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A place in the choir for ads at Vatican Radio

After nearly 80 years of noncommercial coverage of the pope, Vatican Radio has had to come to grips with the global downturn by opening the station to ads -- on the virtues of clean energy

July 26, 2009|Henry Chu

VATICAN CITY — God will be right back -- after this commercial message.

Vatican Radio, the official voice of the Roman Catholic Church, has begun airing advertisements for the first time in its nearly 80-year history, injecting a bit of the profane into its otherwise unwavering lineup of sacred programming.

Now, in addition to tracking every move Pope Benedict XVI makes and every word he utters, listeners are being treated to 45-second ads, made in five languages, extolling Italy's largest power company, Enel, and the virtues of clean energy.

The commercials are a genuflection to economic reality at a time of global downturn. Despite its divine mission, the Vatican has not been insulated from temporal turbulence, running an ungodly deficit of $22 million last year.

The urge to erase some of that debt made Vatican Radio a tempting target for pontifical fundraising. The radio service, which broadcasts around the world and on the Web in more than 40 languages, costs the Vatican about $31 million a year, and until now brought in zero revenue.

"It's like having an 80-year-old child living at home all this time, and you say, 'Darling, we still love you, you can go on living here, we're not going to kick you out, but it would be nice if you would contribute to paying the phone bill, the gas bill or something,' " said Sean-Patrick Lovett, director of Vatican Radio's English and Italian sections.

The first commercial aired July 6. Only ads by Enel will be broadcast during a three-month trial period, and even then, the energy giant's spots interrupt Vatican Radio's regular "gavel-to-gavel coverage of the pope," as Lovett describes it, only four or five times a day.

Lovett acknowledged that advertising on the radio service is a tricky proposition: since listeners could be led to believe that a particular product or company enjoyed the official blessing of the Holy See. Lovett has been quick to note that ads marketing "infallible" laundry detergents and the like would be frowned upon; all advertisers and their messages are to undergo a thorough inquisition before receiving dispensation.

Whether the faithful will be upset by an apparent mixing of God and mammon over the airwaves remains to be seen. What's next, some might wonder: billboards in St. Peter's Square?

As it happens, Enel already has a hoarding up on one end of the historic plaza, the company's reward -- on Earth, anyway -- for sponsoring restoration work at the Vatican. Jumbo television screens also hang along the beautiful colonnades on either side, to help devotees massed in the square see and hear the pope more clearly when he makes an appearance.

Perhaps most members of the flock will be as unfazed as Dan Nerney, a legal secretary from San Francisco, who stood on the sun-washed plaza recently, gazing at the Michelangelo-designed basilica. Nerney and his husband, Tony Espinosa, were in Italy on an "Angels and Demons" tour in homage to the novel about Vatican intrigue by Dan Brown, author also of "The Da Vinci Code."

"So many things these days are selling . . . sponsorships to make ends meet. I'm a Catholic, and it doesn't bother me," Nerney, 49, said of the idea of ads on Vatican Radio.

Just outside the square, he noted, vendors were doing brisk business peddling Benedict XVI key chains, medallions and other gewgaws. Why shouldn't His Holiness indulge in a little creative moneymaking, even if it's slightly unorthodox by the Vatican's standards?

"He's got a nice wardrobe," Nerney said. "He's got to pay for the shoes somehow."

Not that the radio spots alone can pluck the Vatican from financial purgatory.

The revenue generated will be modest at best, but should serve as "a gesture to our superiors in the Vatican to say we recognize we're growing up now and we want to make a contribution to the running costs," Lovett said.

He and other officials at Vatican Radio are keeping their ears cocked for feedback from listeners, aware of possible concerns that the ads are "polluting the purity of a radio station that for 80 years has not had to answer to anyone," Lovett said.

But so far, he added, "no one has screamed 'Heresy!' "

--

henry.chu@latimes.com

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