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September 19, 2019Cart

Business

by Fairfield County Business Journal
by FCBJ

Startup broadcaster brings EWTN programming to WNLK-AM

Steve Lee, owner of Veritas Catholic Network, in his Stamford office. Photo by Phil Hall

It is not uncommon for people of faith to have an unexpected event in their lives that results in an acute shift from the secular world to the religious realm. For Wall Street professional Steve Lee, his life-altering event was not on the road to Damascus, but somewhere in the midst of an I-95 traffic jam.

“In July 2017, I was driving into work and listening to EWTN on the radio,” said Lee, referring to the broadcasting network focused on Roman Catholic news and talk show programming. “During one of the breaks, a guy came on and said, ‘My name is Jack Williams. I’m the head of EWTN Radio and if you want to bring Catholic radio to your part of the country please give me a call.’ So, I really didn’t think anything of it and went into the office.”

Lee’s devotion to the Roman Catholic mission preceded his Wall Street years with development work on behalf of the nonprofit Legionnaires of Christ, and his eagerness to return to that environment began to percolate. The day after he heard EWTN’s Williams on the radio, he decided to phone him.

“I didn’t even know what I was going to say to him,” he said. “He picked up and caught me by surprise.”

Fast forward to today, Lee is the head of Veritas Catholic Network, Fairfield County’s newest broadcasting company, and the owner of WNLK-AM 1350, which is offering EWTN programming to regional listeners. But Lee’s career change was emotionally tumultuous, and the first obstacle he needed to overcome was his own doubts.

“I began a novena to the Holy Spirit that day and I asked for two things: ‘1, Lord, just tell me if you want me to be involved in something like this in some way; and, 2, if you do, bring people into my life who can help me,’ ” he recalled. “On the second or third day of the novena, I was driving home and I decided to tell my wife what I was praying about. And my wife said, ‘Wow, Steve, when did you lose your mind?’ ”

Lee admitted that his wife was not alone in her skepticism, adding that many people view radio as something of an antiquated medium in the modern digital era. But some careful data digging began to ease his concerns.

“Nielsen research from 2018 found something like 94% of teens listen to AM/FM radio monthly, as well as 97% of millennials, 98% of Gen X and 99% of baby boomers,” he stated.

Still, Lee needed extra support to affirm his decision and he called a priest who was a family friend. To his surprise, he discovered that the priest’s brother was Chris Check, president of Catholic Answers, the nation’s top-ranked Roman Catholic radio talk show. Lee was introduced to Check via a two-hour telephone call, which then led to further phone calls with broadcasting-focused attorneys and media brokers.

“And I said, ‘OK Lord, you’re bringing the second thing about bringing people into my life,’ ” he said, recalling the second part of his novena.

By the spring of 2018, Lee created Veritas Catholic Network with the goal of acquiring a radio station serving Fairfield County as an EWTN affiliate. But conversations with media brokers ended the same way as Lee was told the market had no radio stations for sale and little recent history of station ownership turnover.

Lee was ready to call it quits when one broker reached out with a tip. He heard that Sacred Heart University wanted to jettison WNLK-AM in Norwalk, which it purchased from Cox Media in 2011 along with WSTC-AM 1400. The university also owns WSHU-FM 91.1 and it did not want to continue operating three stations. WNLK, which consisted of paid programming by religions organizations, was the station that would be let go.

Last December, Lee’s Veritas Catholic Network signed an agreement to purchase WNLK from the university for $300,000. The sale included an FM translator at 103.9 MHz that will enable WNLK to simulcast on the FM dial. Lee closed the deal on Aug. 9 and on Aug. 21 he will flip the switch to begin WNLK’s new chapter as an EWTN affiliate.

Thanks to digital technology, Lee does not need to run a physical radio station. WNLK will operate from the desktop computer in his Stamford office. Lee plans to begin running the EWTN feed 24/7 before he launches original local programming. The network’s affiliate program requires at least 80% of the day devoted to ETWN with the remaining percentage given to original shows.

“We have a whole roster of show ideas that we have to put on the air,” said Lee, adding that he was planning a morning drivetime program and had offered Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport his own show. “We want to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ and radio is an incredibly effective and powerful medium.”

Lee would like to expand Veritas Catholic Network’s operations into ownership of stations across Westchester, the rest of Connecticut and Rhode Island — three markets where EWTN does not have a radio presence. He did not see the distinctive religious focus of the programming as a limiting factor, observing that “there are a ton of non-Catholics that listen to EWTN.”

As for his career-shifting experience, Lee recognized he has no time to rest on his initial accomplishment.

“It’s been scary, exhilarating and exciting, and my faith has definitely changed over this process,” he said. “Not to mention that for the past five months I’ve had no income. And with a family, I know I have to get this going.”