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The Rev. Lee Michaels, veteran host on Baltimore’s gospel station Heaven 600, retires after 40 years in radio

Baltimore Sun - 12/31/2023

For the Rev. Lee Michaels, radio has been more than just a career. It’s also been a calling.

The longtime host of The Morning Experience on Baltimore’s Heaven 600/WCAO Radio signed off for a final time Friday after four decades in the radio industry. Michaels, who is also pastor at Manifest Wonders Christian Center in West Baltimore, has been an enduring voice on Baltimore gospel radio since 1991.

Reached by phone at the studio after his last show, Michaels said he was still wrapping his head around retirement. “I’m just sitting here trying to process everything after 40 years,” he said.

Michaels always had a sense he was destined for the airwaves, though it took a while for him to realize radio hosting would be his path. As a kid growing up in Perkins Homes, he dreamed of being a singer, instead.

Some locals called the housing development “The Bottom,” a reference to its geography as one of the last landmarks before hitting the Fells Point waterfront, and also to the hardships faced by many of its residents.

“Socioeconomically, it was the bottom because folks were not doing well there,” Michaels said.

As a way out, he started a musical group with friends, singing the kind of shoo-bop songs that were popular in the 1960s. He grew frustrated, however, when his peers didn’t take the project as seriously as he did. If he couldn’t be the one singing on the radio, Michaels thought, maybe he could at least be the DJ spinning the tunes.

“I decided that radio would be the next best thing,” Michaels said.

Still, it would take years before he got behind a microphone. As a young adult, Michaels enlisted in the Air Force and studied computer management at Coppin State University for about a year and a half after getting out of the service.

A chance encounter with a producer who needed help changing a tire gave Michaels his first peek into the world of radio. As a show of gratitude for Michaels’ assistance, the producer invited him to tour the studio at the former WEBB Radio, where he met station staff.

About a year later, he was sitting in a computer class when he felt compelled to get up and leave. “A premonition voice hit me, saying, ‘This is not what you’re supposed to be doing,’” Michaels recalled. “I got up in the middle of class and withdrew from Coppin State.”

He enrolled, instead, in radio courses at the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland on Harford Road, where he studied for about six months before leaving that program early, too, to accept a job offer at WCEM/WESP-FM in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore.

Michaels says his career has been marked by several of these pivotal, sometimes inexplicable, moments. A few years later, after taking a job at WEBB in Baltimore, he had another epiphany.

He had found success splitting his time between work at the radio station and a side hustle as a DJ and promoter. But, Michaels realized, he still felt unfulfilled.

One night, home after a weekend of clubbing and promoting and eating a greasy cheesesteak at 3 a.m., he honed in on the words of a television evangelist.

“This voice said: ‘You’re tired, aren’t you? You thought things would be better than this,’” Michaels recalled. “I’m looking at this face and it looks like he’s talking directly to me. He said, ‘Why don’t you call the number on the screen?’ When I called, that’s when things really took a turn.”

On the phone, Michaels confessed his unhappiness. After hanging up, he got to his knees and prayed, asking for a sign from God confirming radio was his path. Then he went to sleep. The next morning at 8 a.m., he got a call from a gospel radio host, the Rev. Naomi Durant, asking if Michaels would like to take the afternoon slot at Baltimore’s new all-gospel station, WBGR.

“I went and washed my face. It felt too surreal; I needed to make sure I was awake,” Michaels said. “In that moment before I accepted, what came to mind was I believe that God heard me when I prayed and he sent me my answer.”

Five years into his career at WBGR, another moment of inspiration hit. Locking up the studio after work one day, he encountered an unhoused man trying to get warm. He couldn’t shake the image, and asked his bosses if there was anything they could do to raise awareness about homelessness in the city.

Eventually, he was invited to cover the topic on Durant’s morning show. When she left the studio during a commercial break, he suddenly felt compelled to lock the doors and take over the show.

“I said, ‘I don’t really understand what I’m doing, but I’m doing this, and I’m hoping it will make a difference,’” Michaels said.

Soon, listeners were calling in to ask if they could make a donation. The station redirected their calls to a local nonprofit working with unhoused people.

The response overwhelmed Michaels. “I had over $10,000 within an hour,” he said. In all, the effort raised more than $60,000.

It also caught the attention of higher-ups. The station’s owner, who initially planned to fire him for locking Durant out of her own show, decided instead to make a donation of his own after seeing how Michaels had inspired listeners.

“It was one of those moments that changed the trajectory of my career,” he said.

Michaels started hosting The Morning Experience in 1991. Over the course of 32 years, he’s been recognized several times over for his hosting: Notably, he was named “Announcer of the Year” by the Gospel Music Workshop of America in 2001 and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2005.

He’s also branched out into television, hosting the Sunday morning “Grace and Glory” program on WMAR-TV, the local ABC affiliate.

“It’s been a robust, very gratifying and personally fulfilling ride,” he said Friday of his career.

Now Michaels, who recently turned 70, is ready for a new phase that will include spending more time with family, traveling and pursuing new projects including a line of health and wellness products and a life-coaching business. He’ll also be working as a consultant at Heaven 600 to help smooth the transition for his successor, who has not yet been officially named.

“There are some things that still remain unfulfilled,” Michaels said. “Things that I feel as though I have the capacity to accomplish.”

Craig Collins, a production coordinator at Heaven 600 and a longtime friend and colleague of Michaels, will fill in for him on the air for the next month at least.

Michaels “has the gift of gab,” Collins said. “He’s really a person who digs and find information to be able to bring to people. His mission was to lift people up and find something good to say.”

Friends and listeners returned the favor during his final show Friday, calling in from around the country: Rhode Island, Atlanta, Massachusetts, Jacksonville, Florida and North Carolina.

Laurie DeYoung, a radio host at country music station WPOC, called in to thank Michaels for his work.

“You brought us life and you brought us joy,” she said. “You’ve just been one of those people you can turn to, whether you have something weighing on you or something great happening. You always have the right words at the right time.”

Though Michaels is still planning his next chapter, one thing he won’t miss is waking up at 4:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. Now, he said, “I can wake up at 6 and feel like I slept too late.”

“It’s just been a great ride and I’m grateful,” he said of the past 40 years. “It was hard to really wrap myself around the idea of it ending, but I just felt like it was time.”

“It’s a new year, why not a new beginning?”

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