By Steven Brodsky
One of the finest radio voices ever belongs to Paul Heil. His voice has graced the airwaves since 1980. That was the year that The Gospel Greats began as a syndicated radio show. Based in Lancaster County, PA, Paul’s show has aired continuously and is now carried worldwide on many radio stations, Sirius/XM, the internet, and international shortwave. Paul and the show are beloved by fans of Southern Gospel music and the performing and recording artists of the genre. Paul and The Gospel Greats have been recognized by being awarded an abundance of major industry and fan awards. In 2014, the Southern Gospel Music Association inducted Paul Heil into its Hall of Fame. It’s an honor to bring this conversation with him to you.
Please describe the show for those who aren’t regular listeners.
The Gospel Greats program is a weekly two-hour program of and about Southern Gospel music. Its “signature sound” is that it includes brief artist interviews throughout the program, allowing listeners to get to know the artists and drawing them into the meaning of the songs.
The Gospel Greats has retained many of its original features. In 1980, how confident were you that the format would stand up to the test of time?
I’ve always believed that “good radio is good radio.” And good radio is something that people find interesting to listen to. So I try to make the program interesting, as well as unique, while maintaining a spiritual dimension that is often missing in such programs. When I started the program, I applied those principles, hoping it would hold up over the years — not knowing, of course, how many years that would be. And the Lord has surely blessed in that regard.
Are all the interviews on The Gospel Greats in-person?
With very few exceptions, all of the interviews on The Gospel Greats program are recorded in-person. More often than not, this is in a back room at a concert somewhere, but with quality equipment. Probably three decades ago I had someone at a radio station marveling to me that it sounded as if we had all the guests right there with me in the studio. Occasionally, when it’s impossible to get together with a particular artist that we want to interview, they will set up in a recording studio. We’ll interview them by phone, but they’ll record the answers and send them to us, so it still sounds in-person. Also, an exception is that we will use telephone interview clips on the program’s news segment (the Headline Update).
Why do you do you them that way?
In-person interviews are easier to understand on the air, for one thing. That has always been the case, but cell phones sometimes are terribly difficult to understand on the air. I want to do everything I can to make what the artists are saying as clear and understandable as possible. This usually involves considerable editing, too. I had one artist tell me just the other day that I did such a great job of cleaning up his interview that he’s convinced all I would have to have from him would be a collection of vowels and consonants and I could make him say anything I want.
It says much about you and the show that the major artists of Southern Gospel music come to your studio to record their interviews. How difficult is it for most of them to do the interviews in-person in light of busy touring schedules?
While most of our interviews are “in the field” at concerts, the National Quartet Convention or other such venues, we’ve always had at least some interviews recorded here at the studio. (Hopefully, the studio interviews are nearly indistinguishable on the air from the remote interviews.) But in-studio interviews have increased considerably in recent years. A few years ago, we wanted to interview Greater Vison about a new CD, but they didn’t have any concerts scheduled anywhere nearby for several months. They were heading from Tennessee to some dates in New England, but they would pass through our area about 2 a.m. So they agreed to stop by the studio at 2 a.m. and we did the interview in the middle of the night.
Tell us about your early exposure to Southern Gospel music.
As far back as I can remember, my dad had Southern Gospel records. The Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen were especially prominent. Also, the Couriers promoted concerts regularly in nearby Harrisburg, so our church group attended a few of them. But what actually got me involved professionally was the convergence of my love of radio production, radio syndication and the fact that my brother had a local singing group. He got the Singing News (this was in the 1970s) and, since it included a top-tunes chart, that inspired the idea for the program. Unlike other countdown shows, The Gospel Greats has just one countdown per month. The reasons are twofold: First, the chart changes only once a month. Second, it allows much more week-to-week variety than a weekly countdown would.
Were there concert performances that were especially influential to you? If so, when did they take place and how did they affect you?
I don’t recall any one specific concert that was especially influential. But I do recall several concerts by the Cathedrals, including one at our home church. Getting to know them personally, especially Glen and George, became something very special for me.
Please tell us about a few of your most memorable guest interviews on the show.
Well, I just mentioned George Younce. Shortly after the Cathedrals retired, I asked George if he would co-host our 20th anniversary program (February of 2000). He did. We traveled to his home in Stow, Ohio, where we set up our equipment in his home’s sun room and we recorded there. Another interview I recall was with the late J. D. Sumner. He always had a gruff demeanor, or at least it seemed that way to folks. But he had a big heart. When I asked how he would like to be remembered, he choked a bit and said, “I would like people to remember the real J.D.”
Your listeners are familiar with: “The Greatest Songs about the Greatest Message, the Gospel.” Speak about what those words mean.
When the name was originally chosen, it was primarily for the alliteration in the wording. Easy to remember. But I soon found out that many in the music industry at large use similar terms to refer to the artists, such as the “country greats.” That was not my intention. So, in relatively recent times, I came up with that slogan as a subtitle to try to make clear that we’re referring to the “greatest songs about the greatest message,” which, of course, is the Gospel message. That puts the focus where it should be.
What kind of listener feedback do you value the most?
I value any listener feedback. I am blessed and encouraged by people who write to me or tell me at a concert that they listen to the program every week. Some say they plan their weekend around the time the program is heard in their area. Wow. But to know the program is touching people with the Gospel and to know the program is encouraging people in their Christian walk is the kind of feedback that encourages me the most. It is truly an honor to be invited into their homes or cars each week.
What are some of the favorite Southern Gospel recordings that you enjoy most during the Christmas season?
Wow — there are many. During the 2016 Christmas season, because of the way the calendar worked out, we had four weeks of all-Christmas music (that’s more than usual). And we were blessed with a larger than usual number of outstanding new Christmas recordings. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I had a chance to play. I do enjoy the new Christmas songs, as long as they point to Christ as the reason for the season. But I especially enjoy vibrant new renditions of traditional Christmas carols that have stood the test of time.
Information about The Gospel Greats is available at: www.thegospelgreats.com.
Posted Dec. 22, 2016