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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

Radio 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 with radio.

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 don’t think it’s 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. It’s how most people first find out about Southern Gospel music. It’s 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 singing.

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 that’s 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 that’s just as true today as ever.

“What’s 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 difficult world.”

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 hadn’t 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 can’t 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’ — that’s her world.”

Listener Testimonies

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 ministry.

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, ‘I’m 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. I’ve been struggling with my music for a long time and when I listened the first time I decided that I don’t need the world’s music anymore.”

Words such as those are music to any Southern Gospel broadcaster’s ears. And that’s really what makes Southern Gospel music on the radio special. It’s 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 we’ve polled. But it won’t 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 what’s needed is “keeping one’s on-air presentation intimate (one-to-one), local, professional and Christ-centered.” After all, he says, “Southern Gospel radio reflects more than just someone’s taste in music; it reflects and reinforces a lifestyle.”

Dowden, of KWFC, notes, “The music put out by today’s 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 the music.”

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.

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