Radio Days: WGBN-AM is a labor of love of radio, community, God

On an overcast Monday morning in New Kensington, WGBN staffer Hassan Gilchrist scuttled to and fro around a setup of radio equipment, neatly arranged rows of compact discs and stacks of papers and books.

The room drew natural light through the big second-story window overlooking the parking lot. Outside, a blue-and-white sign -- "WGBN AM 1150, Gospel All The Time" -- marked an otherwise nondescript building close to the railroad tracks.

Despite the chill outside, the room was warmed by the stacks of equipment and the enthusiasm of Mr. Gilchrist.

Working at WGBN is a labor of love: love of radio, the African-American community and, most of all, God. After all, the station's role in providing Western Pennsylvania with a voice in urban radio is somewhat of a miracle.

"God has blessed our equipment, and it keeps on riding and it keeps on working," said the Rev. Loran Mann, a bishop of the Vermont Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ and the founder of WGBN's current incarnation.

His Pentecostal Temple Development Corp. owns and operates 1,000-watt WGBN and recently acquired 5,000-watt McKeesport station 1360 WMNY from Renda Broadcasting Corp. Plans are for the two to simulcast WGBN's programming when the former business news talk station returns early next month.

The two stations are likely to merge physical plant operations in New Kensington.

The acquisition was more than a year in negotiations and vital to spreading the word to a larger audience. WGBN is a 1,000-watt station by day, 70 by night. Rev. Mann describes its broadcast day as "family-based, but we often say our message is in the music. And the music here is a mix that satisfies the spectrum."

"We have the Kirk Franklins, Tye Tribbett, Jason Nelson, all these guys ... some middle of the road, like Martha Munizzi. Some view it as contemporary gospel, some are on the edge of rock, but they carry a spiritual message."

A five-member staff handles programming 24/7 with some content from Urban Choice Media's Rejoice! format, in-studio hosts and guests and a steady stream of gospel music.

There are programs aimed at the young ("Rivers of Life" youth Bible study on Wednesday evenings) and women (the weekly "Soul Pitt Xtra" with Donna Baxter and Terina Hicks, a very chatty duo), and music and inspirational sermons.

Four times each weekday, there are "Daily Bread" segments, and once a week at 9:30 a.m. there's "Sunday With Christ."

"I have always felt, for African-American broadcasting to be successful, you need to be in ownership. We as a community are losing our voice. So when this opportunity came along to acquire this radio station, I said, 'Here is the chance for us to have that voice and control what people hear,' " Rev. Mann said.

The original station was founded as WKPA in 1940 with a blue-collar neighborhood mix of news, talk and sports. It changed owners twice before being acquired by California-based Salem Communications.

In 1992, Salem donated WKPA to the church -- "a gift from God," said Rev. Mann. The former newsman at WPXI-TV with a baritone familiar to generations of Pittsburgh-area viewers had already been ordained in the church and was seriously considering leaving TV after 30 years in the business.

He juggled his day job with his ministry for a few years and in August 1996 decided it was time to move on.

"I said to [wife] Barbara, 'I need to do this.' She said, 'Why don't you go ahead and do the thing that's in your gut, what you feel God wants you to do?'

"I tendered my resignation that day," he said with a booming laugh.

"I'm fortunate to have this profession, and it's not just a profession. It's a calling."

Rev. Mann wasn't going into this blindly. He was well-versed in the station's major setbacks -- by now it had been renamed WGBN for Gospel Broadcasting Network -- having helped move operations twice within as many years.

In 1994, a roof collapse at the original building on Fifth Avenue forced a relocation to Fourth Avenue. A fire that took out two floors of this building in 1995 left WGBN off the air for six months.

The church helped raise funds for the move to Seventh Avenue, and listeners waited for WGBN's return. The East Liberty church was vital in raising funds for the new location.

"The gospel audience is a loyal audience, very patient," said station manager and on-air talent Calvin Penny. "There is a need for a station like this in the midst of turmoil. People need that hope, or that inspiration, to keep them going, and this is what this is all about."

A recent proposal from an FCC executive to allow AM stations affordable access to FM translators -- thus boosting the signal -- was met with Rev. Mann's typical enthusiasm: "Hallelujah! We'll raise the money and buy it. There are certain restrictions to that, as I understand. ... But it would give us the glove we would need to fit the Pittsburgh community."

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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