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They are just two little words, three letters each. But the billboards that say “Try God” get noticed.

They appeared over the last few months in four cities in New York: Buffalo, Rochester, Elmira and Syracuse; in two cities in Pennsylvania; and in Boston, Mass. They were hard to miss. Boston’s “Try God” billboards were the subject of a Boston Globe cartoon. A few days later, a billboard on the Massachusetts Turnpike was the target of vandals, making for more news coverage.

The drama began at WLOF 101.7, Buffalo’s Catholic radio station.

WLOF – it stands for Our Lady of Fatima – is not the only religious station in town, but it is arguably the most influential, and it certainly has the lowest physical profile. The station operates out of cramped offices in a little building off Sheridan Drive near Transit Road, tucked behind the offices of a cosmetic surgeon.

Buffalo’s little WLOF is the head of a network called the Station of the Cross, whose logo shows radio waves in the form of a cross emanating from a transmitter. The network has been growing since its founding 15 years ago, and in recent years it has mushroomed. Two stations in Pennsylvania – in Oil City and Erie – were both added in the last year or so, and also cover northeastern Ohio.

Another recent addition, WQOM in Boston, Mass., won praise from no less than Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

Speaking in Boston’s historic Cathedral of the Holy Cross, O’Malley thanked God for WQOM, whose letters stand for Queen of Martyrs. The cardinal also thanked WLOF’s founders, whom he mentioned by name.

“We are so grateful that they’ve come to Massachusetts,” he said in his sermon, which can be found on YouTube. “May it make God’s word known.”

WLOF would probably be far from the first radio station most Buffalonians would name. But it is a leading light in the Catholic Church’s international push for evangelization. In New York City over Easter, mainstream stations carried ads featuring Cardinal Timothy Dolan inviting Catholics to return to the Church. In Los Angeles, Catholic radio just returned to the airwaves after an absence of 17 years.

The Station of the Cross embraces new technology. Buffalo listeners may tune in on their radios at 101.7 FM, online, or on mobile devices or tablets through the iCatholic mobile app, which boasts more than 200,000 downloads from than 122 countries. And naturally the station is on Facebook. (“Sts. Nereus, Achilleus, Pancras and Domitilla, pray for us!” ran a recent post.) But there is a back-to-basics feel about the time-honored medium of radio. And of billboards.

The old-fashioned billboard campaign has been especially visible, admits Zach Krajacic, WLOF’s communications director.

“It’s an open, inviting message that invites people to explore friendship with God,” he said. Krajacic, who grew up in Riverside, brainstormed ideas until he came up with this one.

“Everyone out there is going through some difficulty or challenge,” he reasoned. “What better way to remind people that God is there to help them?”

Meeting Mother Angelica

WLOF is not your average radio station. Simple questions often meet with vague answers, such as “We’re waiting to see where the Holy Spirit leads us.”

The station has a chapel, where the employees assemble for Mass on Fridays. The offices are full of religious images – portraits of popes, pictures of the Sacred Heart.

WLOF is entirely listener-supported, and a recent visit caught the station in the midst of a weeklong fund drive. It was going better than predicted, and the receptionist could be heard telling a caller, “Thank you for your donation! You qualify for a rosary.”

It is one of those Buffalo oddities and, like others you could name, it began with a wing and a prayer.

The adventure began in 1996. Jim and Joanne Wright, and Joanne’s sister, Mary Ellen Capice, met Mother Angelica, the famous nun who founded the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).

Mother Angelica has said on the air, laughing, that when she founded EWTN, she had no idea what she was doing. She apparently thought nothing of asking the three Buffalonians to consider founding an affiliate station in Buffalo. They agreed.

Wright owns a dental lab, Orthodent Lab, that makes dental appliances, and had some technical background. But he was in the dark as he began researching radio. “I came home with no idea of how to found a station,” he said with a laugh. He added: “I think God threw me a curve ball.”

He did research and watched for opportunity.

“It just happened that the FCC was taking applications for unusued frequencies in the area, noncommercial educational stations,” he said. “Unfortunately we did not win that application. We had to go another way.”

That way appeared in 1998. “Mother Angelica, on one of her shows, said, ‘All you radio stations out there, if you’re interested in selling your station for the good of Catholic broadcasting, give us a call,’ ” Wright recalled.

The next day, EWTN got a call from the 21-year-old son of the owner of the Spot, a rock station in Batavia.

“We made the deal with the owner, a wonderful man who helped us get this job done,” Wright said. “We had no money. We needed $750,000. Several people stepped up to the plate and lent us the money. It took us four years to pay it off.”

Looking back, he credited “a half-dozen miracles.”

Purgatory and Ouija boards

WLOF broadcasts around the clock. You can awaken to a talk show about current events and drop off to sleep listening to the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen preaching about the evils of communism. There was recent live coverage of the canonization of Pope John Paul II. The station will also meticulously cover Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the Holy Land.

Most shows could be called middle of the road. You won’t find any sympathy for the left-wing Nuns on the Bus crowd – or for people who lament the aftermath of Vatican II. There is some contemporary worship music on WLOF that could be called atrocious.

Still, the station believes it offers something for everyone, and the claim seems accurate. Midday brings Dr. Ray Guarendi, a psychologist and father of eight who gives advice on parenting and relationships. His loud-mouthed sense of humor helps alleviate the problems he confronts. (One woman, in tears, confesses that her daughter was caught “sexting.” Dr. Ray’s calming response was “Oh-boy-oh-boy.”)

Raymond Arroyo, host of “The World Over,” probes the news and interviews such Catholic celebrities as suspense writer Dean Koontz, country singer Collin Raye and William Peter Blatty, author of “The Exorcist.”

Perhaps the station’s most popular shows are its call-in programs. Local and national, they elicit questions from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The locally produced “Calling All Catholics” features a few area priests, including the plain-spoken Rev. Rick Poblocki of St. Josaphat’s Church in Cheektowaga. Poblocki has been appearing several times a week for seven years.

“A lot of times they ask about practices in the parish. My priest is doing this. My priest is doing that. The media say this. What’s the real deal?” he says.

Kids call about the occult. “We get a lot of calls about Ouija boards. Something happens, and they freak out. It’s like, man, don’t do that!” Poblocki laughed ruefully.

Pornography is an increasing concern across the board. “They get such easy access to it,” he pointed out. Not just guys, too. Chicks are into it.”

He gets the occasional nutty call. “This woman called up, she had one of those creepy church lady voices,” he reminisced. “She says, I have a friend, she’s very, very holy, and she hears the voices of Purgatory. Do you think that’s possible?

“I told her like this, sometimes at 3, 4 or 5 in the morning, it’s a Friday or Saturday night, I hear the voices of the lost and the damned, and then I see the bar across the street. Oh, she got mad.”

Joking aside, though, Poblocki said he has deep respect for his callers. He said, “A lot of the time people who are calling just want a warm human connection.”

It’s that kind of connection Wright wants to alert people to as the station moves forward.

“Our main challenge is getting the word out,” he said. “That’s why we did the billboard campaign.

“That’s the hardest challenge, getting people to know about Catholic radio. Then they need to decide to listen.”

email: mkunz@buffnews.com