WGTS Has Emerged as One of Washington's Most Popular Radio Stations

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008

WGTS-FM broadcasts from a converted World War II-era Quonset hut squeezed into a corner of Columbia Union College's shoe-box campus in Takoma Park. The building's roof leaks. Inside, the station's cramped offices are outfitted with enough hand-me-down furniture to stock a Goodwill store. Today, the general manager's German shepherd, Andy, is hanging out, wandering from room to room between naps.

Another funky college radio station? Not exactly. Or more accurately, not anymore. Ever since the radio industry changed the way it tracks listening trends a few weeks ago, little WGTS -- a noncommercial station that plays Christian pop music -- has become one of the most popular on Washington's airwaves.

Last month, according to audience-rating firm Arbitron, WGTS ranked sixth among the region's 40 or so radio stations. That means WGTS had a larger audience (about 20,000 listeners per hour, on average) than Washington's biggest rock station (DC 101), the top country station (WMZQ-FM) and the leading oldies outfit (WBIG-FM). It beat sports talk, classical music and conservative political talk stations, too.

What's more, over one recent three-week period tracked by Arbitron, WGTS (91.9) achieved what is surely a first for a religious station in Washington, and maybe in any major metropolitan area: It landed at the top of the ratings for an entire weekday time period (7 p.m. to midnight).

Not bad for an outfit with just eight full-time employees and an annual operating budget of just $2.5 million, most of which is supplied by listeners during biannual "Share-a-thons."

Not bad, too, considering that WGTS was on the verge of becoming a memory last year. The trustees of Columbia Union -- which is operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Silver Spring -- considered selling the station's broadcast license to pad the college's meager endowment. On the table were two offers, both in excess of $20 million. After a barrage of e-mails and calls from listeners, however, the trustees rejected both of them.

Among the most relieved by the decision was John Konrad, WGTS's general manager and its longest-serving employee. Konrad, 39, started working part time at WGTS as a high school student, and has been its most constant presence ever since. He's performed just about every role at the station -- DJ, program director, fundraiser, engineer, etc. Of the sale that wasn't, he says, "We felt it was pretty much up to God."

Konrad and Program Director Becky Alignay are the masterminds of WGTS's "Christian contemporary" format. Contemporary, because the music is largely indistinguishable from what's heard on a secular pop station. Christian, because the songs' lyrics tend to mention Jesus and salvation and other religious themes a lot. The overall tone is pleasant and unthreatening, like a Dan Fogelberg album on endless loop.

On a given day, WGTS is likely to crank up recordings by singer-songwriters like Chris Tomlin and Steven Curtis Chapman, and groups such as MercyMe ("You Reign," "God With Us") and the platinum-selling Casting Crowns. The soft-rock ensemble's biggest hit, "East to West," spent almost four months at No. 1 on the Christian music charts last year (sample lyrics: "In the arms of Your mercy I find rest, 'cause you know just how far the east is from the west, from one scarred hand to another").

WGTS (the call letters echo the school's motto, "Washington's Gateway to Service") promotes itself as "family-friendly," which means listeners won't hear anything controversial, rude or even remotely salacious from its on-air personalities. Edgy it isn't: The other morning, for example, DJs Angela Stevens and Brennan Wimbish debated the finer points of wrapping Christmas presents. The next day, the subject was talking to your pets. Periodically, Stevens offers a "positive thought" (example: "Quality is not an act. It's a habit").

Although its Christian message is unmistakable, the station doesn't harangue or proselytize. Music and banter fills almost all of the weekday schedule; heavier religious programs, including talk shows, are reserved for the weekend. On Saturdays (Sabbath for Adventists) the station broadcasts sermons and services from the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church.

But Konrad notes: "We're not a church, we're a radio station. It's about connecting with people. You want to encourage the notion that we're all part of a family and we're having a conversation with [the listeners]. It's really just about being a friend. You don't always uplift them. Sometimes you just listen to them."

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