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the "radio priest"
1926, WJR, Detroit.
1926-30, WMAQ, Chicago; WLW, Cincinnati. Oct. 5, 1930-Apri15, 1931, CBS. 6Om, Sundays at 7.
1931-42, private network; heard Sundays throughout the land on many independent stations.
Father Charles Coughlin used radio as few have ever done to build and support a powerful political machine. He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Oct. 25, 1891. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1916, and in 1926 he became pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich.
His initial airtalk on WJR, Detroit, drew five letters from listeners-a far cry from the million a week he got a few years later, when his influence was at its peak. Coughlin's early talks were said to be lacking in confidence. If so, it was a failing he soon overcame. He rose to power quickly after his 1930 CBS debut, and his voice-just in time for the 1932 presidential election-became one of the most potent in the land. Coughlin bitterly attacked President Herbert Hoover, then turned his wrath upon bankers, socialists, and the uneven distribution of wealth.
He established an early rapport with Franklin D. Roosevelt, strongly supporting his candidacy. When Roosevelt was elected, rumors spread that Coughlin was in line for a high administrative post and would quit the church to enter government service. But this failed to materialize, and Coughlin became disenchanted with Roosevelt as well. His first public break with Roosevelt came in 1934, when he urged payment of a soldiers' bonus and the president publicly threatened to veto it. By 1935 Coughlin's break with Roosevelt was complete; by 1937 his attacks on the president had become so violent that they led, ultimately, to a rebuke from the pope. Roosevelt, whose own radio persona was highly developed, found Coughlin a formidable adversary. The priest had a staff of confidential investigators in Washington, headed by a former Hearst journalist, and his advisers in financial matters consisted of bankers and brokers in New York.
His themes centered more and more on money. His constant charge was that Roosevelt had betrayed the people by failing to "drive the moneychangers from the temple," and that Congress had all but delegated its lawmaking powers to the president.
He formed his own radio chain. He had been dropped by CBS in 1931 when the network attempted to censor a speech and Coughlin used his hour to loudly berate CBS on its own air. He tried to move to NBC, but that network was having none of it, hiding behind a policy of not accepting "commercial religious broadcasting." Using WOR, New York, and WJR, Detroit, as his flagship outlets, Coughlin gradually increased his scope, buying time on individual stations until he could be heard virtually anywhere in the nation. He paid for the time with voluntary contributions estimated at $500,000 a year. Coughlin often said that he never asked his listeners for money, but his broadcasts always closed with the gentle reminder by his announcer that “this hour has been made possible by the outstanding financial support of the radio audience."
This may have been the only gentle thing about him. Coughlin could work himself into a rage on the air. He could be heard pounding his pulpit in anger, denouncing the "black bread" of Roosevelt's programs. His magazine, Social Justice, amplified his political views, and by 1939 he was buying his time in 6O-minute blocks. Coughlin's attacks now included Jews; he came to be seen as one of the most virulent promoters of anti-Semitism in his time. He was seen by prominent Jews as a hate-monger, and by 1940 his influence had begun to decline. In 1942 his magazine was banned from the mails by the Espionage Act. It soon folded, and leaders of the Catholic Church (some of whom had long considered him an embarrassment) began a move to have his voice silenced as well. Coughlin yielded to the pressure and dropped abruptly from the political scene in 1942.
He retired as pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in 1966 and died Oct. 27, 1979.
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