EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The labor of love started with a simple wish.
“We didn’t want to see gospel radio leave the area,” William Hawkes, 51, said, sitting with his wife, Elaine, 48, at a small table.
So he and his wife took over the radio station, ensuring the region’s only full-time gospel radio station stayed on the air and keeping alive a voice of the community.
Black gospel music dates from the earliest days of this country, when enslaved Africans were converted or raised in the Christian faith. They took elements of the culture and combined it with the European worship service into a unique form that has gained worldwide acceptance.
“Gospel music is a music that inspires. It lifts,” Elaine Hawkes explained. “If you have a day when you need to be inspired, turn on that station and you will be inspired.”
The music has evolved over decades; and while secularized versions helped develop much of American popular music, adherents kept the faith.
These days, gospel is a niche field. It can frequently be found in abundance on Sunday mornings, but is much harder to find on a Tuesday afternoon.
There were 318 radio stations that broadcast gospel in fall 2011, according to the most recent Arbitron survey. But only about 25 percent of the stations broadcast on FM, drawing about 0.8 percent of listeners older than 12.
The Hawkes both listened to the radio growing up.
After William Hawkes graduated from Absegami High School in 1980, he traveled, eventually meeting Elaine in Milwaukee, where they both sold cleaning products door to door.
They returned to the region several years later, opening up a cleaning business in 1987. The Egg Harbor Township residents are hesitant to say how many clients Hawkes Professional Janitorial Services serves, but the company pays a significant portion of the station’s bills.
While the station is organized as a non-profit, tax returns were not available.
The Hawkes’ station has been around for almost a decade, broadcasting from a tower at the New Gretna State Police barracks on the Garden State Parkway. The 800-watt signal covers much of Atlantic and southern Ocean County, while a 120-watt repeater at 99.9 FM covers western Atlantic County. The station also transmits over the Internet, extending the reach beyond the county.
Mary A. Parrish, 1st Lady at Atlantic City’s Shiloh Temple Apostolic Cathedral, said that members of the congregation stationed by the military in Kuwait and Afghanistan, have used the station to kept in touch with the region.
She herself has had to travel to South Carolina to care for a loved one. She listens online, because she said on the phone, “it’s just so nice to have a taste of home.”
The frequency initially came on the air in 2003, and after about a year and a half of different formats, had settled on gospel by August 2004. The station changed call signs and owners, with the Hawkes taking over WEHA, chosen for their initials, by August 2009.
It now broadcasts several locally produced shows, with the William Hawkes taking as the microphone as “El Presidente” and Elaine as “Lady Prayze.” The station is also active in local outreach efforts, broadcasting public services announcements, as well as hosting an annual benefit banquet and community service buffet.
Other hosts include Steffin Phifer, the production director, and Thelma Witherspoon, of Atlantic City, who hosts a news and information program Saturdays at 9 a.m.
The station also broadcasts Sunday morning services, including Pleasantville’s Evangelical Full Gospel Fellowship Church and Shiloh Temple Apostolic Cathedral.
Despite their short tenure, the pair recently won one of the industry’s top prizes, the Stellar Award, given to the top performers and industry leaders for almost 30 years. The station won for the best station in a small market, beating out several dozen others in rounds of voting.
William Hawkes placed the golden-colored, flame-shaped award in the middle of the table. The base was inscribed with some legends of the genre, like The Dixie Hummingbirds, Mahalia Jackson and Tramaine Hawkins.
They were named as a finalist September, and went to Nashville in January. It was exciting, William Hawkes said, to see and meet so many top people in the field. “It was a moment, now,” he said. “It was a moment.”
Now back home, the station continues its broadcasts, sending the good word out to the region. The labor of love is a labor, but not a burden they want to lay down.
“It’s a challenge for us,” Elaine Hawkes said. “It’s not a business, it’s a ministry.”
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