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When Vatican Radio found a home

From a broadcaster that “exploded” on the scene from many different locations, to a production centre spread over the six floors of the building that has overlooked Castel Sant’Angelo for 50 years. This is the story of Vatican Radio’s journey to its current location thanks to the intuition of Pope Paul VI.

By Alessandro de Carolis

In the beginning was the technical era. The radio waves that, on the afternoon of 12 February 1931, sent the first radio message of a Pope flying around the globe, was the first stage in the evolution of Marconi’s creation built behind St Peter’s dome. It is a well-known step, celebrated many times in the 90 years of Vatican Radio, but in fact only the first of at least three stages that can be discerned between the Radio’s foundation and the 1980s.

Two more stages

The second step leads into what could be defined as “the era of Radio News.” The pontifical broadcaster, which during the Second World War had, in spite of itself, “cut its teeth,” in discovering what potential it had, not only as a great loudspeaker for the Popes but also as a means of mass communication, entered the information age at the end of the 1950s. On 1 January 1957, the first edition of the “Radiogiornale” was published, a journal that was both a radio broadcast in seven languages and a printed bulletin. A decade later, the third era dawned; and it was Paul VI, the “journalist” Pope, who opened up the horizon.

The time to express an opinion

On an early summer’s day in 1966, Pope Paul came to the Broadcasting Centre of Santa Maria di Galeria. Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman of New York and the Knights of Columbus had donated two short-wave transmitters to the Vatican. Paul VI knew well the value of information — his father had directed the Catholic newspaper “Il Cittadino” in Brescia for many years; and just three years earlier, the Pope himself had promulgated the Counciliar decree on mass media, Inter mirifica. The Holy Father took advantage of the occasion of the inauguration of the two transmitters to give a clear orientation. Vatican Radio, he said, was to be not only the gigantic megaphone of the audio of the Popes, it must also be an incisive instrument of opinion.

Not only technology

There is a passage in the speech given that day, 30 June 1966, that has the specific weight of a foundation stone. Speaking of the intention to give the Radio “new refinements and new enhancements,” Pope Paul specified that he was thinking especially of the “area of the programmes,” which are, he affirmed, “the main part of the work relating to the Radio: that is, its purpose, its use, its effective utility.” “It would be useless,” he added, “to have a magnificent instrument, if we did not know how to use it magnificently.” This speech contains a hint of a project that is worthy of a promise. “We will only say here,” said Paul VI, “that an organic plan is being studied to expand the programs of Our Radio”. Paul VI was thinking of a sort of large editorial office, structured in a harmonious way, which would put the various language sections in a position to work alongside each other. In fact, from that moment on, the centre of gravity of Vatican Radio changed. If previously the general director was the technical director, now whoever was called to lead it would have to have an editorial plan. And this was the beginning of a centripetal force in the entire media production of the station, which foreshadowed the birth of a centralised headquarters.

Major changes

By the end of 1967, 32 languages were being regularly broadcast; but the places from which the programmes were transmitted had always been scattered around the Vatican. In June 1967, the Directorate and the offices of the Programmes had moved en bloc from the former Petriano (where they had been stationed since 1959) to the provisional headquarters at Palazzo Torlonia, along Via della Conciliazione, but already in 1969, the management had set its sights on the premises that Paul VI had designed for the Radio Station. This was the Palazzo Pio, named after Pius XII, and built between 1948 and 1950 according to a design by the architects Piacentini and Spaccarelli.

It was decided that the change would take place in 1970, with the various Vatican and Italian Catholic associations that had populated the building up to that point being gradually transferred elsewhere. The first part of the building to become available —refurbished with suitable direction, studios and equipment — were the third and fourth floors. On 1 January 1970, the first programmes began to be produced from what was called the “Production Centre”; and at the end of the month, on the 29 January, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean Villot, arrived at Palazzo Pio to preside over the inauguration of that first radio centre.

Vatican Radio at Palazzo Pio

Unlike today, the entrance to the palazzo in the early years faced Via della Conciliazione. In the meantime, work proceeded rapidly. Lines were connected to those of Palazzina Leone XIII — the first seat of Marconi’s radio station in the Vatican Gardens — and in 1972 the distribution of the various departments (editorial, technical and administrative) took on its first structure. The first floor housed the 15 programmes for Eastern Europe and the Library, while the third floor housed Programme Management, the Central Editorial Office (the future SeDoc, today REI), the music programmes and the French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Scandinavian programmes. The fourth floor became home to the Radio News and the Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Ethiopian and Japanese sections, as well as the Control Centre, the technical heart of the broadcasts. The fifth and sixth floors also housed studios (there were seven in the building in total) and other technical maintenance facilities and services.

A new beginning

Another two years saw the birth of the musical and audio Archives — including the ‘Discoteca’ and the ‘Nastroteca,’ the latter being the repository of recordings of the Popes — while in 1974 the renovation of the ground floor of the Palazzo Pio made it possible to open the current entrance, at Piazza Pia 3. And it was through this entrance that John Paul II, shortly after midday on 5 February 1980, entered the Radio, becoming the first Pope to set foot in the Palazzo Pio and visit the station’s 40 programmes over the course of an hour and a half. Within a decade Vatican Radio had found a home, and a new story began.

11 February 2021, 12:42