The Message

The Pope's DJ

For Sequeira, the contrast between his previous assignment and the new one could hardly have been sharper. He went from running a printing press in Zambia to "doing live broadcasts at St. Peter's Basilica." He was chosen to participate in the St. Peter's sessions, which were aired by stations throughout the English-speaking world, in part because there was often a shortage of folks at the Vatican who were adept at the language. As a result, he exults, "My voice was heard!"

Still, Sequeira's principal duties remained behind the scenes and revolved around Africa. Since pretty much the only things he knew about radio he'd learned from listening to it, he recognized the enormous task set before him. The chore was made even larger by Vatican Radio's previous approach to African matters, which he considered to be out of date, in part because of the tongues used during the broadcasts. "There was very little programming in African languages," he said. "So we started programming in Swahili. I didn't speak it, but I knew what was needed."

Getting approval for this innovation wasn't easy, because "at the Vatican, the wheels move very slowly," Sequeira says. "You have to push and push to make sure it happens." Eventually, though, he developed a wide-ranging information menu shaped more specifically for the African continent. "We'd have news -- news of Africa, primarily. We'd have religious news that was related to Africa, and what was happening in the Church in the rest of the world. We'd also have features about health, medical issues, educational issues. And there would be music, because in Africa, there's nothing without music. We had to make sure there was always some music in what we were doing -- a jingle or whatever -- to break the monotony of the voice."

Father Eustace Sequeira is ready to heed the Lord's 
call-in about Catholic radio.
Brett Amole
Father Eustace Sequeira is ready to heed the Lord's call-in about Catholic radio.

One of the perks of being stationed at the Vatican was the opportunity to travel with Pope John Paul II whenever he headed to Africa. A particularly moving trip was a visit "to the coast of Senegal, where the slaves used to be kept before they were transported to the colonies," Sequeira allows. "I can remember the Pope speaking from his heart about being in that particular place." Yet by 1993, he was ready to move on. In his words, "I decided I had done enough. I didn't want to become part of the furniture in Rome."

Sequeira also felt the lure of Zambia, where he returned as a teacher of assorted moral and religious subjects -- but before long, he was back in the radio game. During his previous time in the country, most radio was of the shortwave variety. The rise of standard FM throughout the country occurred in the interim, and Sequeira took advantage of this step ahead by helping to launch Yatsani Radio in Lusaka.

Staffing the station was a challenge, because Zambia didn't have a ready supply of radio professionals. Sequeira's solution was to ask members of nearby churches to suggest young people who might have aptitude and train them on the job. Although many of these recruits would head to other stations once they gained enough expertise, "we had no problem with that," Sequeira says. "It was a way of helping good people find jobs" in an area where unemployment was far from rare.

Filling the airtime turned out to be a simpler matter. At Sequeira's prompting, each local parish formed a radio group that was responsible for programming an hour each day -- and since many of these churches were blessed with as many as twenty different choirs, the supply of live music was practically endless. "These groups would put on all their fancy clothes to come do a choir recording where none of the listeners could see a thing," Sequeira notes with a chuckle. "They would do anything to have their music on the air."

Listeners in Lusaka responded well to these sounds as long as they originated in their home town. Sequeira recounts the story of one staffer who, while shopping at a market, was criticized by fans of the station for playing songs by outsiders. "He told them, 'It was from Zimbabwe,' and they said, 'That's not our music.' They just wanted local music, only local music."

Too bad so few Denver radio aficionados make similar demands.

Over the next decade, Sequeira branched out, running a television facility that put out a weekly show for Zambian national television. The next step would be to build a TV station devoted entirely to Catholic programming, but the project hasn't gotten out of the starting blocks. "We had everything worked out, even the funding, two years ago," Sequeira maintains, "but the government is afraid of the church." Officials who'd spent a considerable stretch supposedly "thinking about" this prospect recently made up their minds, to Sequeira's chagrin. "The television license has been denied by the government...under some fictitious pretext!"

Disappointments like this one have never stopped Sequeira from moving forward. He's always done his best to upgrade equipment on a regular basis, even attending the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas on two occasions to make sure he was up to speed. "I tried always to buy the cheapest and the latest," he says. An example of his technological bent: At his urging, Yatsani Radio, with monetary assistance from the Swedish and Danish embassies in Zambia, recently obtained a satellite Internet connection intended to link the country's radio stations, be they Catholic or secular, with an eye toward promoting democracy in the region.

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