being blessed by southeast Michigan listeners who donate.”
In addition, an average of 1,500 people download recordings of the show from www.avemariaradio.net,each day.