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New wave of broadcasters at Saint John Paul the Great

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If Tom Vetter, a retired Navy officer with no previous connection to Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School, had thrown away a piece of mail instead of reading it, the Dumfries school would not be about to launch its own radio station this fall.

Vetter, who attends the Catholic community chapel at Marine Corps Base Quantico, hadn't listened to Catholic radio for years, but was intrigued by the letter, an appeal from the Catholic Radio Association to help establish low-power FM broadcast radio stations across the country.

"I never had any dealings or even heard of the Catholic Radio Association prior to its arrival but it seemed like a really good idea," Vetter said. "I thought it sounded like a perfect opportunity for evangelization."

Fast-forward three years, and the school is ready to open its own student-run radio station, 106.3 FM, WJPN ("JP Nation") this fall. Anyone within about 6-9 miles of the school will be able to tune in to Catholic programming from EWTN and, eventually, original student-produced content.

Vetter, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus Fr. Cappodanno Council at Quantico, initially thought about approaching his own alma mater in Minnesota with the idea, but realized it would be difficult for him to help with a long-distance project. He had met Saint John Paul's principal, Dominican Sister Mary Jordan Hoover, at an open house hosted by the Knights and decided to ask her if she was interested.

"It was as good a place as I could find to toss an idea," Vetter said. "Clearly it was an idea that was meant to be passed their way."

The school has a unique bioethics curriculum, and the administration had been considering ways, such as social media, to help students articulate their views to a wider audience. Vetter's idea seemed to dovetail nicely with that need. As it turned out, in the age of Podcasts and iPhones, a radio station still has a lot to offer.

"All the media surveys over the last five, 10 years, have shown radio consumption on the increase. More people listen to the radio than they did five years ago," said Stephen Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Association.

According to Gajdosik, a 2010 survey of Catholic radio listeners showed positive spiritual benefits. "Ninety-four percent of listeners said they are more spiritually engaged," he said. "Half said they are more generous with their parish. Sixty-eight percent said they are more able to pass on the faith to their children."

The radio station will not launch until around October, but has already brought out a generous response. A low-power FM station is not regulated as much as a full-power station, so the costs were comparatively low: a total of about $25,000. After donating an initial $2,500, Vetter recruited the Quantico Catholic community and his Knights council to help with additional expenses. Separately, another family had just donated money for John Paul to have lights on its sports field; a pole was able to serve double-duty by placing an antenna on top.

Still facing a deadline after the school obtained its Federal Communications Commission license, Vetter eventually decided to pay for most of the project out of his own pocket.

"This is the Holy Spirit's project. I'm just doing what He wants," Vetter said. "I'm just hoping that when the station comes on the air the kids will get better and better with what they broadcast. Over time what I hope is that drivers traveling on I-95 and the commuters that pass through there will benefit from what I hope to be a spiritual inspiration. That can take many forms from high school football games to a Mass. I'm not even capable of envisioning what God has in mind, but I'll do my bit."

Stachyra Lopez can be reached at mstachyralopez@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015