Established in 1931, Vatican Radio (VR) is one of the world’s oldest international broadcasting services. Its birth can be traced back to the Lateran Treaty, signed in 1929 by Benito Mussolini and the secretary of the Vatican State, Cardinal Gasparri. Aimed at resolving 59 years of tense relationships between the kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, the treaty was intended to compensate the Holy See for what it had lost when Rome, previously under the control of the pontiff, was annexed to the Italian kingdom in 1870. In addition to establishing the Vatican’s own borders, jurisdiction, currency, and even stamps, the treaty made it Italy’s responsibility to ensure the “necessary link, directly also with other States, of the [Vatican’s] telegraph, telephone, and radio and postal services,” thereby paving the way for the Vatican to establish its own broadcast media. As a further endorsement of the legitimacy of the pontiff’s previous control over Rome, Mussolini agreed to pay more than one billion Italian lira in compensation. This was of great ideological significance: the dictator would now be able to count upon the Catholic elites, who welcomed his generosity and the new “harmony” established between the Italian state and the Vatican. For the then pope, Pius XI, Mussolini was the “man of Providence.”
Guglielmo Marconi was commissioned to assist with the creation of the new radio station, which the pope inaugurated with a speech in Latin on February 12, 1931. From the start, though not without recurrent internal struggles for power, representatives of the Jesuit Order were called upon to head the station’s operations. Together with the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, founded in 1861, and the weekly magazine Civiltà Cattolica, founded in 1880, VR became an integral part of the broader plan to propagate church doctrine. Whereas the print media targeted the Italian political and intellectual elites, VR was, from the onset, a shortwave radio broadcaster, aimed at reaching people all over the world; a truly “universal” medium, perfect for the mission of a “universal” church.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the history of VR, like that of the Catholic church, is one dense with contradictions. As a child of the Lateran Treaty and therefore of the problematic alliance between the Vatican and fascist Italy, VR found itself in the midst of controversies from the beginning. Although the relationship between the regime and the pontiff began deteriorating only a few years after the signing of the treaty, the church and its radio were criticized for their positions at the onset of the Holocaust and throughout World War II. Pius XII (Pius XI’s successor) was accused of not being vociferous enough against Nazi Germany, and of failing to use the radio station to denounce the Holocaust more forcefully. At the same time, some have defended the radio service and the pope, presenting evidence that even the Allies would use the reports from VR to get invaluable information about what was going on in Italy, and that the station was one of the first to announce to the world that the extermination of Jews had begun (Adler 2004).
Beginning in the year 2000, VR found itself at the center of allegations that its millionwatt towers were causing severe environmental pollution. According to citizens’ groups and environmental organizations, the electromagnetic pollution generated by these emissions was responsible for the high prevalence of leukemia cases, especially in children, in areas surrounding VR’s towers in a small town northeast of Rome (Michelozzi et al. 2002). After lengthy legal battles, in the spring of 2006 an Italian court found VR guilty of not respecting the limits imposed by the legislation on the emission of electromagnetic waves. Although fines and time in prison were imposed on those in charge of the station’s main operations, the prison sentences were ultimately suspended. National newspapers avidly followed the case as it exemplified the continuation of an uneasy relationship between the Vatican and Italy.
VR is owned by Vatican City. The station is not allowed to carry advertising, and its annual budget is between 20 million and 25 million euros. Given that the radio station does not generate revenues, its worth is judged in terms of its role in spreading the doctrine of the church and its position on world affairs. VR broadcasts programs in 47 languages in 40 countries. With more than 42,000 hours of broadcasting and 200 journalists working in different parts of the world, its programs include international news, religious celebrations, and music. The initial acumen that characterized the Vatican’s use of the mass media and new technologies continues. In fact, VR is at the forefront of technological developments with its podcasting, videos and audios on demand, streaming broadcasts on the world wide web, and satellite transmission. Traditionally, however, the core service of VR has been its shortwave transmissions. This bandwidth can be utilized by anybody who wants to broadcast internationally, and its clear reception makes it a strategic choice for a church whose main target, and hope for survival in the third millennium, is to reach millions of people, particularly in subSaharan Africa, Asia, and South America.
Due to new technologies, however, the distribution of VR’s programs continues to evolve and might slowly change in new directions. With the help of satellite delivery, a network of FM radio stations is developing with a mission to distribute religious messages, including VR’s programs, to local audiences. Among those radio stations, there is Radio Maria (headquartered in Italy) and Radio Chrétiennes (based in France). The first is a truly international network of FM radio stations spanning the globe from Argentina to Austria, Burkina Faso, Chile, Croatia, Mozambique, Paraguay, Poland, Perú, Russia, and Uganda. Radio Chrétiennes, instead, targets Francophone countries on the African continent. This transition to satellite and FM distribution is significant in that stations such as Radio Verbal Aggressiveness
Maria and Radio Chrétiennes, and ultimately VR, might become a notable force in the competition with local stations for the allocation of bandwidth.
- Adler, J. (2004). The “sin of omission”? Radio Vatican and the anti-Nazi struggle, 1940–1942. Australian Journal of Politics and History, 50(3), 396–406.
- Matelski, M. (1995). Vatican Radio: Propagation by the airwaves. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Michelozzi, P., Capon, A., Kirchmayer, U., et al. (2002). Adult and childhood leukemia near a highpower radio station in Rome, Italy. American Journal of Epidemiology, 155 (12), 1096–1103.
- Pollard, J. (2005). Money and the rise of the modern papacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Vivarelli, N. (2005). Smoke and mirrors. Variety, May 22.