`Electronic revival' on city's airwaves

Radio: For listeners, gospel stations are place to be informed, entertained and inspired.

June 07, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It's the morning drive time at Heaven 600 gospel radio and the phone lines are burning up as deejay Minister Lee Michaels fields calls. In the background, the Original Gospel Gangsters rap their latest cut for Jesus.

A 22-year-old who calls traditional gospel music "boring" and "dreary" says he likes emerging urban gospel that embraces hip-hop and rap's gritty sounds.

"Sometimes us young people, we want to rock and move," he says.

But a 57-year-old listener wants none of it.

"It's kind of upsetting for me, being from the old school," he says. "The young people today seem to think in order for them to come to God, we've got to give them something to feel good."

For its listeners -- primarily church-going African-Americans who propelled a Baltimore station to the top of contemporary gospel's national rankings -- gospel radio is a place where they can be informed, entertained and inspired, and speak their mind.

Church pastors urge their congregations to tune in to keep their minds on spiritual matters and avoid the evils of secular radio. Gospel radio also offers a forum for churches to publicize their programs and disseminate their message.

The passion of the discussion over traditional gospel vs. cutting edge betrays a passion for the music and its message.

"I listen to it because I just love gospel," said Quincy Williams, a resident of Basilica Place, a downtown apartment house for seniors. "It gives you a certain feeling way down deepin your soul. It tells you a story, too, of the trials and tribulations in life and how God is always with us."

Emmarie Powell listens to gospel at home in the morning and sometimes via Internet at her job as an office assistant in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's video department.

"It relieves stress, makes you forget about your problems and puts them on the side for a while," she said. "It puts me in a good mood and that's the kind of mood I want to be in, working with the public."

Churches frequently buy ads to publicize their activities, and their pastors appear as guests or purchase weekend spots to spread their message. Pastors say they encourage their members to tune in because it helps them live a Christian life.

"I believe that gospel radio is important, and I believe that to be the case because it allows people to keep a focus on Christian principles and biblical insights," said the Rev. Durant Harvin III, pastor of West Baltimore's Emmanuel Christian Community Church. "People do well to listen to gospel radio because it's consistently encouraging, consistently uplifting, consistently urging them to make better decisions in their lives."

"It's almost like an electronic revival," said the Rev. Jamal Harrison-Bryant, a young minister and frequent guest on local shows. "I think it is very important to the city and particularly to the Christian community because it helps set the climate for one's day, keeping a focus on all they heard and experienced in Sunday worship."

Yet as important as music is to a gospel station, the inspiration or solace offered by the on-air personalities and their relationship with their listeners can be just as important. Michaels said he often finds himself counseling listeners, both on air and off, and keeps a directory of referral numbers in the studio.

"Yesterday while I was on the air, a lady called me and was crying because her daughter was diagnosed with leukemia," he said. "She was very concerned about it and she said, `Could you please pray for me?'

"And so we prayed and we tried to encourage her with some words, tried to pick her spirits up, that even in the midst of what seems like a very testing situation, God could still hear her call and answer her prayer."

Experiences such as that set gospel radio apart.

"The uniqueness of what we do is, not only do we give them information and entertainment, but we add to the equation inspiration," Michaels said. "That's the difference between us and secular radio."

Big business

Not only is gospel radio inspirational, it is increasingly big business. In the past year, the number of stations nationwide featuring a format of either contemporary or traditional gospel music grew from 196 to 236, with a weekly audience estimated at 3.5 million listeners, according to Arbitron figures reported in Religion & Media Monthly. Black gospel stations are mostly concentrated in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern regions, home of several key urban areas with large African-American populations, such as Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia.

In Baltimore, gospel radio has hit the big time. The city's Heaven 600 (WCAO-AM) is the country's top-rated contemporary gospel station and ranks eighth among all religious stations. It came in 10th in the Baltimore market, according to the latest ratings.

"Gospel is really growing," said Michaels, who doubles as Heaven 600's program director when he's off the air. "There's a lot of money happening in gospel."

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