Southern Gospel Radio:
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
Paul Heil wrote the following feature
article for Singing News magazine, which appeared in their May, 2007,
issue (pages 82-83). Reproduced here by permission.
by Paul Heil
broadcasting in America first appeared in the early 1920s, at least in a
form that we would recognize as broadcasting. And since at least 1922, what
we call Southern Gospel music has had a continuous and beneficial relationship
1922 was the year James D. Vaughan, the man often referred to as the
founder of Southern Gospel music, founded WOAN radio in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.
His music of choice? Southern Gospel quartets, of course. His goal was to
promote his singing school and his songbooks. It worked. People heard the
music and loved it. And radio made it possible.
In fact, in those early years, publishers such as Vaughan and the Stamps-Baxter
Music Company regarded radio exposure for their music as essential. The late
James Blackwood once told me that such broadcasts were really putting
Southern Gospel music on the map. The Blackwood Brothers, of
course, were very popular on the radio, heard on many stations nationwide
via transcription (special broadcast records). Blackwood told me their agency
once estimated, based on the amount of mail their broadcasts received, that
they had a million people listening to you everyday on the radio.
And, indeed, Blackwood Brothers records promoted on their broadcasts sold
in huge numbers, far beyond anything in the field today.
Back then, into the 1940s and 50s, especially, most professional
quartets had such programs. They would do a live broadcast in the morning,
promote their concert (within driving distance), and then have their concert
that night. Glen Payne and Hovie Lister (an early Gospel DJ)
were others who loved to tell me stories about the early days in radio and
the impact it had as it introduced more and more people to their quartet
singing. It was the primary means to promote the music.
Key To Survival
I dont think its far-fetched to say that radio is, in a natural
sense, what has allowed Southern Gospel music to survive and thrive over
the past eighty-some years. Radio has been the primary connection
between the artists (and their record companies) and fans at large. Its
how most people first find out about Southern Gospel music. Its where
most fans first hear new songs. Radio has been an obvious means of promoting
group concert appearances. Radio produces the charts that influence which
artists promoters book. Radio creates a demand for recordings, thereby helping
support the industry, including, of course, the artists. And
radio has inspired generations of singers to become a part of the field.
Most of the artists I interview, in fact, cite radio as an early influence
in their love for Southern Gospel
One of those singers was a young fella from Indiana, Bill Gaither.
Milking cows early in the morning, the barn radio would deliver the
Statesmen or other top quartets of the day. As a kid twelve
years old, not caring much what they were singing, it was just fun, fun music
for me and they got my attention, Gaither recalls. After they
got my attention, I started listening to the lyric, and I said to myself,
this is serious stuff, and I literally found Christ through the
radio. So thats the reason the radio was so important to me.
(Talk about an impact!)
Modern Radio Experiences
And there is an example of the most important impact Southern Gospel music
can have on radio changing lives through the message in the music.
And thats just as true today as ever.
Whats most interesting is the way the Holy Spirit moves on the
listeners during a song set, says Kyle Dowden, program director
at KWFC-FM, Springfield, MO. As a DJ, I might not have put much
thought into the song selection, but I realize God is at work when the phone
starts ringing with folks crying, because what was just aired touched them
in a unique way... I believe this music is filling people with hope in a
Sandi Milam at WJLS, Beckley, WV, shares this account: I
had a listener call and talk to me about the new song from the Whisnants,
A Greater Yes. The listener said that they had been praying about
a particular situation and were wondering why God hadnt answered. When
they heard that song they realized that God had something greater in mind
for them. It was the answer they needed.
Mildred Drake at WDFB, Danville, KY, says many listeners have
been saved as a result of their music. Some new converts said they
had so many questions and every question was answered either through a song
or message they heard on WDFB.
Phil Cross wrote a song called On The Radio to
illustrate the importance of radio to people. The first place I focused
in that song, Cross says, was in a rest home and a precious lady
of God who cant travel outside her room. She lives on a lonely street.
And her connection with the world is through radio. Her whole world is that
radio station. And being able to listen to Gospel music and hear somebody
sing Amazing Grace thats her world.
My files are
full of listener testimonies about the impact of Southern Gospel music on
the radio. One man, a police officer, would listen to The Gospel Greats
program while on patrol. During that time those words [in the songs
you played] began to minister to me and the Holy Spirit began to deal with
me and began to bring me back to the place where He wanted me to be... It
was through your program and through the words, especially of the Cathedrals,
and the song that they did, Boundless Love. The ministry that
the words of that song did in my life began to put me on a track that led
back to the Lord. I began to search and search and I got back into church
and I got back into the Scriptures. That man has since entered the
A Louisiana listener wrote, I was going through some trying times in
my life. Satan was fighting me and trying to beat me down... Gold City
has a song, Im Not Giving Up. That song inspired
me and helped me to stay focused on Christ. When you aired that on one of
your shows back in July, I got a blessing...
This Alabama listener expressed perhaps the most common sentiment we hear
along these lines: Many, many times the exact message I needed to hear
from God has been delivered to me through your program. This has to
be a God thing because no amount of programming savvy
could consistently accomplish that.
One young West Virginia listener recently wrote, I listen almost every
week and I enjoy it thoroughly and so do my mom and dad. Ive been
struggling with my music for a long time and when I listened the first time
I decided that I dont need the worlds music anymore.
Words such as those are music to any Southern Gospel broadcasters ears.
And thats really what makes Southern Gospel music on the radio special.
Its music that can impact lives for Christ.
What About The Future?
But, now in its ninth decade on the radio, can Southern Gospel music continue
to have such an impact?
Yes, say broadcasters weve polled. But it wont happen
on its own. We need to keep our standards of broadcasting high,
says Jon Lands of WVVW, Parkersburg, WV. There is no
room for sloppiness and wasted airtime... Furthermore, we are representing
the Lord Jesus Christ as an ambassador in the world of radio. It is imperative
that we be the best ambassador possible.
Rich Bruce of WTRM, Winchester, VA, says whats needed
is keeping ones on-air presentation intimate (one-to-one), local,
professional and Christ-centered. After all, he says, Southern
Gospel radio reflects more than just someones taste in music; it reflects
and reinforces a lifestyle.
Dowden, of KWFC, notes, The music put out by todays
top artists is of very good quality, from the writing to the singing to the
production. It is having a much greater impact today on those that listen,
and will continue that impact as long as there is someone wanting to hear
Radio, in its traditional form and in its newer satellite and online forms,
has been, is, and will continue to be the lifeline for Southern Gospel music,
so long as the music itself remains of high quality, solid, encouraging and
uplifting and focused on the Gospel.