I recently had the opportunity to interview Paul Heil, a legend in the world of Southern Gospel radio. For thirty-four years, he has run a syndicated program called The Gospel Greats.
Daniel J. Mount: I thought I would start by asking a little bit about your background, both how you came to a faith in Christ, and how you came to an interest in this genre of music.
Paul Heil: Well my dad was a pastor as I grew up, and because of that, we were involved all the time in church. The old hymns of the church always caught my attention. I was in the junior choir, believe it or not, and we sang there every now and then.
Because my dad was a pastor, of course I was quite familiar from early years with the fundamentals of the faith; however, I was about eight years old when a visiting evangelist came in for a special series of services at our church. I don’t remember the message he gave, but I remember what happened; that’s when I went up front, and gave my heart to the Lord. I could take you to that church even now and show you pretty much exactly where I was sitting when I felt the urge to do this, and where I knelt down on the altar up there. I may have only been eight years old, but it certainly stuck, and I’m glad of that.
Daniel: Now did you actually grow up in the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania?
Paul: Close by. My childhood was mostly in York, Pennsylvania, which is about twenty-four miles to the west. My dad had a church there, and I was there through eighth grade; he was moved to Lancaster when I was in ninth grade to pastor a church here. And of course I came along, being only of ninth grade age. But I have been here ever since.
Daniel: How did you first become exposed to this genre of music; and I’m also curious: did you love it immediately, or did the love grow on you over time?
Paul: That’s hard to say! I was just always exposed to it. My dad had old Blackwood Brothers, Chuck Wagon Gang, and Statesmen LPs in the house, and recordings always intrigued me. He even had some old 78s at the time. I was intrigued by the music.
In this area, we were very blessed to have the Couriers; they had big events up at Harrisburg. A couple of times, our church youth group went to those big sings. Of course that just sort of sealed the deal. I loved the music, and I loved what it was saying. Of course the music was just a little bit different back then, as you well know, but I loved it anyway. It just stuck.
Daniel: At these Courier sings, who were some of the major groups you saw at some of your first concerts?
Paul: There were some of the big groups of the day—the Happy Goodman Family, the Blackwood Brothers, and others. The Couriers, of course, always were there.
Daniel: How did you get involved in radio?
Paul: I’d always been interested in news, primarily, and that sort of opened the door. When I was just a kid, I enjoyed newspapers. I would get my hands on whatever newspapers I could; if we ever took a vacation somewhere, I would always be sure to get a copy of the local newspaper to see what they were doing and how they did it.
That sort of grew into a love of media in general, and broadcast media. The TV, of course, was not really brand new, but it was quite an interesting thing back there. We lived in an area where there was a radio station that was really dominant in setting some trends for stations nationwide. Because of that, I got to enjoy formatting; I got to enjoy just the way things flowed together on the air and how they were doing it. They also had quite a news department. So all my interests sort of came together in what I was interested in then, and also, of course, what I’m doing now!
When in high school, I built a little neighborhood radio station using a part 15 transmitter. When I got into college, of course there was a college radio station. All four years of college I was there at the college radio station, the first three as program director and the fourth year as station manager.
Even before all of that, when I was in my senior year of high school, I got a job at the local radio station, WGAL radio in Lancaster. I was weekend announcer from my senior year in high school. That’s where I wound up staying when I was out of college. They were just beginning to form a news department at that time. They’d always had local news, of course, but they were interested right then in setting up a local news department. So that appealed to me because of my interest in news and also production, because a good newscast has some production in it.
I started part-time work from school in 1965. I began to work there full-time at the end of 1969, after I graduated from college. I became news director, and stayed there till ’77. Fortunately, we were blessed with all kinds of awards from the Associated Press and other organizations, because of the work we were doing. We had an excellent team that we assembled to do the news.
Daniel: So how did you move from news into merging that with your other love of Gospel music?
Paul: From ’77 till ’79, I actually was a TV news director, instead of a radio news director. But all of this time, I’d been wanting to do syndication. Network syndication had always appealed to me, even during my college years. I had formed a college network; I had actually about a dozen college radio stations throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. Every night, at seven o’clock, we’d have a half hour news block. And this half hour news block would be fed to all of these college radio stations using broadcast telephone lines, which is the way it was done back then. We actually had a live network. We had a ten minute national news cast; we had a ten minute sports cast, which was contributed by a local college radio station here; and then we had about a nine minute news cast about things happening on college campuses. And those were the turbulent ’60s when there was a lot of news going on on college campuses around the country.
And then from there, even while I was at the TV station, I still had that love for syndicated radio, for network radio, for syndicated radio, and had been looking for something that I could do to syndicate a program. I’d always been intrigued by the likes of Casey Kasem; his “American Top 40” program had been a big success at that point for about ten years in network syndication. I wondered, “What is it that we could do like that that would be of interest to people?”
My brother had a local Gospel group. He showed me a Singing News magazine (well, it was a newspaper back then). Lo and behold, they had a Top 40 chart. I thought, “Well, you know, I could use this Top 40 chart to do a countdown type of program. But, because the chart only changed once a month, I could do the countdown once a month, and the rest of the month would be open to do other kinds of features which wouldn’t be possible with a weekly countdown.
So that’s the direction I went. I started building a radio studio, in my house. It was to the point in 1979 when I thought, “This is the time.” So I left my job at the TV station, and I began to devote myself to preparing this particular idea of doing a program called “The Gospel Greats.”
I don’t know the specific background of that name, it was just one on a very long list of possibilities. But there seemed to be a certain alliteration there, it seemed to be catchy, so that’s what we went with.
Daniel: How long was it from ’79, from when you left the TV station, to when you were able to put out the first program?
Paul: It was about three months.
Daniel: I’m curious: how many radio stations did you start out with?
Paul: Oh, it was just a handful on the very first program. About five or six as I recall.
Daniel: Were they largely in your area?
Paul: No, actually they were not in my area. [Laughs] You couldn’t even hear it here in Lancaster! The first station that signed up for us was in Roanoke, Virginia, WRIS. We set up a booth at the NRB (National Religious Broadcasters) Convention, which was in Washington D.C. at that time. A fellow from WRIS seemed interested in this, and signed up. He was the very first one, and we had some others shortly thereafter. It just grew from there.
The first program was in February of 1980. It was actually late summer or so before it was heard on a Lancaster station.
Daniel: So you were doing the countdown, and other features, from the early days of the program? Were you doing “Artist Spotlights” like you do now…were they there from pretty much the beginning?
Paul: You know, this is interesting, at least it is to me. From the very beginning, from the very beginning, we did everything pretty much like we are doing it now.
Paul: The features, the “Artist Spotlights” features, the “Featured Artist” features, even to the point of where they appear in the program; the “Headline Update” feature, even to the point of where it appears in the program. Almost everything is done very much like it was back then the very first year.
Daniel: Do you have any recollections of who your first “Artist Spotlight” was?
Paul: Well, the first featured artist was the Happy Goodman Family. They were the very first “Featured Artist” that we had on the program, and of course, like all of our featured artist, they were an in-person interview. We have always done it that way.
That was very special. I had no idea at the time how special that would be looking back on it in years to come, because it was very special to me to do that.
Daniel: In the early years, was there an “Artist Spotlight” that you were like, “It’s a really big deal for us to be able to interview this artist”? Were there any particularly momentous things in the first years of “The Gospel Greats” that really helped build it? Or were you pretty much interviewing the largest artists like the Happy Goodmans from day one?
Paul: Actually, that’s the case. We tried to base the program on dealing with primarily the top artists.
This is probably a good time to mention an interesting point about the title, “The Gospel Greats.” Despite what a lot of people think, it does not refer to the singers. I use it to refer to the songs, and, of course, the message in the songs. I have a little slogan I use now for the last couple years to try to set that record straight: “The Gospel Greats, the greatest songs about the greatest message: the Gospel.”
But, having said that, we do try to focus primarily, and always have since the very beginning, on the top artists. That sort-of went along with the idea of the “Top 20 Countdown” that did each month. We wanted to spotlight the very best of Southern Gospel music, as reflected in the charts.
Daniel: I know you have recorded through the years many of the interviews at your office, or at NQC. Have you ever driven across the country to do an interview? Have you ever had to do a lot of traveling to do an interview?
Paul: Actually, we don’t have to do a lot of traveling. We have been extremely blessed in our home area here to have had a lot of the groups come through this area. When they do, we can go to the concert and find a backstage room somewhere, and do an interview. We have been blessed by Garden Spot Promotions, which has been headquartered here in Lancaster for many, many years. Because of the groups they brought through here, we could do a lot of the interviews locally. Now we do go to the NQC and to some other events, but not nearly as often as a lot of people think we do.
Something that’s developed in recent years is that some of the groups that come through our area en route to somewhere else will stop by the office here, and we’ll do the interview right here. It’s interesting to see how that works out.
All the audio material on the program outside of the “Headline Update” is in-person interview. And it’s been like that since the very beginning. That’s sort of the hallmark of the sound of the program.
Daniel: Your website mentions that the program is airing on around 200 hundred radio stations right now.
Paul: It’s close to 200. Of course, it fluctuates, and it’s down a little bit from that here. Over the past couple years, as you are well aware, things have tightened up in the radio market. What we found to be so helpful in years past was the local ownership of radio stations. When you get the chance to talk to a local station manager or owner, who knows his market, it actually is a whole lot easier to convince him to put on a program like ours than it is when the station is owned and controlled by some conglomerate a thousand miles away. So it has had an impact on us from that standpoint.
Daniel: Now my curiosity was less about the exact number and more in the makeup of those stations. Are most of the stations stations that play a fair amount of Southern Gospel every day of the week? Or do a significant percentage of the stations air news or another genre of music, and have you as perhaps a Sunday morning feature?
Paul: It is about half and half. I don’t have exact numbers on this, but about half the stations I would consider Southern Gospel radio stations. Ever since day one, some of these very first radio stations were Country stations. Of course, remember back then, a lot of the Country stations would have a Sunday morning Gospel time. So our program fit right in with that on Country stations. We were on a lot of big Country stations right from day one. We were on WSM in Nashville for twelve years.
Daniel: Really! I did not know that!
Paul: Yeah. You mentioned news talk stations; I think we do have a news talk station, but that’s just one or two. There are some other forms of music; it’s all over the spectrum. If we can convince a station that the program will be something their listeners will like, and if the listeners like it, the station can sell it; and if the station can sell it, and make some money on it, that’s to their advantage to put it on.
Daniel: And by selling it, I assume you mean persuade advertisers?
Paul: Yes, exactly.
Daniel: Could you share a little about the founding of Springside?
Paul: We’ve been doing Springside (www.springside.com) since 1986. It was started as a response to all the people who kept writing into the radio program saying, “I love your music, where can I get it?” Now back in those days, a lot of Christian book stores carried a lot of Southern Gospel records. But there wasn’t always a very good selection. They quite often had just older material, or things which might not be considered Southern Gospel. So we started out on a small basis, providing the service as a mail order supplier, and it just grew over the years to what it is now.
Daniel: A couple of general questions about the genre past and future: I was curious if you have any reflections about changes that you’ve seen in the music over the 30-some years you have been doing this, both for the better, and for the worse; just curious, things you notice are different than when you started.
Paul: Well, it is different; there’s no doubt about it. Of course, what isn’t? [Laughs] Everything has changed in 34 years. The music itself, of course there will always be in Southern Gospel music, it will always pay homage, you might say, to the traditional Southern Gospel quartet music; which I think, in some respects, is still the heritage of Southern Gospel music.
The music itself has changed a little bit over the years. For the most part, it’s necessary; for the most part, it’s a good thing. I am a little reluctant sometimes when there’s a particular song that sort-of stretches the limits of the genre. Of course, this is all subjective; it’s not an objective matter to say what is and what is not Southern Gospel music. Perhaps it is more true than it ever has been.
Musically, the nice part about it is the improved technology that has allowed recording process to be so much more polished than it was at one time. The flip side of that is that I think some groups, and I’m speaking here in very general terms, rely more on the ability to make those corrections with technology, then they do on doing it in a quality way to begin with. The groups way back then had one take at it, and that was it! So that’s both the good news and the bad.
Daniel: Looking forward to the future: You know, the genre has changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years, since the retirement of the Cathedrals—that’s probably a good milestone. Since about the year 2000, there have been many changes on many fronts…
Paul: I think the retirement of the Cathedrals, back at the end of 1999 was a good milestone. Because during that period of time, shortly before and after that, there was a whole generational change in Southern Gospel music. And I think that is probable the biggest thing that has changed over the years. You lost all the people like Brock Speer, J.D. Sumner, Hovie Lister, George Younce, and Glen Payne, who had been so fundamental to Southern Gospel music for so long. To their credit, they left people behind that they worked with who were a part of their groups, and they trained, and who learned from them.
Daniel: Yes, and looking ahead to the future, whether it’s from a stand point of good business practices, material in songs, stage presentation, how groups promote themselves, whatever the area might be, are there things that have stood out to you that groups are doing right right now, or need to do differently; in your thought process is, “this what Southern Gospel needs to do to be strong 10 or 20 years from now”?
Paul: Well, I think Southern Gospel music, like any form of Christian music, needs to focus on the message; needs to focus on the ministry aspects of the music. I mean, the Gospel is for everyone, the Gospel has the answer to all of life’s questions. And if we’re out there trying to spread the Gospel through Southern Gospel music, that is exactly what we need to focus on.
Now some singers so much of an emphasis on their style of singing. They try to be hyper-emotive, if you could use that word. What we don’t want is somebody leaving a concert saying, “Oh, what a singer!” What we do want is someone leaving a concert saying, “Oh, what a Savior!” And I think that is the key to the ministry of Southern Gospel music.
Daniel: Very neat, and thank you. Well, how about a fun question. Did you do any exercises or voice training either to lower your vocal range, to have more of a radio broadcaster range, or to improve your voice quality?
Paul: Nothing formally, no. As I said, I’d been involved with radio since high school days, and I always found that the more I used my voice, the stronger it became. In fact, I used to work Sunday nights at the radio station during high school, I’d work Sunday nights; and I’d found out that if I, in church on Sunday morning, if I sang vigorously as we had the congregational singing, my voice would be stronger that night. Aside from that, no, there wasn’t any formal exercises or anything to do that.
You know, I think if the Lord calls you to do something, He equips you to do it. And that’s not always something you can see immediately, sometimes it’s something you can only see in hindsight. But never the less, it’s right there, and that is a lesson to be learned that whatever we are going through today, if we can see that in our past, and know that He has done that, there’s no reason to think He won’t do that again.
Daniel: Finally, how can people hear “The Gospel Greats”?
Paul: The website address for the “Gospel Greats” program is www.thegospelgreats.com. And if you go to that website, up in the upper left hand corner, we have what we call “Station Finder.” Click on that, and you can put in your zip code, and it will tell you if there is any station within 50 miles.
There is also a link there that says, “Listen on the Web”; a lot of stations carry our program on the internet. It would be easy enough to find a station that carries the program at a time when it would be convenient for you to listen.
There’s also information there about where the program is on Sirius XM, which means anybody anywhere in North America who has a Sirius XM radio can listen to the program. So there a lot of options to listen.
Daniel: Thank you!