Sunday, July 13, 2008

It's our very own, Emmy Award Winning Lino "Unrulli", Live from New York, the Catholic Guy

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Lino Rulli, formerly host of the Emmy award winning (regional) "Generation X" cable TV show in Minneapolis, sponsored by St. Olaf parish, has hit the big time on Sirius Satellite Radio in New York City. Even the New York Times is paying attention. See other Stella Borealis posts on Lino HERE.

Mike from El Paso was on the phone line to “The Catholic Guy,” the afternoon drive-time talk program produced via the unlikely partnership of Sirius Satellite Radio (familiar to most people as “Howard Stern’s network”) and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

“I called the other day?” said Mike. “About how much I miss confession?” This would be the Mike who was barred from the sacrament of confession under church law because he married a divorced woman whose first marriage was never annulled.

“Yes, I remember!” bellowed the host, Lino Rulli, the Catholic guy of the show’s title. “Mike the Adulterer! O.K., Mike. Are you ready to play ‘Let’s Make a Catholic Deal’?”

It seems an odd marriage of sensibilities: the rough banter of talk radio as practiced by pioneer shock jocks like Mr. Stern and Don Imus, joined at the neck to an official Catholic broadcast whose underlying mission is herding people back into the fold of a religious orthodoxy.

But the stated mission of this new enterprise known as the Catholic Channel is to offer something more than “the audio equivalent of stained glass and incense,” as Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, refers to conventional religious radio.

Since taking to the air 18 months ago — with an understanding that there would be no promotional spots for Mr. Stern’s show on any of its programs — the channel has harnessed Sirius, a subscription-only radio network made possible largely by the immense drawing power of Mr. Stern’s profane and pornography-friendly programming, to help propagate a 2,000-year-old institution that preaches against more or less every bodily impulse Mr. Stern has ever named, demonstrated or otherwise celebrated on his show.

Today, in studios down the hall from Mr. Stern’s in Sirius’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters — where Sirius generates a gigantic menu of radio catering to dozens of niche tastes including sports, gay politics, hip-hop and Martha Stewart — the Catholic Channel, No. 159 on the dial, produces a 24-hour stream of radio that reaches most of North America. The Catholic programming runs the gamut from offerings of the stained-glass kind, like Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a weekly interview with Cardinal Edward M. Egan, to the offbeat musings of “The Catholic Guy,” which runs five days a week in the showcase 4-to-7 p.m. slot.

Mr. Rulli’s show can sometimes sound like catechism class (“What is the sixth Station of the Cross? Anybody?”) but more often achieves the queasy unpredictability of the Stern show itself — if Mr. Stern were an avowedly guilt-ridden, confession-going 36-year-old prone to sexual double-entendres and self-mocking complaints about not being able to find a girlfriend.

The mix, perhaps risky for the church, is aimed not only at Catholics who attend church but also at a large and growing segment of 20- and 30-something Catholics who do not, said Mr. Zwilling, who as the general manager of the channel hired Mr. Rulli.

Sounding a little like Mr. Stern is exactly the point.

“If someone who listens to Howard Stern happens to turn to the Catholic Channel one day and doesn’t realize for a couple of minutes that what he’s listening to is the Catholic Channel, well, I’m not going to be upset about that,” Mr. Zwilling said. “We recognize that Catholics are listening to Howard Stern. What we want people to know is that they can talk about all the same things he does, but in a Catholic context.”

When Mike the Adulterer called the other day to try winning the day’s “semi-valuable prize” — a bottle opener soldered to a medal of Pope John Paul II, the “Let’s Make a Catholic Deal” question was about St. Teresa of Avila.

At other times, callers are asked less historical questions: Is it possible for men and women to be just friends? (Catholic Guy: No. “Guys are pigs.”) Does using the word “chaste” put people off? (Guy: “Chaste just sounds so Amish-Catholic. Why not just say, ‘I’m going to remain a virgin till I get married’?”)

Mike did not win and was unceremoniously dispatched with a loud buzzer, followed by a suggestion by Mr. Rulli that he “get that annulment” as soon as possible, “even if it’s a big pain.”

The breezy informality sometimes references, and tweaks, Catholic bromides. When a caller complained that he had not received the prize he won playing another of the show’s games, “The Inquizition,” the Catholic Guy counseled the man to forget about it. “That was past,” he said. “Look to the future. God has a plan for your life.”

Almost nothing about religious broadcasting is new. Christian radio is as old as radio itself, and the Vatican has produced a vast network of radio and TV programming since the 1950s.

Still, not many radio hosts use the Imus/Stern model — with on-air sidekicks, comic sound effects and the ad-libbing host who trades in the provocative — while hewing to a message of virginity until marriage and the unquestionable authority of the Catholic Magisterium.

“I have to be careful in areas that Howard doesn’t,” Mr. Rulli deadpanned in an interview.

David Gibson, a Catholic writer whose book “The Coming Catholic Church” describes a newly powerful grass-roots pressure for reform in the aftermath of the priest sexual abuse scandal, said the archdiocesan foray into talk radio may reflect some official acknowledgment of the need for a new, more interactive relationship with believers.

“The church really has no choice,” he said. “The old Catholic world, where you were born and married in the church and stayed because you were part of a ‘Catholic world’ — that’s gone. The church has to find people and make them want to be Catholic.”

Young people are the major target of several efforts, official and otherwise. “Theology on Tap,” an informal project adopted in hundreds of parishes around the country, attracts young Catholics to lectures booked in bars or restaurants.

The Order of Paulist Fathers has started an initiative aimed at people in their 20s and 30s with an Internet ministry known as Busted Halo, whose mission is basically in sync with a recent series of youth-market books called “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to...” In the introduction to their first book, “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living,” John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak summarize the creed: Believe in Catholicism, do what you can, admit that you are flawed “and turn to the font of infinite mercy as humbly and as often as you can.”

The Rev. Dave Dwyer, the Paulist priest behind the Busted Halo project, is the host of a program of that name on the Catholic Channel. It is cheerful but less quirky than “The Catholic Guy,” more likely to attract callers with questions about the faith.

“The people we want to reach say they are ‘spiritual’ rather than Catholic, though they refer to themselves as ‘born Catholic,’ ” he said. “We try to get them thinking about what it means to be Catholic.”

In the religion press and blogs, Mr. Rulli’s “Catholic Guy” show has been described affectionately, if somewhat datedly, as the “Wayne’s World” of the Catholic Church. The St. Anthony Messenger, a magazine of the Franciscan order, said Mr. Rulli was “something of a contradiction” for being so well-schooled in Catholic theology, yet capable of a kind of biting wit that, the writer surmised, had most likely “gotten him into trouble just as often as it’s gotten him out of it.”

He has not gotten into trouble on the air yet, though his occasional bouts of testiness have been the talk of fan blogs, one of which urged listeners to “pray for Lino to grow up” after he walked off in midshow one day last month because not enough people were calling in.

His on-air persona is more often funny-pedagogical — reflecting the master’s degree in theology he earned at St. John’s University in Minnesota, when he was considering entering the priesthood. (He later hosted a cable television show in Minneapolis, “Generation X,” which won an Emmy Award for its offbeat reporting about the lives of priests and nuns, and which led in 2006 to his current job.)

He quizzes his producer and engineer about the lives of the saints — “Which one did they flay alive, again?” — and mocks them like the dean of discipline if they do not know the answer. He talks about the old girlfriend he should have married but spurned, bitterly disparaging her for marrying someone else; but then he turns the story into a lesson in Catholicism: “My mistake was in not asking for God’s guidance.” If he had, he might have married her, he says.

He decides to be tattooed with the crest of Pope John Paul II, and asks listeners to suggest “where on my body I should put it.”

A woman calls to say that she has a tattoo.

“Oh? Where is your tattoo?”

“It’s in the cleavage area.”

“Sorry, what? You’re breaking up. Gotta go.”

If any of this has annoyed the boss, Mr. Zwilling, or the boss’s boss, Cardinal Egan, who refers to Mr. Rulli as “Lino Unruly,” they do not show it.

“If we are to succeed in reaching people, especially people who might not otherwise listen to Catholic religious radio, we have to be different, and we have to be appealing,” Mr. Zwilling said.

Just how appealing Mr. Rulli may be is unclear; Sirius says it does not compile ratings for any of its channels or programs. In answer to questions about Mr. Rulli’s salary, which the host refers to on air not infrequently (“I need a raise!”), Mr. Zwilling said all of the Catholic Channel’s expenses, including salaries, were reimbursed by Sirius.

On a recent show, Mr. Rulli declared that America was in moral decline. “And the proof of the moral decline,” he added, “is that people are choosing to watch Leno over Letterman.”

David Letterman is one of his three role models, he said.

The other two are John Paul II and “the only genius in radio,” Howard Stern.


Audio excerpts from the Catholic Channel on Sirius Satellite Radio, ranging from the freewheeling talk on "The Catholic Guy" to a papal greeting available at the NY Times Article..

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