By Timothy Cox
Sadly, gospel radio icon Garfield Turner died following a lengthy illness just after our publication deadline. In his honor, we’ve chosen to leave his impact cited in this article unedited.
Black gospel radio in the Augusta-Aiken market enjoys a significant listenership, but locals rarely consider this entity a prominent radio demographic, attracting a viable (financial) market share. The history of Augusta-Aiken Christian broadcasting dates to the late 1940s and focuses around three key figures who have kept black gospel radio alive and well: the Reverend Johnny Bussey, Minister Eddie Harris and Garfield Turner. Yet, all three men give proper credit to the late Brother Eugene Shelby for his leadership role to ensure that black gospel music became a respectable force within the greater Augusta broadcasting community. Shelby was the longtime general manager at WTHB radio until his death in the early 2000s.
WKZK General Manager Garfield Turner is the elder statesman of the living-legend trio. In 1982, he was among the founding fathers who helped get WKZK back on the air. Today, Turner remains at the helm of the station that proudly calls itself “The Spirit” and is simulcast near the old GreenJacket’s baseball stadium near Lake Olmstead.
“The Preacher Man”
In April, Reverend Johnny Bussey, a.k.a “The Preacher Man,” completed an unprecedented 50-year career ending at Shout 94.7 WAAW radio in Aiken. Although he worked for several stations in the local market, Rev. Bussey, 78, credits Shelby for his foray into the industry. He got his start in 1971, working a shift at WTHB where he purchased airtime to work as a gospel deejay.
Shelby was the general manager at the station where Bussey paid $1 per minute to work his 30-minute shift. Later Bussey was offered a paid shift at WRDW (then owned by Godfather of Soul James Brown), so he no longer had to shell out money from his pocket to work the airwaves.
An admitted quartet man, Rev. Bussey says he always had an affinity toward the quartet format of gospel, enjoying artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s, Canton Spirituals, Slim and the Supreme Angels and Augusta’s own Swanee Quintet.
“Gospel radio is the heartbeat of the word. Take WTHB and WAAW, I’ve worked for both stations and they’re both leading the way,” he says. “And we’ve always had white listeners. I had lots of whites who tuned in early in the morning. They wanted to hear my ministry and the spiritual words that I had to relay for the top of the day.”
After more than 10 years with WAAW, Rev. Bussey knew it was time to take a well-deserved break. “My ratings were still high, and the people still wanted me to keep on. But I knew it was time to go. I saw the change coming, it was time to retire.” The reverend intends to spend the extra time with his wife of 57 years, Reatha.
Minister Eddie Harris
Another Augusta gospel icon is Minister Eddie Harris. After nearly 30 years in the gospel music scene, Minister Harris’ long-term continuous airtime was abruptly disconnected by the pandemic.
Having worked a regular Sunday morning shift with iHeartRadio’s 96.9-FM for several years, Harris said he and others at the station were abruptly informed that their services would not be needed anymore. “I didn’t panic. I didn’t worry. I figured if God closes this door, then God must be waiting to open another door.”
Minister Harris also learned his radio chops from Shelby and once worked at WFXA (FOXIE 103-FM), then Davis Broadcasting. He gives credit to Augusta radio legends, Mal “Your Pal” Cook, Robert “Mustache Flash” Gordon and Georgia State Representative Henry L. Howard Sr., for introducing him to WJBF’s Parade of Quartets TV show, the Swanee Quintet leaders James “Big Red” Anderson, Percy Griffin and others.
Now 72, Minister Harris wants his longtime listeners to know he now has proper time to commit to his family which includes 34 great-grandchildren and his wife, Crystal.
Parade of Quartets
The Reverend Karlton Howard is part of a gospel music historical legacy. Howard is the longtime host of the Parade of Quartets. His TV gospel music performance show is considered the longest-running gospel TV program of its kind in the nation, and perhaps the entire world, he says. Since 1953, the show still airs on WJBF-TV and WJBF’s Me-TV, Sunday mornings and nights, respectively.
Rev. Howard considers having radio stations in the Bible Belt a direct link to the ongoing success of Augusta-Aiken’s black gospel radio popularity. He credits men like Shelby and Turner, in addition to his father, the late Georgia Rep. Henry L. Howard Sr., co-founder of the Parade of Quartets, with creating a legacy that continues.
Parade of Quartets is currently enjoying its 68th year, while the Swanee Quintet is embarking on its 80th anniversary in October 2022.
Gospel and “The Godfather”
Deanna Brown-Thomas, daughter of the Godfather of Soul James Brown, noted that her father was always a proponent of black gospel in the Augusta-Aiken region.
“Dad would always say the music he generated came from the survival and the struggles that he endured and overcame. His origins came from the church,” she says.
Brown-Thomas also fondly recalls when her father would come back from being on the road and scoop the family off to Sunday morning services at his home church in Elko, S.C. “He was a member of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church — we still have family in the area. That’s where my father was baptized. Dad would take us all in a limousine. It’s truly a precious memory,” she recalls.
As the owner of five radio stations throughout the U.S. East Coast, James Brown understood the power of mass communications ownership, says Brown-Thomas. The last station he owned, WAAW, was initially located in downtown Augusta on the corner of James Brown Boulevard and Broad Street. He eventually sold the station, and the new owners changed the format from R&B/soul to all-gospel and relocated their headquarters to Aiken.
The Aiken Airwaves
Donna Moore Wesby is the current general manager and program director of WAAW, now affectionately known as Shout 94.7-FM.
With a degree in broadcast journalism, Wesby initially became a successful public relations officer at the Savannah River (Nuclear) Site in Aiken. She eventually realized her passion for radio in 2009, after Aiken pastor and musician Lester Smalls purchased WAAW. Wesby credits a fellow radio personality, Ruben Freeman, for helping her transition to radio.
Today, Wesby says she’s more than satisfied with her career move, explaining the importance of black gospel radio in the community at large.
“Because we’re African-American-owned entities, we need to realize the value of owning these airwaves. Gospel is a direct connection to our struggle. As a people, we’ve always used gospel music as a pertinent communication tool. It remains an important fabric of our lives. The music we play is community-focused, so we can promote our businesses and lift up our listeners — through positive lyrics and spiritual food for thought,” said Wesby.
“Although our listenership is primarily Black, over the years, we’re experiencing a more diverse demographic,” said the station executive. “Our advertisers come in all forms — some from the academic arena, utilities, churches, healthcare and corporate retail. That means our listeners have diverse needs.”
Wesby adds that black gospel radio must continue to serve its senior citizens, or those who have traditionally supported the idiom. With the computer technology, web-based input, apps and streaming services, she believes “it’s important not to disengage what has historically been a large part of our demographic. We will not forget our senior citizens,” she emphasizes.
The station will sponsor its 14th annual WAAW Shoutfest, a free outdoor gospel festival October 15 at the Beverly Clyburn Generations Park in Aiken.
Sister Mary Kingcannon
With a unique radio delivery steeped in the Mile High City tradition, Sister Mary Kingcannon has enjoyed gospel radio success as a popular on-air personality with WTHB for more than 30 years.
Like several of her on-air counterparts, Sister Kingcannon is also an ordained minister. Years ago she and her husband left Colorado for new opportunities in the South. Having had early radio experience while in Denver, Sister Kingcannon notes that culture and region play a major role in Augusta’s black gospel radio success.
“We’re in the Bible Belt. That says it all — our listeners are more inclined to have more biblical and spiritual sensibilities,” she added. Sister Kingcannon says taking a personal interest in listeners and making connections has been her bridge to success.
“I just love connecting with people and ministering to them. Sometimes you play the right song that can change somebody’s life. As an ordained minister, that’s what I strive to do, to lift them up, in song.”
Technology-wise, Sister Kingcannon says she feels the disc jockey’s role is less tedious than it was years ago when the only music sources were limited to LPs, cassettes and 8-tracks. “It’s just about click-click now,” she said. “It’s much easier than it was years ago.”
A New Generation
One of Augusta’s strong gospel talents, Trey McLaughlin, is a mover and shaker on the new gospel circuit locally and nationally. When not touring as Trey McLaughlin & the Sounds of Zamar, he’s serving as worship leader at the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Unlike his predecessors in this article, McLaughlin, 38, is a recording artist who represents the new, urban, fresh form of gospel. Many of his local contemporaries not only record solo projects, but also tour as opening acts and special guests with major-label gospel stars.
For example, Shawna Dominique Harris is a music leader at Beulah Grove Baptist Church but also tours with gospel megastar, John P. Kee. Miles D. Mealing is the worship leader at Good Shepherd Baptist Church but has toured with Kirk Franklin. Shellea Wade is a minister of music at New Beginning Ministries in Beech Island and earlier this year she toured South Africa. And Laura Johnson toured with headliner Miranda Willis though she’s also a co-music leader at Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“The younger artists in Augusta respect what our radio stations can do. They definitely have a power and can influence,” says McLaughlin. “People may not be aware, but we have gospel stations here that have won Stellar Awards — black gospel’s equivalent to a Grammy Award.”
Appears in the August/September 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.
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