Published on October 18th, 2019 | by Nina Pulley
Gospel Radio: A Brief History and Celebration of Voices That Shaped a Black Art Form
Gospel music occupies a unique place in American culture. A distinctly African American cultural and aesthetic form, it is embraced in places as far as Germany and Holland, and to a lesser extent, the UK ‒ and even in Japan. Americans understand the music as a global phenomenon, much like most of the artistic producings of the African American community, most predominantly being hip-hop. It’s also gone through its fair share of changes, much like any genre. Its key elements are a powerful vocal performance marked by high energy, an emotional performance, subjects relating to the Spirit, and an uplifting or “holy” element. However, with the popularization and commercializing forces that have acted upon Black music, many wonder where the substance of its origins have gone.
The same, perhaps, can be said of radio. Gone are the days where disc jockeys, particularly in Black appeal radio formats, were the neighborhood vanguard announcing when protests were happening, which roads to stay off of to avoid police searches, as well as community friends who kept you in the loop and played all of your favorite records. Many radio formats are mechanical, sonic manipulators that seek only to seize the listener’s attention only to play mostly advertisements and the “top 40” hits, with little to no audience interaction. However, there remains a quiet but populous community of listeners that tune in every morning or afternoon to hear encouragement and Sunday songs. Here, the approach of the format is quite different. Hosts are conveyors of “daily wisdom,” or commiserators of the day-to-day struggles of life, offering kind words and a song that might be just what you needed to hear.
This, of course, is not true of all gospel stations. Like aforementioned, many gospel songs and records seem to have conformed to the times and look to be “poppy” and “relatable,” some accruing, what some consider to be deserved, criticism. Others welcome the change. What can be said is that gospel is rooted in the African American tradition, which, of course, emanates from the life and customs of African cosmology and cultural values. The first to be recalled perhaps is the element of call-and-response, often seen in West African dance forms and older gospel performances like the ring shout or later versions of the African American hymn, which developed into spirituals over time. These are the backbone of today’s gospel.
The history of gospel music, particularly of gospel radio, might most easily be tracked by exploring the start of the current gospel radio stations, but like so many origin stories of African American cultural forms, the roots are not well-documented. Most are tracked by ethnomusicologists through oral interviews and spoken recollections passed down through generations, which perhaps is in keeping with the rich oral histories that were recorded and passed on by griots in African communities in pre- (and post-) colonial eras. Most Black appeal format radio stations, which were invariably some of the first to play gospel music in the late forties and fifties, experienced a transfer of power from all-White management with Black hosts, to the eventual, albeit sparse, Black station manager, to stations like WWRL, WBLS, and WHUR, which made history for being some of the first Black-owned and operated radio stations in the country. Where Black people were, Black gospel was also: R&B formats didn’t take hold until the late fifties and early sixties, before which jazz and gospel, but usually never the two together, would play, especially on weekends and evenings, when people had off.
Mahalia Jackson may still be considered the heralding voice of the golden age of gospel, before whom only local groups and soloists sang in churches and at local events. Jackson was the first to really bring forth what we know as gospel today, along with some of her contemporaries: Bessie Smith, Bessie Folk, and Myrtle Jackson, just to name a few. She, along with these singers and others of the time, hailed from the South and moved to Chicago during the Great Migration, bringing the proprietism and Southern philosophies, as well as the deep struggles of African American people along with them. These voices soon would be heard on radio stations all over the country, and gave rise to the popularization of the genre. Over time, that gospel has not remained the same. The message, perhaps yes, but the style and delivery has indeed changed over time, with some important continuities. The empowered, spirited delivery; the visually emotional performance; the calling to the “Spirit” or the “Holy Ghost”; and the presence of a choir, have all somehow remained musical and aesthetic choices that continue to convey power, invoking the rich and deep history of African American music, which itself serves as a time capsule, documenting experience and wisdom knowing no bonds of time.
Below is a list of a few current, lesser-known gospel show hosts who have impacted the way many listen to gospel music on the radio today. They uphold the performative traditions and heart of Black urban life, both of which can hardly be separated from the experience of gospel music today. In this list, both men and women are equally represented. These well-loved but perhaps overshadowed gospel hosts take time to share with their audience their knowledge and expertise, along with a widely shared love of African American musical traditions.
Darrell Luster on Malaco Radio
Mr. Luster has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of gospel music, so much so that on the Malaco radio website he lists over fifty names of gospel artists spanning the lifetime of gospel itself, all of which are played on the air. He considers himself a gospel historian and will often share bits of information, historical facts or trivia along with the records he’s playing. This type of knowledge is often overlooked by society, especially when Black men possess it, but we applaud him for his time and effort in offering his best to Malaco Radio listeners.
Bishop Janie M. Carr on WYCB Spirit 1340
Bishop Carr was born and raised in Red Springs, North Carolina to two devoutly Christian parents. She considers herself a servant of the Lord and strives to walk in love and light every day. As it says in a short biography, “In 1973, God called Bishop Carr into the ministry to preach the Gospel. In 1975, Bishop Carr was ordained. God began to lead her into radio ministry. Through the radio ministry, she has fed many people from all walks of life, both spiritually and physically. She has crossed the continental globe to teach and preach the good news of Jesus Christ.” She hosts a show on the famous WYCB Spirit 1340 on Saturdays from one to one-thirty PM to encourage folks and share the gospel with people across the DMV area.
Bettie Robinson (post.) on 88.5-FM KTEP El Paso
A beloved radio host on the station passed away in late 2017 after being on the air for thirty-seven years. She was the original host of The Best of Gospel and hosted the show every Sunday morning from 5 AM to 9 AM playing her, as well as audience, favorites. A program description on KTEP’s website reads:
The Best of Gospel has been on the air for over thirty years. Bettie Robinson has been the original host for the show and continues to broadcast four hours of non-stop Black Gospel Music each Sunday morning. Bettie plays the latest in contemporary gospel, along with old favorites. There are occasional in-studio guests that discuss the latest events occurring in our community, including entertainment or educational information. The show provides listeners with an inspirational feeling.
People like Betty paved the way for current radio hosts to do what they do best: encourage their listeners and carve out a space to provide uplifting, genre-independent music to a crowd of listeners spanning all ages. We thank Bettie for her life and her foundational, life-changing work. As it says in a formal statement offered by the station, “Ms. Robinson was up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to play those songs of hope deeply rooted in the rich traditions of the African-American church, music responsible for launching the careers of many contemporary Jazz, Rock, Soul and Country musicians.”
Gary Byrd on Radio 1
Gary Byrd!? Yes, indeed, Gary Byrd. While not broadcast in the United States, he hosted a gospel show on Radio 1 in the UK during the 1980s, which was played on Sundays at 10PM entitled “Gary Byrd’s Sweet Inspirations.” It began with the eponymous song by The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and some listeners recount that the song became associated with the show itself over time. Byrd compiled an LP of top picks from the show, still available for purchase. Reminiscent listeners have admitted that it was a welcome introduction to the African American musical tradition in the Isles.
Starting her three-station career and television host spot in the late 1950s, Mary Holt, Cleveland-gal and mother of two, was one of the first and only women, and one of the first Black women, to host an R&B radio show. She hosted a gospel show as well as a country hour! She passed away in 2011 at the age of 89, leaving a mark on the radio world as well as her own. Articles were published about her in newspapers, Jet, and Ebony magazines of the fifties and sixties. Go girl!
These are only a few of the names of well-loved gospel radio hosts who either continue today or have passed on. Rev. Babb, for instance, in Nashville, Tennessee, left an indelible mark on his listeners and was not mentioned here. I could go on, but the point has been made: gospel radio is present, has a history, and that history is sometimes little-told except in the communities in which it is loved and known.
Regardless of the criticisms it has accrued, gospel is a music genre that rose out of the Black church, the center of Black life and commerce for over two centuries. It arose from the dynamic, organic realities of Black life in the United States. It crystallizes, along with other Black musical genres, the plight of the Black person in this unjust, counterfeit society, as well as their coping mechanisms in the face of unspeakable tragedy and mistreatment. At its best, it somehow alchemizes that sorrow into something transcendent and beautiful, and at its worst, demeans and takes out of context the breadth and depth of something meant to encourage, becoming instead rather performative and hollow. It is my hope that gospel musicians and listeners find a small bit of inspiration in this article and rise, championing the gospel in both words and actions, not buying into the industry standard of theatrical, caricatured celebrity.
- “Gospel Music History Archive.” Gospel Music History Archive. University of Southern California. Accessed October 14, 2019. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/timeline/collection/p15799coll9.
- Harris, Hamil R. “Old-Time Religious Radio.” The Washington Post. WP Company, February 1, 2003. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2003/02/01/old-time-religious-radio/4c2e3a6f-6f6b-4672-9ef7-fed9861e20a5/.
- Norris, Michele. “A History of Gospel Music.” NPR. NPR, December 17, 2004. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4233793.
- “Radio.” Malaco Records. Accessed October 14, 2019. https://www.malaco.com/radio/.
- “The Heaven 11: Gospel Music Expert Lists 11 Most Influential Black Gospel Songs.” Media and Public Relations | Baylor University, June 2, 2019. https://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=210262&_buref=1169-91771.
- “The Rich History of Black Gospel in Philadelphia.” Gospel Roots Of Rock And Soul, February 26, 2019. http://xpngospelroots.org/the-rich-history-of-black-gospel-in-philadelphia/.
- Warren, Bruce. “The Power Of Gospel Gets Explored In A New Documentary Series.” NPR. NPR, February 1, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/02/01/690150730/the-power-of-gospel-gets-explored-in-a-new-documentary-series.