The Old Grey Lady Gets Busted Halo

Sirius show featured in the Sunday Times

The following story appeared in the July 13, 2008 edition of the New York Times.

Mike from El Paso was on the phone line to “The Catholic Guy,” the afternoon drive-time talk program produced via the unlikely partnership of Sirius Satellite Radio (familiar to most people as “Howard Stern’s network”) and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

“I called the other day?” said Mike. “About how much I miss confession?” This would be the Mike who was barred from the sacrament of confession under church law because he married a divorced woman whose first marriage was never annulled.

“Yes, I remember!” bellowed the host, Lino Rulli, the Catholic guy of the show’s title. “Mike the Adulterer! O.K., Mike. Are you ready to play ‘Let’s Make a Catholic Deal’?”

It seems an odd marriage of sensibilities: the rough banter of talk radio as practiced by pioneer shock jocks like Mr. Stern and Don Imus, joined at the neck to an official Catholic broadcast whose underlying mission is herding people back into the fold of a religious orthodoxy.

But the stated mission of this new enterprise known as the Catholic Channel is to offer something more than “the audio equivalent of stained glass and incense,” as Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, refers to conventional religious radio.

Since taking to the air 18 months ago — with an understanding that there would be no promotional spots for Mr. Stern’s show on any of its programs — the channel has harnessed Sirius, a subscription-only radio network made possible largely by the immense drawing power of Mr. Stern’s profane and pornography-friendly programming, to help propagate a 2,000-year-old institution that preaches against more or less every bodily impulse Mr. Stern has ever named, demonstrated or otherwise celebrated on his show.

Today, in studios down the hall from Mr. Stern’s in Sirius’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters — where Sirius generates a gigantic menu of radio catering to dozens of niche tastes including sports, gay politics, hip-hop and Martha Stewart — the Catholic Channel, No. 159 on the dial, produces a 24-hour stream of radio that reaches most of North America. The Catholic programming runs the gamut from offerings of the stained-glass kind, like Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a weekly interview with Cardinal Edward M. Egan, to the offbeat musings of “The Catholic Guy,” which runs five days a week in the showcase 4-to-7 p.m. slot.

“We recognize that Catholics are listening to Howard Stern. What we want people to know is that they can talk about all the same things he does, but in a Catholic context.”

Mr. Rulli’s show can sometimes sound like catechism class (“What is the sixth Station of the Cross? Anybody?”) but more often achieves the queasy unpredictability of the Stern show itself — if Mr. Stern were an avowedly guilt-ridden, confession-going 36-year-old prone to sexual double-entendres and self-mocking complaints about not being able to find a girlfriend.

The mix, perhaps risky for the church, is aimed not only at Catholics who attend church but also at a large and growing segment of 20- and 30-something Catholics who do not, said Mr. Zwilling, who as the general manager of the channel hired Mr. Rulli.

Sounding a little like Mr. Stern is exactly the point.

“If someone who listens to Howard Stern happens to turn to the Catholic Channel one day and doesn’t realize for a couple of minutes that what he’s listening to is the Catholic Channel, well, I’m not going to be upset about that,” Mr. Zwilling said. “We recognize that Catholics are listening to Howard Stern. What we want people to know is that they can talk about all the same things he does, but in a Catholic context.”

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