This is a column I wrote for the print edition Monday:
In May, the top radio station in Atlanta was V-103 as usual, according to Arbitron. But No. 2 was not one of the usual suspects such as news/talk 750/WSB-AM or soft rock station B98.5. For the first time, it was gospel station Praise 102.5.
And while Praise has always done well, ratings have spiked in recent months despite one of the weakest FM signals in town.
“People love to hear something positive,” said afternoon jock Rhodell Lewis in his deep, soulful voice. “You hear more than enough negativity elsewhere. People need to be uplifted.”
Praise arrived in 2001 as the first FM gospel station in a major market armed with the catchy slogan “The Inspiration Station.” In city steeped in megachurches, it became an instant hit. Long-time AM gospel station WAOK, aware FM was a much better home for music than static-filled AM, switched to news/talk.
Over the past four years, program director Derek Harper has given the on-air staff a more youthful sheen. He plucked CoCo Brother from sister hip-hop station Hot 107.9 and gospel artist Darlene McCoy after seeing her at a concert. Star Yolanda Adams has also created a successful syndicated morning show out of Houston.
Praise draws more than 600,000 listeners a week, the largest gospel station in the nation by a wide margin. FM gospels work well in many markets with heavily black populations such as Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Houston. Most are owned by Radio One, the black-owned media company.
The perpetual challenge is advertiser skepticism, said Dana Hall, executive editor of Radio-Info.com, an industry Web site. “Radio One has had a little more success at it probably because they have built the relationships.”
Indeed, advertisers from Geico to Wal-Mart regularly use the station. And an array of religious-oriented groups heavily use Praise, such as Atlanta Christian College.
“You have to educate your sales people on how to sell it,” Harper said. “It’s one of the few situations where lifestyle is built into the station.”
The average listener of Praise is in their late 30s, younger than Majic 107.5, the R&B station, Harper said. And they spend more time with the station than fans of virtually any other station.
“Every DJ brings a music ministry,’ said Monique Williams, a 39-year-old Conyers resident who discovered the station last year and has rarely turned the dial since. “They share their lives with us and make you feel you’re not alone out there.” She said the station has helped her break out of a severe depression.
While most other major formats such as country and rock have direct rivals, Praise does not. “People are passionate about this genre of music and can’t get it anywhere else,” Harper said.
Sharing offices with Hot 107.9 helps Praise nabs stars it might not otherwise have gotten such as Michael Vick, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. “You can get an angle secular stations aren’t looking for,” McCoy said. “Nobody knew about Snoop’s religion and how his mom made him go to church every day. He knew all the songs!”