Legate Michael Warsaw leads EWTN’s bold global expansion into the 21st century . . .
When Michael Warsaw was studying theology and liturgy at the Catholic University of America some 30 years ago, he was thinking more aBout Becoming a priest than directing the world’s largest religious media network.
But a job at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington led him into the world of Catholic communications and eventually to the Eternal Word Television Network in Irondale, Ala. Even then, however, Warsaw never imagined that he would one day succeed Mother Angelica, the network’s feisty foundress, as chairman and CEO.
Taking risks for Christ
After joining EWTN in 1991, Warsaw worked in television production, satellite operations and technical services before being named president in 2000 and CEO in 2009.
A member of Legatus’ fledgling Birmingham Chapter, Warsaw was promoted to chairman of the board last October. Today he oversees an international media empire comprising television and radio, a newspaper, and a digital operation that employs a website, social media and mobile apps.
Although television remains the network flagship, EWTN also has the distinction of maintaining the most used and trafficked Catholic website in the U.S. with an average of 3 million unique visitors a month. The network also has the largest English-language Catholic presence on Facebook with more than 350,000 followers for EWTN alone.
As someone who worked closely with Mother Angelica before she suffered a disabling stroke in 2001, Warsaw said he considers himself blessed to be able to turn her vision and ideas into practical realities. Although she didn’t give him a to-do list, Warsaw said he strives to preserve the spirit of her leadership in guiding the network.
Johnnette Benkovic, host of EWTN’s Women of Grace radio and television programs, believes he is succeeding.
“Central to every decision made at EWTN is Mother’s mission and Mother’s heart,” she said. “If Mother were active in the operation of EWTN today, I’m quite certain she would be moving the network in the very direction that Michael is taking it.”
Warsaw said he often repeats Mother Angelica’s well-known maxim,
“We need to dare to do the ridiculous so God can accomplish the miraculous.”
“That sums up Mother and the EWTN apostolate,” he explained. “It’s something I try to remind myself of every day as I look at opportunities, inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and where God is leading the apostolate at this point in history. It’s about following the spirit of our foundress and being willing to take risks and do what we believe we’re being called to do for the service of the Church.”
Although EWTN’s earlier years were sometimes marked by clashes with Church leaders — most notably one between Mother Angelica and Cardinal Roger Mahony, the now-retired archbishop of Los Angeles, over his pastoral letter on the Eucharist, Warsaw said he thinks the network’s relationship with the bishops and the Holy See is strong and positive.
“I think we enjoy today wide support among the bishops and clergy, a further sign of how EWTN has matured in its mission and the service we provide to the Church.”
The challenge for EWTN, he said, is finding a way to support the Church while maintaining independence as a media apostolate. “It’s about finding the right balance and pursuing your mission in that light.”
Although Mother Angelica’s stroke left the engaging and expressive communicator unable to speak or write, Warsaw said the 90-yearold nun still radiates joy in the midst of her suffering.
After visiting her, he said, “You can’t help but walk away from those moments and feel renewed and refreshed and at peace. It’s amazing to see what God has done with her over the years. I think in many ways Mother Angelica’s most important work for EWTN has been done over these last 12 years since the stroke, offering her prayers and sufferings for the success of the network. There’s no question that, as we look at the last decade, we see enormous growth in every respect, every part of EWTN’s apostolate around the world. I attribute that to the fruits of her suffering and her prayers for us.”
During that time, Warsaw said, EWTN’s television presence has grown to 11 channels around the world: four in the U.S. (two in English and two in Spanish), a Spanish channel that reaches every part of the Spanish-speaking world, one in Canada, three in Europe and channels for Africa/South Asia and the Pacific Rim.
Under Warsaw’s leadership, EWTN has also increased its emphasis on news. The network formed a partnership several years ago with the Peruvian Catholic news agency, ACI Prensa, to jointly create EWTN news services for the web and an editors’ service available to newspapers. Then in 2011, EWTN acquired the National Catholic Register, a move that has bolstered the overall news operation. It also has benefited the Register, where print subscriptions are up almost 50%.
Finally, EWTN recently launched a Washington-based weekly evening news program that is expected to become a nightly show, five days a week, in the first half of 2014.
“News is very important for us as an area of focus because in the context of EWTN, I think Catholic news should have a catechetical dimension,” Warsaw said. “We define ourselves as a teaching apostolate. If you report the news from a Catholic perspective, you should be conveying to people a better understanding of what the Church teaches and how a particular story is impacted by the Church’s teaching.”
Warsaw said it is imperative that EWTN provide a credible, professional news product as an alternative to secular media outlets, which are often openly hostile to or ignorant about the Church and Church teaching.
John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America which works with EWTN on broadcasts of university events, said he couldn’t agree more with the decision to expand news coverage.
“The Church is faulted, both internally and externally, for being ineffective in getting its message out to Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” he explained. “Anything that strengthens the communications vehicles that promote Catholic teaching is a positive development. And given the financial challenges that are facing Catholic schools around the country and forcing some of them to close, having electronic and print media outlets that instruct the faithful is more important than ever.”
Legate Ann Southworth, president of Warsaw’s alma mater — Cathedral High School in Springfield, Mass. — said she sees the new evening newscast as just one of the ways in which Warsaw is reaching into the culture through EWTN.
Through the network’s programming, she added, EWTN is helping improve the culture, reaching people who are confused or who have never understood Catholicism.
Although the network doesn’t do demographic ratings, Warsaw said EWTN has a good idea who it’s reaching from mail and other viewer contacts. “What you see is that, contrary to what most people think of religious television, it’s a pretty diverse audience.” He attributes that to the availability of EWTN content on all media platforms, including social media, which draws a younger audience.
Warsaw said one of the key accomplishments of his tenure has been moving the network through the transition from a dynamic, charismatic founder to the next generation. In the process, he said, the network has grown exponentially and is stronger and healthier than it has been in its history. “That bodes well for the future,” he said.
JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.
Founded: Aug. 15, 1981
Headquarters: Irondale, Ala.
Radio: 250 stations (English and Spanish)
Television: 11 channels
Website: 3 million visitors/month
National Catholic Register: 36,000 subscribers
NCRegister.com: 50,000 digital subscribers