One of the biggest selling gospel records last year, "Just for Me," by singer Inez Andrews, "had been out for about 10 months and was played all over the country, but nothing happened," according to Richard Simone, a local record wholesale executive. After a Washington radio gospel show announcer played it, however, the song "became a national hit," Simone said.
Washington is one of the nation's leading markets for gospel music, the urban religious sound born of the union between the blues and the plantation spirituals that came out of slavery.
The size and diversity of the gospel audience here is reflected in the variety of personalities and styles among the people who help to make this a major gospel market--the radio announcers.
From WHUR-FM's Patrick Ellis, whose trademark is his soothing, tranquil voice, to the loquacious Madam Lucille Banks Robinson Miller on WYCB-AM, and Cal Hackett on WUST-AM, the dean of gospel announcers, Washington listeners have many choices.
"If a record comes out here and makes it, it makes it everywhere," said Simone, coordinator of gospel music for Schwartz Brothers, a Lanham firm that is the Washington area's largest wholesale record distributor and one of the biggest on the East Coast.
Radio has played a key role in the 50-year history of gospel music, according to music professor Pearl Williams-Jones of the University of the District of Columbia, an authority on gospel music. She said the medium has not only made the music more accessible to the public in general, but to "populations that might not be able to get to the source," such as prisoners and shut-ins, as well as "those who might not be able to afford the music."
In Washington, the popularity of gospel music is owed, in part, to the "large black population, and black and gospel are almost synonymous," said Ernest White, a gospel writer and WDCU-FM gospel broadcaster. "That makes Washington a lucrative market."
Ultimately, however, the success of the records depends largely on the announcers, who often are the first to introduce the music to potential record buyers.
For four hours every Sunday morning, Patrick Ellis is producer, announcer, receptionist and messenger at WHUR, carrying on a personal communion over the airwaves with his audience, the largest of any gospel show at that time. Between records he is busy ripping bulletins off the wire service teletype machines, to interject "things that will affect listeners on Monday" among the music and the half hourly church news.
"Keep it simple' is my motto," Ellis said. "I lay the foundation and you take it from there, whether you're Pentecostal, Protestant, Catholic or something else."
"I try not to make the show overly religious," added the announcer, who is also the station's public affairs director and a producer.
Ellis said he tries to play "the most popular" gospel, mostly contemporary arrangements. But he also makes it a point to play traditional music and old hymns from 7 to 8 a.m., "when a lot of the older listeners are up."
Many in his audience are not regular churchgoers but those "who just need spiritual transfusion during the week," he said in his customary calm voice.
The voice of gospel radio veteran Madam Lucille Banks Robinson Miller calls to mind the older women in church who smell of perfume and powder when they squeeze children close to smother them with kisses and press a 50-cent piece into the small palm.
Her Saturday morning program on WYCB-AM (she also has a Sunday show), which she describes as "seven-eighths traditional music," often is broadcast from crowded public places around the city.
"Don't bother smoking no dope, because that will kill you," the 70-year-old Washington native told youngsters recently during a broadcast from a Georgia Avenue NW restaurant.
"Anybody can be trash, but it takes something to be class," she added, talking at double speed with the confidence of 28 years of radio announcing in her voice.
Miller, a 28-year radio veteran who is well known for her community and civic work began her career at WUST and later moved to WOL, two other AM radio stations before joining WYCB, now a 24-hour gospel station, in 1978. Listeners tell her they like her string of surnames, each acquired by marriage, and the "Madam," added by a pastor's wife at a church where she was music director.
Cal Hackett, called the "king" of the gospel broadcasters by record dealer Simone, jokes that he has "been on the air so long they have a statue of me down at the Smithsonian." A Washington native, with a jovial, down-home voice, he is the best-known announcer at gospel station WUST-AM, where he is a 15-year veteran.
"I was a follower of gospel music, but it was not my intention to be a religious announcer," said Hackett, who occasionally sits in on recording sessions with national gospel stars and each Sunday is host of a live broadcast from the WUST auditorium.
Hackett's annual birthday party at the station has become a community event among those who prefer the traditional gospel music he usually plays.
"I lean toward the heavy, heavy gospel," he said. "I stay away from nongospel groups that make one gospel song."
"I think the way a gospel DJ differs from a rock DJ is that in gospel the object is to be low-key and highlight the music, the people and the church. You become a personality through doing that."
Listeners call gospel announcer Maggie Whaley during her show at the University of the District of Columbia FM station WDCU to ask questions about the Bible and to find out where they can buy good gospel music.
"Thank you and keep listening. Pray for me and I'll pray for you," the 51-year-old grandmother told a recent caller. Whaley, a radio novice with an unpolished announcer's voice, has a growing audience on her Saturday "Maggie the Missionary" show.
An occupational therapy student employed at St. Elizabeths Hospital, who also has a degree in social welfare. she is a licensed missionary at Refreshing Spring Church of God and Christ in Riverdale with authority to conduct revivals and teaching sessions.
In a novel approach to gospel broadcasting, each of five gospel announcers on the year-old WDCU selects a theme for his or her weekly show and reads related scriptures.
Whaley plays "basically traditional" gospel music, she said, and, unlike some announcers, quartets. WDCU, by station manager Godwin Oyewole's directions, includes "all the gospel, from Andrae Crouch to the gut bucket and the storehouse-front church," she said.
At WOOK-FM, Harry Jeffery uses his "ear for music" to determine what will get played on his Saturday and Sunday morning gospel shows. He favors contemporary music by popular artists such as Andrae Crouch, Aretha Franklin and Patrick Henderson, but, he said "I do play some traditional . . . . " His listeners might hear a "reggae-type song, a down-home gospel, then a Latin beat."
"I take a more contemporary approach because I'm trying to reach the younger people through a medium that they can relate to," Jeffery explained.
Jefferey, 30, was a drummer for local rock and gospel bands before he "became deeply committed to religion." He is now percussionist for well-known local gospel singer Wintley Phipps, and a deacon and Sunday school teacher at his Seventh-day Adventist church in Brinklow, Md.
Although Jeffery is also news director and public affairs programmer at WOOK, he considers playing gospel his most important job.
"I try to make the music the star of the show. I want people to listen to it. It can change their lives," he said.