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Gospel Replaces Rock and Goes Big Time in DC

(Sunday's Listener column)

For many years, executives at Radio One's headquarters in Prince George's County hungered for a way to launch a full-time FM gospel station in the city where it might attract the largest audience: their home town.

Last week -- in a move curiously made possible by the demise of the nation's oldest commercial classical radio station -- the country's largest black-owned broadcasting company finally put Praise 104.1 on the air in Washington, on Easter Sunday.

Contemporary gospel -- an upbeat, jazz-and-R&B-tinged music that, if you don't listen to the lyrics, could pass for the hit black music that was popular before the hegemony of hip-hop -- is one of the fastest-growing formats in America's big cities. A form of programming that was long relegated to weak-signaled stations at the top of the AM dial is popping up on big signals on FM, where the music can reach a much younger audience.

"It's no different from [all-news] WTOP moving from AM to FM," says Michele Williams, general manager of Radio One's five stations in Washington. "You reach a broader audience. It's no secret that African Americans have had music in their spirituality for centuries. But this is very popular music, and I think the audience won't be entirely black. It's uplifting music that attracts all kinds of listeners, just as a lot of secular artists have crossed over" to record gospel tunes.

Unlike WYCB (1340 AM), another Radio One property and one of the first gospel stations in the country, Praise will not sell its airtime by the hour to local churches for preaching and teaching. Praise is an all-music format, with no sermonizing or evangelizing. And unlike several black-oriented stations in town that play gospel on Sunday mornings, Praise will be all gospel, all the time.

"It is a music-intensive station," Williams said when asked whether the purpose of Praise (WXGG) was to win souls or make money. Radio One sales people will pitch Praise along with hip-hop WKYS (93.9 FM), R&B hits WMMJ (Majic 102.3) and "black talk" WOL (1450 AM) as part of a package that advertisers can buy to reach different facets of Washington's black population.

"Washington is a natural for gospel," says Tom Taylor, editor of the industry newsletter Inside Radio. "Gospel fills out the card for Radio One in Washington; it gives them a way for advertisers to reach people who don't listen to urban [hip-hop] or talk."

Taylor said gospel's growing appeal stems largely from the new wave of music that has adopted the beats and production values of R&B and smooth-jazz artists of the past two decades. "If you think of gospel as the old shouting songs, this is very different," he said. "This is very sophisticated music that reaches an adult audience, mostly women, and not just the highly religious. If you're down in the dumps, you're just instantly energized."

Praise will feature gospel artists such as Smokie Norful, whose hits can sound like Earth, Wind & Fire or a traditional piano ballad; Kirk Franklin, who has recorded with Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly; Vickie Winans, of the famous family that has produced hits in several musical genres; and Yolanda Adams, a popular singer who this year launched a syndicated morning show that airs on most of Radio One's nine gospel stations.

In Washington, the Adams program, which is based in Houston, will be the only hosted show for the station's first several months, although Williams said she might add local deejays to the mix at some future point.

Williams said Praise probably will draw listeners both from Christian talk WAVA (105.1 FM), whose audience is about half black, and from Smooth Jazz WJZW (105.9 FM), the ABC-owned station that has an unusually diverse audience for commercial radio.

It took the willingness of public radio station WETA (90.9 FM) to return to its classical music format in January to open a path for Washington's first contemporary gospel station.

WETA's decision to go back to classical after a short experiment with BBC and NPR news and talk programming let the owner of classical WGMS (104.1 FM) save face as it dumped that format in search of a younger audience -- which is the holy grail of commercial broadcasters.

After the demise of WGMS, station owner Bonneville introduced a new format (cutely named George) featuring the sounds of AC/DC, the Bee Gees, Elton John and other pop artists of the 1970s and '80s. But George didn't last three months. The format was too similar to that heard on two other stations in the market, local radio executives said.

Longtime listeners to the sounds at 104.1 on the FM dial might be justified in wondering whether that frequency is star-crossed. In the past 12 years, the music on 104.1 has shifted from oldies to dance hits to modern rock to classical to '70s and '80s pop and now to gospel. But industry analysts say this switch might be the one that sticks, if only because the audience for gospel happens to live where the 104.1 signal is strongest. The same frequency that had been totally inappropriate for classical music -- the station's signal is best heard in Prince George's, Southern Maryland and Stafford and Prince William counties in Virginia -- was perfectly positioned to reach the audience Radio One wanted.

By Marc Fisher |  April 14, 2007; 7:20 PM ET
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