With all the changes in the media landscape over the past decade, it may seem odd to think back to a time when Western New York didn't have its own dedicated Catholic radio station, but this month WLOF 101.7 FM celebrates 15 extraordinary years, and The Station of the Cross is continuing to grow.
A mix of local and national programming, WLOF has grown a loyal audience of listeners who tune in to their many programs, such as "Calling All Catholics," "Right Here Right Now," "The Doctor Is In," "Catholic Connection," and the daily Mass. At its heart, WLOF is an extension of the ministry from the Wright family.
While he is the president of WLOF, Jim Wright was actually brought up in the Protestant faith. His wife, Joanne, and children are all Catholic and prayed the rosary daily. Eventually they asked Wright to join them, and he began the process of conversion at the age of 32, almost three decades ago.
"I felt inspired by our Holy Spirit and the Lord to look into the Catholic faith," he said. "I took my RCIA at St. Benedict's. I worked across the street, so I was able to go over and take my weekly class. We spent an hour every week for a good 35 weeks, and I learned my faith; not only through that, but after I (became) Catholic, I did a lot of listening and reading about the faith."
Wright followed Catholic writers and speakers like Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins and Mother Angelica, who became a national figure with the Catholic cable network EWTN. Jim and Joanne watched Mother Angelica every Tuesday night, and decided to make a pilgrimage to the EWTN studios in Alabama.
While they walked out of a chapel on the EWTN campus one day, the Wrights were invited to attend a nearby retreat, which was led by Mother Angelica. It was there that the seed was planted to start WLOF.
"That really was a gift for us," Wright said. "At the end of the retreat, she mentioned they were starting FM/AM radio broadcasting through a satellite. (She said) go home and pray about the possibility of starting (a Catholic station) in your community. I had no knowledge of radio whatsoever. We spent days in the library getting books and just educating ourselves about the radio business."
However, Wright had difficulty acquiring a frequency to start a station. A few years passed, and Mother Angelica, still championing the idea of Catholic radio, asked station owners to consider either selling or changing their format to Catholic, during one of her broadcasts.
"It was perfect timing," Wright said. "A radio station owner was listening to Mother Angelica that night, and the next day they called EWTN and said they wanted to sell their station. We finally closed on the radio station and started broadcasting Aug. 15, 1999."
Not only is that date important for the Wrights, but it is also EWTN's anniversary date, and of course, the Assumption of Mary on the Catholic calendar. The first show broadcast on WLOF was the daily Mass, but hours before, station producers were not even sure they would be able to get on the air.
"We worked all night with Verizon to get our signal," Wright said. "They had telephone lines they used back then. We had a massive amount of problems setting that up. The Verizon team was here until 3 a.m. to get it to work, and it finally worked. By 8 a.m., we were on the air playing the (daily) Mass."
The Station of the Cross has grown incredibly since those early days. WLOF moved its studios from the original location in a Snyder dental lab, which is Wright's primary business, to its current building near Eastern Hills Mall in Williamsville. The station has created its own free app - iCatholicRadio - that allows listeners from around the world to tune into, not only WLOF, but also several of the other stations that have been acquired over the past 15 years.
Now The Station of the Cross has a potential audience of about 7.5 million listeners with markets in Buffalo, Boston, Rochester, Syracuse, Elmira, and parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania, in addition to anyone who listens with the iCatholicRadio app. Wright said their success has gone according to God's plan.
"What has happened over the past 15 years is God has gotten us involved in Catholic radio, taught us what we needed to learn and allowed us to expand," he said. "I really feel that is the gift. Now our main focus is going to be building the community up, a community of listeners.
"Everything went according to God's plan. I do not know if it could have gone better, but it was what it was, and we're happy with the results."
About a year and a half ago, WLOF hired Zachary Krajacic as its vice president of development, marketing and public relations. Krajacic is part of a marketing strategy to expand the station's audience even further with campaigns like "Try God," which can be seen on billboards throughout the Western New York area.
"It builds upon Pope Francis' positive messages," Krajacic said of the campaign. "The theme is something that popped into my head one day. Our goal is to reach as many souls as possible. Every person is experiencing some kind of difficulty or challenge in life, and we wanted people to know that God is there to help them. It's a simple, yet powerful message, which allows people to explore their relationship with God. I personally felt it was the best way to reach people, to meet them where they are."
"That is one of the big difficulties, that we need to get the word out," Wright said. "Marketing and PR are very important, but also very expensive, to promote Catholic radio. This is why our next initiative is going to be promoting the community of listeners, so people have the opportunity to have their life converted to Christ."
Building their audience also helps with the station's fundraising goals, as the twice-annual campaign pays for the operating costs for WLOF.
"We are 100 percent listener supported," Krajacic said. "We don't get funding from anywhere else. We have two fund drives, and it literally sustains us. God gives us just enough for us. He never fails us."
WLOF is more than a job for its employees; it has become a ministry. There is even an onsite chapel at the station for employees to celebrate Mass with a visiting priest. Krajacic is someone who loves working for the station, as his enjoyment dates prior to his employment at WLOF.
"I was a very avid listener. I was working at a health insurance company for 15 years, and I would listen to the station pretty much every day. I happened to notice the job opening here and I applied. It's great to know that I can work for an organization that serves such an important purpose in our society."
"This is a lay apostolate that is here to serve the Church, the bishop and the community of Catholics and non-Catholics," Wright said. "Forty percent of our listeners are non-Catholic, believe it or not. People want to know about the faith, but the interesting thing is that they don't want anybody to know they're listening. That's the beautiful thing about radio, that it's very intimate and very personal. You can put headphones on and nobody knows what you're listening to."
Serving the Catholic market has been a joy to the WLOF station, but the station is also thankful for the support they've received over the years from Bishop Richard J. Malone and his predecessors, as well as the diocese. WLOF believes they share their mission with one of Bishop Malone's key initiatives, evangelization.
"The successes that we've had brought so many people to the faith," Krajacic said. "We have strengthened the faith of many people who may have perhaps had lukewarm convictions. We have heard from a lot of people that our station has made a huge impact on their lives."
"Our goal is to bring people to the churches, where they can receive the sacraments, the Eucharist," Wright said. "That's our goal, and nothing more than that. God has given us that command, to go out and preach to anybody who will listen."