Vatican Radio Ends 85 Years of Independent Operations

After more than 80 years of operation, Vatican Radio is being absorbed into the new Secretariat for Communications.

Article main image

"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.

With the help of Almighty God, who allows the many mysterious forces of nature to be used by man, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will accord to the Faithful of all the world the consolation of hearing the voice of the Holy Father. Most Holy Father, the work that Your Holiness has deigned to entrust to me, I, today return to you... may you deign, Holy Father, to allow the entire world to hear your august words."

With this message, Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi personally introduced the first radio broadcast of a pope at 4:49 p.m. on February 13, 1931.

Guglielmo Marconi is considered to be the inventor of radio, and in 1909 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun "in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy." A Catholic, Marconi agreed to erect the first radio tower inside the walls of Vatican Gardens at no charge. He founded Vatican Radio, which broadcasts Catholic programming in 47 languages from a radio tower outside Rome.

The Vatican's website reports on the first message which Pope Piux XI delivered to the waiting world:

"The rich text of the first radio message was written in Latin by Pius XI himself. The Pope imbued his message with passages from the Sacred Scriptures which emphasize the universality of the Gospel message. Pius XI concluded the first line of the discourse in this manner, Listen, O Heavens, to that which I say; listen, O Earth, listen to the words which come from my mouth.... Listen and hear, O Peoples of distant lands! He continued, speaking in the voice of the Old Testament prophet, To the City and to the World!"

In an era when happenings inside the Vatican were largely unknown to the rest of the world, the sound of the Pope's voice was met with excitement. L'Osservatore Romano reported on the public enthusiasm with which the broadcast was met in Rome:

"Yesterday in Rome all the radio sets were turned on; groups of people gathered around the wonderful apparatus to listen. Wherever there was a radio set available, people would crowd around it. Loudspeakers were placed outside many electric and appliance shops, or outside the offices of the newspapers. There are crowds everywhere, blocking the traffic in some areas...."

In London, the News Chronicle reported:

"For the first time the voice of a Pope was heard in London, and by millions of other believers about the world... 3,500 Catholics stood for hours in Westminster Cathedral waiting to hear the voice of the Pontiff."

And an editorial in the New York Herald reported:

"Few events in the history of the world can compare with the profound impact the Head of the Holy Roman See made during his address directed to the entire planet... and such a thing could not have been forseen by any preceding Pope. This is a miracle of science, and no less a miracle of faith."

End of an Era

But on December 31, 2016, after more than 80 years of operation, Vatican Radio is being absorbed into the new Secretariat for Communications. The move is part of Pope Francis' reorganization of Curial offices, and is intended to make better use of the Vatican's limited financial resources. According to Catholic World News, broadcasting programs will continue—at least for the near-term future—but Vatican Radio will no longer have its own corporate identity.

Today, Vatican Radio employs a staff of 355 representing 59 nationalities, mostly lay people, who together produce more than 66 hours of daily programming (24,117 hours annually). There are currently 45 languages used on air, and 38 languages on the website. Programs are broadcast via short wave, medium wave, FM and satellite.

In recent years, Vatican Radio has experimented with digital transmission technologies (DRM, T-DAB, T-DMB). Their news reports and bulletins have been widely distributed through newsletters, podcasts, audio and video, paving the way to a Web TV. Vatican Radio and CTV began their own YouTube channel in 2010, operating in four languages, and on Twitter (6 channels).

Today with the reform of Vatican communications operations, Msgr. Dario Viganò has indicated that he plans to pare down short-wave radio operations. Other broadcasts will continue, but with an eye to controlling costs: Vatican Radio has been losing between €20 and €30 million ($21 - $31.5 million) annually.

Controversy Regarding Vatican Transmissions

Vatican Radio garnered some negative publicity in July 2010, when a study an Italian court found that residents of Cesano, 20 kilometres north of Rome, were more likely to die of cancer because of the radio waves emanating from the station's giant antenna towers. According to La Stampa, the report claimed that

"There has been an important, coherent and meaningful correlation between exposure to Vatican Radio's structures and the risk of leukemia and lymphoma in children."

But Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, then-director of Vatican Radio, disagreed. Father Lombardi said,

"Vatican Radio is astonished to hear the news on the results of the study.... Vatican Radio has always observed international directives on electromagnetic emissions and since 2001 has observed more restrictive norms set by Italy to allay the concerns of the neighboring populations. According to international scientific literature on the matter, the existence of a causal link like the one apparently hypothesized by the report has never been established."

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Msgr. Dario Viganò as the Vatican Radio director, and Fr. Federico Lombardi as the prefect of the Secretariat of Communications.]