The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were in movie theaters, World War II was beginning in Europe, Glen Miller had a hit with Moonlight Serenade, and Catholic Forum of the Air first aired on WDEL radio in Wilmington, Delaware. Now titled simply Catholic Forum, the program still airs on WDEL every Sunday, making it the longest-running Catholic talk radio program in the United States.
A. Dorothy Arthur, one of the program’s earliest contributors and American Catholic broadcasting pioneer, recounted how the program began in the 1957 book, Lay Workers for Christ”; “At a public meeting at Ursuline Academy back in 1939, a local station manager offered time for a Catholic program. Promptly, an Ursuline Mother accepted. Just as promptly, she tagged a busy young attorney and assured him he certainly would like to assume responsibility for it. He gulped, fumbled his opportunity to refuse, and that was the beginning of weekly programs by the Catholic Forum of the Air.
“The attorney recruited volunteers weekly until he determined that a permanent group was the only hope of maintaining sanity as well as the program. He persuaded an insurance broker (Paul Taggart who would go on to be ordained to the priesthood, and serve as Vicar General and Administrator for the Diocese of Wilmington,) a salesman (Joseph C. Desmond who would go on to be an important leader with the Boy Scouts of America), and a girl still in college (Arthur who passed away at the age of 95 in 2016).”
Back in the day, the program was broadcast live and featured lectures, essays, music, drama, and Catholic news. It took a team of about a dozen volunteers to write and produce each weekly show.
As the popularity of the program grew, individuals and groups interested in starting Catholic radio programs across the country began contacting Forum volunteers for advice and assistance. That need gave rise to newsletter for Catholic broadcasters and eventually to a meeting at Fordham University in 1947 of those on the Catholic Forum of the Air mailing list. That gathering would result in the establishment of the Catholic Broadcasters Association (CBA). The Catholic Academy of Communications Professionals that merged with the Catholic Press Association in 2017, can trace its roots to that meeting, and to the dedicated Catholic Forum of the Air founders, many of whom would serve in early CBA leadership roles. Arthur was named national coordinator of the CBA at its charter convention in Boston in 1948, a post which she held for seven years and for which she became ineligible in 1955 by her election to the CBA Board of Directors.
In 1967, Arthur earned a Gabriel Award for her pioneering work in Catholic broadcasting. That award is proudly displayed in the Office of Communications of the Diocese of Wilmington on Delaware Avenue.
At some point in the 1970s, coordination and production of the Catholic Forum of the Air program was assumed by the Director of Communications of the Diocese of Wilmington, F. Eugene Donnelly. When he retired in 2000, Bob Krebs took over that role.
Today, Catholic Forum still airs on Sunday mornings on WDEL AM 1150, but now also includes 101.7FM that has expanded its coverage area. The program features a brief introduction, the Sunday Gospel proclaimed by one of the diocesan deacons, a musical selection, and an interview segment. In keeping with technology, Catholic Forum is now podcast on Apple, iHeartRadio, and Spotify after its broadcast airing, and has a Facebook page – www.facebook.com/catholicforum.
The diocesan 150th anniversary that concludes on March 3, 2019, and the 80th anniversary of the first Catholic Forum broadcast that will be celebrated on April 9, 2019, gives us new opportunities to remember and salute those who came before us and were trail blazers in the use of media to spread the Good News.