EMU student Chris Runion works part-time at the WBTX southern gospel radio station, where he curates programs full of classic hits. Runion is pictured here in the studio holding his favorite southern gospel artist, The Hinsons. (Photos by Randi B. Hagi)

Digital media major finds ‘down home’ niche in southern gospel

“You’re going to hear music this first half hour that you probably have not heard for at least 50 years.”

That’s Chris Runion on the radio, introducing one of his weekly Retro Countdown programs at the WBTX southern gospel station in Broadway. Runion, a digital media major at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), has worked and interned part-time at the station since 2018. He came up with the idea for the countdown show when he saw the station had stacks and stacks of decades-old charts from the southern gospel magazine Singing News.

Back in the late 1970s, Runion said, the genre was just called “gospel,” and Singing News charts included all the Christian hits of the day.

“You had disco and pop mixed with traditional, because it wasn’t distinguished. But then by about ‘80 or so, CCM [Contemporary Christian Music] magazine came out. That’s when the split happened. By about the early ‘80s, the term Southern Gospel started,” said Runion. 

But how does a 20-year-old end up curating a radio program with music associated with the church services of yesteryear? Runion grew up in Broadway, and did sound and lighting work for events at his high school. He met Jim Snavely, the station’s program director, there at a Future Farmers of America banquet. Runion asked him for a summer job. Two days after starting, he was on the air.

“I grew up on ‘80s and ‘90s country,” Runion said. “So the transition was kind of easy into southern gospel.”

WBTX is a Southern Gospel formatted broadcast radio station licensed to Broadway-Timberville, Virginia, serving Northern Rockingham County and Southern Shenandoah County in Virginia.

Not to mention, Runion is a bit of a history buff, and loves the archivist aspect of collecting music that can sometimes only be found on vinyl.

“The farther back you go, the more difficult it can be to find a piece of music,” Runion said. When curating the Retro Countdown, sometimes he has to purchase a used album online, because a song on the chart just doesn’t exist on a CD or online. Sometimes he plays records directly on the air, but more often he uses a turntable and software to import a song to WBTX’s digital database. From there, he can clean up any skips or scratches in the audio.

His vinyl collection is up to 700 albums, now, with a few recent additions from the former WEMC archives. The station’s digital database has around 10,000 songs. 

The oldest record Runion has collected is “Sacred Songs,” a 1956 LP by George Beverly Shea. But his favorites are by a group called The Hinsons, because “they kind of have that upbeat country sound to them.”

Besides the Retro Countdown, Runion also helps with administrative tasks and fills in for the live hosts as needed. For the last few years, he’s also represented the station at the National Quartet Convention, an annual southern gospel gathering in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

“Southern gospel artists are like a lot of the older country artists, where they’re very down home,” Runion explained. “Some celebrities you might meet, they’re not going to be very accessible. But these artists are so accessible. You can go up and talk to them.”

That “down home” vibe is part of what Runion loves about working with southern gospel, and a quality he hopes to maintain in his future career. His dream job?

“To move to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and work at Dollywood doing sound and lighting in their theaters.”