The Message

The Pope's DJ

On the surface, the story of how Father Eustace Sequeira came to Colorado seems fairly straightforward. His decision to study counseling and psychology at Regis University was influenced by the institution's fine reputation among Jesuits like himself and by the presence in the area of his brother, Everton Sequeira, an investment representative for Edward Jones. But in truth, his route to the St. Pius X Parish in Aurora, his current nesting place, could hardly have been more circuitous. During his 56 years, he's spent time in India, Germany, Zambia and Vatican City, where, from 1988 to 1993, he supervised the Catholic church's radio service for Africa -- just one of many unique jobs in a career that's proved religion and media can mix.

A jovial sort with an infectious laugh, Sequeira calls Coloradans "the loveliest people in the world," which, given his many travels, actually means something. Nonetheless, he doesn't know how long he'll be able to enjoy their company. "I'd like to be in Denver for at least three years, but it depends," he says from the St. Pius campus (where my wife works). "If there's greater need elsewhere, I'll go. If there's something valuable for me to do here, I'll be here. "

Among the prospects locally is a rebirth of Catholic radio on the Denver dial. It's been several years since San Diego-based Catholic Family Radio, a company that attempted to build a commercial network aimed at the two groups mentioned in its name, went belly up, dooming area outlet KKYD-AM/1340 in the process. (The signal was eventually sold to Colorado Public Radio for just over $4 million; it's now the home of KCFR, the news-and-information arm of CPR.) Since then, Catholics with an interest in broadcasting have debated how to resurrect the concept, and upon his arrival in the state a few months back, Sequeira joined the conversation. "The need is there. The problem is, nobody has any money," he says.

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.

Not that he's overly concerned about locating dollars. After all, he's learned to trust in providence.

For Sequeira, the roots of this worldview were planted in Bombay, where he was born and raised. Neither of his parents worked for the church; his mother was a teacher, his father a supervisor in the Indian government's ordinance department. However, his family has practiced Catholicism going back 500 years, with many members, including two of his mother's brothers, eventually entering the priesthood. "It was a big sacrifice for my grandfather," Sequeira says. "He didn't expect that to happen."

At first, Sequeira didn't, either. As he came of age, his first love was the radio, particularly when it broadcast Western pop music. He loved the songs of Connie Francis and, of course, Elvis Presley, but probably not with the fervor of his sister. "She named one of her sons Elvis," he says. But sons weren't in the cards for him. As he recalls, "I began to think about becoming a priest when I was sixteen. I thought it would be a good way to live and to serve God."

After two years of novitiate training and the subsequent study of topics ranging from philosophy to Latin, Sequeira recalls, "I met a Zambian Jesuit and thought going to Zambia would help out. So I volunteered to go, and to my surprise, my request was accepted." He arrived in the country in 1968, a few years after the country gained independence, and enrolled at the University of Zambia, studying economics and mathematics by day and teaching adults how to read and write by night. Four years later, after earning his degree at the U of Z, he sought a master's degree in theology at Hochschule St. Georgen, a Jesuit university in Frankfurt -- and in 1976, after being ordained as a priest in Munich the previous year, he returned to Zambia. He split his time between a position as economist with the country's Ministry of Mines and priestly duties for St. Ignatius Church in the capital city of Lusaka until 1980. But a request he received in 1979 had already pointed him in a new direction.

"The diocese needed somebody to run a printing press," Sequeira says. "It had been built by Italian sisters, but no one could run it. They brought in a German master printer, but nothing was happening. So they asked me if I could take it over." Soon after accepting this charge, he discovered how difficult it would be. "In Africa, it's not like the U.S., where you can find somebody to do the job. If you ask someone what is wrong and they come back with a big bill but only tell you why it won't work, you have to be prepared. Management is a much more down-to-earth job."

Improvements were far from instantaneous; Sequeira estimates that it took three years to get the press cranking at full strength. Fortunately, the contraption was among the best in the country, and once it worked the way it should, he had plenty of customers. He wound up subsidizing the publication of religious books with printing jobs for the Zambian government and the nation's airline.

Sequeira's success with the press made him seem like a media expert in the eyes of the church hierarchy. That's why, in 1988, he was invited to move to Vatican City and take over the Africa service for Vatican Radio, a broadcasting arm known on its Web site, www.VaticanRadio.org, as "the Pope's voice."

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."

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.

He'll need just as much creativity to get Catholic-centric radio back on the Denver airwaves, because frequencies come at a premium price. Right now, he's looking into the viability of low-power signals, among other options, and is eager to brainstorm with pros who may have additional ideas. "I would like to start a group for Catholic broadcasters to get together and chat and get to know each other. A group like that could be helpful to each other, and to the church."

In the meantime, Sequeira is continuing with his studies at Regis and leaving the possibility of a Catholic radio comeback in other hands. "If it's God's will," he says, "we'll find the right way."

Half a mouse is better than none: Speaking of spots on the Denver radio dial, one is likely to open up within the next year, thanks to a cost-cutting move on the part of Radio Disney.

The Disney format, aimed at tots and tweens, first came to Denver in May 1998, airing at 1550 AM on the standard band and 1690 AM in an extended portion of the spectrum. This dual frequency availability ended a few weeks back, when 1550 AM was abruptly muted, after some on-air promotion, for reasons that make plenty of cents to Radio Disney general manager Rhonda Sheya. "At a certain point, we had to make a decision about which one we would keep, and the signal is actually better on the upper band," she says. "Plus, we're moving our tower, and to move both signals when we're going to end up with just one is a waste of money" -- about $300,000 for less than a year, she estimates. Some home and car stereos ten years old or more can't pick up 1690 AM, but Sheya hasn't been inundated with grumbling about the shift: "Only three people called to complain, and when I told them to check their radios to see if they could get 1690, they called back to say they could."

Radio Disney's sudden wallet consciousness could be interpreted as a reaction to the recent downturn in teen pop -- a swing epitomized by the waning interest in maturing trollops like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera among the younger set (and their growing appeal to heavyset dudes who like to wear raincoats all year long). Not so, Sheya responds. She notes that Radio Disney continues to add outlets -- there are now 57 stations in the chain, whereas the total used to be in the forties -- and the Denver branch has increased its revenues each year. "I think the music is changing slightly, because some of the artists who've been in it, their music has taken a little more serious direction," she says. "But there's still a lot of interest in upbeat music, and since Disney cleans it up, it's something parents and kids can listen to together without worrying what someone's saying."

Concern about content is another reason Radio Disney pulled the plug on 1550 when it did. The company could have continued to broadcast on the frequency for as many as eight months more, but, Sheya says, "we wanted some time between when we were on the air and when someone else starts, because we don't know what the format would be. God forbid it would be something bad, some headbanging rock and roll, and people would think they were listening to Radio Disney. So we wanted some distance from something that might not be appropriate for kids."

The Federal Communications Commission is likely to choose who gets to do what on 1550. It's Sheya's understanding that Radio Disney can't sell the frequency but must simply turn it over to the FCC several months from now, thereby leaving the decision of which firm gets this potentially lucrative property up to the feds. Wannabe radio entrepreneurs of all stripes should start getting their applications ready now.

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