By Dan Russo
CEDAR RAPIDS — It came down to the wire the day KMMK 88.7 FM went on the air. Volunteers were working on connecting cables, readying computers and perfecting other technical matters on April 8, 2018, until the last possible second before the radio station began broadcasting on Divine Mercy Sunday.
“We could not get that signal up before that Divine Mercy Hour,” recalled Tony May, president of Pro Life Unification Charities, the nonprofit behind the station. “It was a quarter to three. For us, it was very symbolic.”
KMMK is the latest small power radio station to be established within the boundaries of the archdiocese that carries Catholic programming, joining others in Dubuque and Marshalltown. The effort is an all-volunteer lay evangelization project that involved almost three dozen volunteers from the various parishes of the Cedar Rapids area.
As they approach their one-year anniversary, the Mays reflected on the journey to bring KMMK, a radio station named for Maximilian Mary Kolbe, the patron saint of amateur radio, from dream to reality. (The Polish Franciscan friar was a trailblazer in communications, which is why they chose his initials as part of their call letters.)
“Catholic radio is an excellent means of evangelization because through the airwaves, people can hear the message of Christ through all these beautiful programs … and every day it changes so something new can be learned every day,” said Sue May.
The retired teacher spent years teaching music and theology at Regis Catholic Middle School and Xavier Catholic High School in Cedar Rapids respectively. She got the idea to start the station while hearing Catholic programs on stations in Nebraska and North Dakota on trips to visit relatives. She then enlisted the help of her husband whose professional engineering background and experience as a ham radio operator came in handy.
Over a decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission opened up a window for community groups to apply for applications for low power noncommercial educational stations. The Mays, under the name of the nonprofit, applied and began the push to raise $55,000 for the cost of getting the station up and running. A change in FCC policy kept them and other applicants tied up in litigation for about seven years, but with the help of a high-powered Washington, D.C., attorney named Dennis Kelly who has a passion for radio and Catholic evangelization efforts, they won their case. In 2016, the were issued construction permits, but a few more curve balls caused more delay. Finally, in 2018, they were able to lease tower space from a cellular phone company in Coggon.
“All things work out in God’s timing,” said Tony May. “I don’t know what I would have done back then (over a decade ago if we were approved) because I was still in the middle of kids and my career.”
Now Tony is retired and his wife is music director at St. Patrick Parish, Cedar Rapids. In the past 10 months since KMMK has been on air, the station has broadcast syndicated Catholic programs from EWTN and Relevant Radio, two national Catholic networks. The 25-kilowatt station can be heard for a 100-mile stretch around Interstate 80, including the cities of Cedar Rapids, Marion, Tama, Iowa City and parts of Waterloo. Tony May estimates the signal can reach up to 400,000 people.
The couple relied on assistance from Tom Oglesby, one of the founding members of Aquinas Communications, which runs KCRD Radio in Dubuque. They thank their listeners and volunteers. KMMK is still not well known among some people in the Cedar Rapids metro area, but the Mays are doing their best to promote it.
“This is listener support and lay driven,” said Sue May. “We’re still working to get the word out.”
The station is holding a banquet Sept. 21. More information is at kmmk-fm.org.
Tony May and his wife, Sue, are leaders of KMMK radio station, which runs Catholic programming. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)