The Gospel Ac­cord­ing to Ra­dio One Has a Sprightly Beat and a New Place to Call Home

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

“ 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. Smokie Nor­ful is also part of the ros­ter at the new Praise 104.1. Con­tem­po­rary gospel is dis­tin­guished by a jazz-and-R&B-tinged sound far re­moved from the shout­ing songs of the tra­di­tional gospel genre.

Vickie Wi­nans is among those on the playlist at Praise 104.1, which fea­tures an all-mu­sic for­mat, with no ser­mo­niz­ing or evan­ge­liz­ing by lo­cal churches.


Kirk Franklin is in the lineup, too. Ra­dio One’s Michele Wil­liams be­lieves the au­di­ence “won’t be en­tirely black. It’s up­lift­ing mu­sic that at­tracts all kinds of lis­ten­ers.”


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