By Shelly Steig
Photo by Joe Mixan
Last Thanksgiving, Sherry Kennedy Brownrigg watched in the sound booth as three on-air personalities taste-tested a new soda during the radio program “Morning Air.” Listeners may not have been able to see the hosts’ faces, but from the ensuing silence the audience couldn’t help but conclude that the drink was less than appetizing.
They were right—it was a turkey- and gravy-flavored cola.
Not exactly an exploit one might expect from a Catholic radio station. When you think Catholic radio, continuous Masses and rosaries might leap to mind. That’s where Brownrigg, a 1992 UNO alumna, comes in. As chief programming officer for the relatively new Relevant Radio—a network of 14 member and 12 affiliate stations that reach more than 26 million Catholics in the United States—she is determined to reeducate the masses. “This kind of radio has never been done before,” Brownrigg explains. “We don’t just talk about heavy theology. It’s dynamic, upbeat fun. Our whole purpose is to bridge the gap between faith and everyday life.”
To bridge this gap, the 42-year-old keeps a hectic schedule. She jets from Omaha to meet with senior management in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday mornings, catches another flight to Green Bay, Wis., that evening so she can convene with her talent pool for the next two days, then heads back to Omaha on Friday. In between she recruits new on-air personalities and spreads the word about Relevant Radio, a non-profit entity approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It’s a good thing Brownrigg loves to fly as much as she loves to talk. Her gift for gab may have been an early indicator that she was destined for radio. In grade school her teachers often complained she chatted too much. In secondary school Brownrigg would tape broadcasts from across the country and listen to them at night on an old tape recorder. Even though she’d make a tent from her covers to help absorb the sound, the noise still would disturb her sister, who was trying to sleep—in the same bed.
That era was Brandy Summer’s WOW 590 AM heyday, and Brownrigg reasoned that if Summer could do it, so could she. She immersed herself in her first broadcast job at local station KTCH while attending Wayne State College. Brownrigg was the first woman ever hired, and her duties included airing songs, taking out the trash and announcing hog futures. “I was terrible at farm reports,” she says, “I had no idea what I was saying.”
She left college for a gig as an on-air personality at KGLI in Sioux City, Iowa, for two years, then returned to Omaha for a 14-year stint at FM Lite 96, where she hosted midday, afternoon and evening shows. She also served as assistant director of program, audience development and music.
Although Billboard Magazine named her Music Director of the Year in 1988, she still cringes when she is reminded of the old ‘80s drive-time style. “I recently unearthed a tape of myself and I thought ‘Oh! I was awful!’ We call it ‘puking’ now,” she says, laughing.
Brownrigg later decided to finish her degree and enrolled at UNO, where she graduated cum laude with a bachelor of general studies degree in public relations, political science and broadcasting. One month later she married Steve Brownrigg and completed the Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation. For five months, the ex-Methodist was content with attending Mass occasionally. Then one night she had what she describes as a “Saint Paul conversion.” Brownrigg says, “I realized I just couldn’t live the same life anymore. I had no morals, no purpose, no values. God had made me for something better.”
Since then Brownrigg has been sharing her message that being a faith-filled person is nothing to fear. She helped found Omaha’s only Catholic radio station, KVSS (88.9 FM), then when the opportunity presented itself to be on the ground floor of a nationwide network, she jumped at the chance. For Brownrigg, this wasn’t a huge leap of faith. She found that while she continually bumped her head on the glass ceiling at commercial stations, there are no limits for her talents in the Catholic radio realm.
Relevant Radio is the culmination of her life experiences and her radio experience.
“If I had to sum up the way that I look at my life,” she says, “I’d say I have been able to really, really perfect my craft, and at the same time I get to practice my faith. The blessing of doing that is profound.”
E-mail author Shelly Steig at email@example.com
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