FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – THE DEATH OF A RADIO
Today was a bittersweet day for me because I taped my final “Joan Knows” program at Vatican Radio after 20 years at the radio with this show and, in earlier years, especially when I worked at the Vatican Information Service, by participating in some form in an English language news program once a week.
The sweet part embraced those 20 years of covering both amazing news stories and everyday events in the life of the Pope and the Universal Church, of covering three pontificates, of making lifelong friends with my terrifically talented colleagues at Vatican Radio – colleagues of different languages and backgrounds but we were bound together by our vocation (almost a ministry), our friendship and our love of the Church and papacy.
I lived some heady moments and times and events and learned more than I could ever put in a book, much less one daily column.
And poof, in a flash, with one decision, that is all gone. That was the bitter part of my day.
As part of the reform of the Vatican communications, in particular at the radio, “Joan Knows” and other similar feature programs will be discontinued in English, as they have been or will be in other of the radio’s 40 plus languages, as of April 1.
The death of a radio as we all knew it for 87 years– as did millions around the globe! – on Easter Sunday but no resurrection in sight.
This is the historic radio set up by Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, for Pope Pius XI in 1931. In fact, on February 12, 1931, he spoke these historical words at the inauguration of the radio: “I have the highest honor of announcing that in only a matter of seconds the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Pius XI, will inaugurate the Radio Station of the Vatican City State. The electric radio waves will transport to all the world his words of peace and blessing.”
To be honest, we were not supposed to use the name “Vatican Radio” as of early 2017. We all did in any case. After all, it was a radio and it was the Vatican’s radio so what else could we call it!
The name, as of last year, was to be strictly confined to “Radio Vaticana Italia” as this was part of a communications reorganization that was to be Italian-centric, at least in the beginning and for the most part.
I will not today speak of the reform in the rest of the Roman Curia where I have a ton of friends whom I’ve known for years and am also aware of the changes in their offices, the low morale in the Vatican, etc. My intent is only to write about the reform in Vatican communications – an initial look at this today because I could probably write a small volume on the topic.
When Pope Francis expressed the desire to reform the world of Vatican communications (Vatican Radio, CTV, the television, Publishing House, press office, L’Osservatore Romano newspaper, Pontifical Council for Social Communications), several commissions looked into and studied the matter, made recommendations to the Holy Father and subsequently he established the Secretariat for Communications, appointing a prefect and several initial board members. Later consultors were appointed.
In addition to consolidating some operations, one of the main objectives of the reform was to find ways to save money without, however, firing people or letting anyone go. It was a well-known published fact that Vatican Radio, for one, was always in the red. How to remedy that was to be uppermost in the minds of the reformers.
Most everyone in these Vatican offices knew there had to be, should be, some kind of consolidation. For example, why should six different offices be responsible for translating a papal homily or Angelus remarks into English or any other language? That’s understandable. And so on.
It was expected – perhaps just hoped for – that the new SPC (Secretariat for Communications) would invite, for example, two persons each from the above communications offices – people with experience in TV, radio, the written word, publishing, etc. – to be part of the new structure. People who could honestly critique their own office and suggest ways to merge activities, streamline functions and perhaps even get a better use of personnel.
That did not happen.
Outsiders were brought in, including a PR firm Accenture. Its specific recommendations, combined with the recommendations of the commissions that studied reforms, can only be guessed at – but perhaps not. Maybe all that is needed is to look at the results.
The biggest move for the radio was to go all digital. This has left millions of people around the world out in the cold. Believe it or not, not everyone on the planet has a computer, tablet or cell phone. There are parts of the world that do not have cell phone towers, where wi-fi is not readily available, areas where people still use home radios for short wave, car radios, small transistors. They will no longer be able to listen to Vatican Radio.
The six principal languages of the Vatican are Italian, English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. While you can still find the former Vatican radio website online – http://www.radiovaticana.va/ – these six language are available on the new news site – vaticannews.va – the most visible result of the communications reform.
As you read each news story, there is a link to the audio version by the author of that same story. The idea eventually is to have all of the 40 plus languages of (the former) Vatican Radio on a vaticannews.va webpage. Right now, if you want Slovenian, for example, you can access that language page and find photos and print stories and audio files in that language. Soon that will no longer exist – it will be part of a vaticannews.va webpage.
So, it is not radio per se but rather a webpage with audio files (is that too fine a distinction?)
Vaticannews.va does say at the top of each language page that this is the BETA VERSION. I am waiting for the betah (better!) version – more on that later.
With the disappearance of what were known as Feature Stories, it seems there will be no more exciting behind the scenes reports, no profiles of people or organizations or institutions, no more “and today let’s explore the papal palace of Castelgandolfo”, the types of stories that good radio journalists bring to their medium and that listeners enjoy. Staff members still hope they will be allowed to be creative, to really be journalists.
Let’s wait and see.
The reform throughout the Curia, not only at Vatican radio, has meant that very often staff members, instead of being let go, are transferred to other offices for work in which they have no training whatsoever, or perhaps a minimal knowledge. Others have been let go. Yet others do not know from Monday to Friday if they have the same job they’ve had for years or will be asked to go to a new office or take a different direction in their work.
How would you like it if, after 20 plus years at the radio as a professional journalist, you now had to sit in a cubbyhole or small desk in a crowded room and be told to archive programs, photos, CDs?! Or be transferred to a pontifical council whose work was not familiar to you?
In the last two years, as I have talked to friends throughout the Curia and have gone to the radio to tape my weekly show, I have watched and seen things evolve. I have felt so much sadness and bewilderment and anxiety. Capable people who now feel challenged, who are questioned about what they do, who say they have never been asked for input or listened to in this transition period.
This is surely not the first column you have seen on this topic. Other very qualified people have also written about the reform of the Roman Curia, the reform of Vatican communications, citing many of the same issues I have mentioned. Perhaps you heard my two-part interview on EWTN’s Vatican Insider with Chris Altieri, a former colleague at Vatican Radio who left of his own will (as others have in recent months) after 12 years. Chris spoke of all these issues with me and in other interviews as well.
Staff are asking: Do we really have to burn down the whole house to build a new room? Wasn’t there a solid foundation to build on? Why can’t Vatican Radio be called Vatican Radio? Is CTV no longer Vatican Television? Will L’Osservatore Romano newspaper (born in 1861) disappear as well? Is everything now one entity known simply as “Vatican media”?
Why, they ask, would you throw the baby out with the bath water? Or, as one person commented: Vatican Radio has died and they don’t know what to do with the body.
Today is bittersweet because it is an ending, the finale to a terrific journey with marvelous people. Rest assured of one thing, however: I am not bitter. I’m puzzled and sad, but not bitter.
I have so much to thank the Lord for, especially my colleagues and wonderful friends from so many Vatican offices that I’ve known over the decades I have been here. I’m sure they are among the Lord’s favorite children. I pray for them daily, hoping they find fulfilment and continued happiness in serving the Church.
Thank you, my wonderful friends! No names – you all know who you are and what you mean to me!
As I often end this column: God sit on your shoulder!