By Ytasha L. Womack

In late March WPWX FM, better known as Power 92, debuted a brand-new, all-music urban-contemporary format. It didn’t have hosts or a morning-drive personality, but it did have a niche: hot hip-hop and cutting-edge R & B.

In a market where you’re more likely to hear an old-school cut than a new hip-hop song, word of mouth spread fast about Power 92. Its daily mix shows, put together by popular party deejays Boolumaster and Pharris Thomas, are more like peak hours at a club than radio. Power 92 has already broken several hits, including local rappers Legit Ballaz’ “Ball Wit Us” and Eric Sermon’s rap version of the Marvin Gaye song “Music.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen people bumping the radio in their cars,” said Qabah R. Cowen, store manager at the popular George’s Music Room. Callers have flooded Power 92’s lines, thanking deejays for playing new songs. “I’ve made the switch and I’m never going back!” shouted one excited woman. “They sound like they’ve been freed from slavery or something,” says Jay Alan, Power 92’s programming director.

Testifying might be a better way of describing it: less than two months ago, Power 92 was a gospel station.

The transformation began when Crawford Broadcasting Company, a small network of Christian radio stations based in Pennsylvania, began questioning the profitability of its three Chicago gospel stations: 92.3, 102.3, and 106.3. With the Christian radio audience looking more and more to cable TV for its music, general manager Taft Harris began examining the viability of an urban-contemporary format. “We did our research and we saw no long-range profitability [in gospel],” says Harris, who’s worked in Christian radio for over 20 years and describes himself as a devoutly spiritual man.

Although it’s no big deal for a pop station to turn rock or an oldies station to go urban contemporary, there’s something slightly discomforting about a Christian station flipping to hip-hop. “We’re a Christian network, but we’re also businessmen,” says Harris. “Our research showed there was a strong need for another urban station in the market.” Of the 29 stations CBC owns across the country, Power 92 is the only one with an urban-contemporary format.

Harris, who runs all three stations, decided to initiate the new format on 102.3. It debuted there in February, with a signal accessible only to the far south side and suburbs. But it was strong enough to spur WGCI, long considered king of the urban-contemporary airwaves, to hastily reposition itself as “The Big Station” and “#1 for hip-hop and R & B.” It was also enough to attract the interest of syndicated morning-show host Doug Banks and his distributors at ABC Radio, who were eager to reenter the Chicago market.

“When I heard that Banks was interested, I was shocked,” says Harris.

Harris got busy pursuing Banks. He also tapped Alan, who was music director at WGCI, to come over as programming director. Alan refused. “I told them that they wouldn’t be able to make a dent in [WGCI] with that signal,” he says. “If they wanted to do some damage, they’d have to move to 92.3.”

Harris called Alan back a few days later to tell him he was taking his advice. (102.3, renamed “Tha Groove,” changed over to a dusties format.)

Alan was compelled by Harris’s determination to be number one in the Chicago market. “When I told them the amount of money they’d have to spend, they didn’t flinch,” says Alan.

Harris raided more of WGCI’s ranks. In less than a month, the station lost on-air personalities, mix-tape deejays, and a host of sales staff and engineers. On April 21, Power 92 debuted its new lineup: Banks; former WGCI personalities Donnie DeVoe, the Choklit Jox, and Spank Boogie; and Cortney Hicks, formerly a deejay at 106 Jams. A whirlwind of promotions included a free concert featuring Tyrese, Harvey’s Syleena Johnson, and Trina; an industry-only welcome back party for Banks; and a street promotion with Banks riding a stretch Hummer through the south and west sides. The station gave out free gas, pumped by Banks himself, to 92 people.

In response WGCI has changed more than just its marketing slogans: new hip-hop, once relegated to Saturday nights or the Bad Boy hours (weekdays 6 to 10 PM), is now played all day long. Even the Sunday night old-school format has been dumped for a fresher sound. “Competition always makes you a better station,” says WGCI programming director Elroy Smith. “Sometimes when you’re the only one in the market, you get relaxed. They’re just keeping us on our toes.”

In the brief weeks before the April 21 launch, Power 92’s Arbitron ratings for the 18-34 age group rose from a .2 to a 2.1 “It’s a little bit above average,” says Alan of his new employer’s improvement. “But we have a lot of work to do.”

In the same period WGCI dropped from 12.4 to 11.3. “We expect to take some dips,” says Smith. “It’s like a new club. Everybody wants to see the new thing.”

Meanwhile, Harris admits it’s been challenging bouncing between gospel and hip-hop. He felt like an old fogy watching Trina and Tyrese gyrate at Power 92’s kickoff concert. “There are elements of the music I find distasteful,” he says. He’s quick to note that the station edits vulgar material. “That’s just part of the music and part of the culture. I can’t change it, won’t adapt to it. It’s a matter of finding a comfortable equilibrium.”