COLUMBIA — For 25 years, Elder J. Wilson has been a familiar voice on Columbia's community radio station KOPN/89.5 FM, sharing a love of gospel music with his audience.
During his years on the radio, Wilson has likely played thousands of songs on his "Serenade of Love" radio program, which airs from 6 to 9 a.m. on Saturdays. Wilson tells listeners that he plays "the best in gospel music."
“Gospel music, it don’t die, it just multiply," is another catch phrase Wilson uses when pulling music from the archives.
A member of Woodcrest Chapel, Wilson said he loves what he does.
"It’s a universal language,” he said of gospel music. “It speaks to a lot of different people on a lot of different levels.”
Although Wilson enjoys the spiritual music of his favorite artists, Fred Hammond and Kurt Carr, he is also a fan of jazz and old school music. "My show is labeled completely variety. I play old school, traditional gospel music and choir."
Most of the music Wilson plays is sent to him from gospel artists and record labels. He also receives some of his music at National Gospel Announcers Guild conventions. "You name it, I've got it," Wilson said.
As Wilson selects tunes — all from CDs — and plays them on the radio, he refers to himself as the “digital butler” on KOPN. It caught on, for listeners have also started calling him by that name.
But it didn’t start out that way. Wilson took over the “Serenade of Love” program 25 years ago after Dorothy Sims Mitchell retired.
To recognize Mitchell’s influence on his work, Wilson makes reference to her on the program every year. “She was pretty much instrumental in helping me do what I do today," Wilson said.
He was first invited by Mitchell to read announcements and the weather on the radio program. “And as soon as I got up there and started doing that, I just said, ‘Wow, this is what I need to be doing right here,’ and that’s what struck me 25 years ago,” he said.
But radio broadcasting wasn’t Wilson’s first or only career. “I’m really an entrepreneur,” he said.
Along with being a father and husband, Wilson is a caretaker. “I take care of a couple of families in Columbia. It’s like my other job,” he said.
Wilson and his wife, Sarah, operate Wilson’s Christian Home Day Care Center, a business they’ve run for the last 23 years. “We’ve seen them (the children) grow up, go to school and graduate,” he said.
Although Wilson commits most of his time to radio, he admits that he is a "family man" and always finds time to spend with his 7- year-old daughter, Autumn; his older son, Eric; and his wife.
“My family is my support. My wife supports what I do, and that’s a good piece to remember because people in the public eye sometimes forget that their family is really what strengthens you in the first place,” Wilson said.
But radio also serves as an outlet and outreach for Wilson. He enjoys traveling to conventions and meeting other local and nationally known gospel icons, such as music pioneer and National Diabetes Foundation spokesman Daryl Coley.
“I’ve been in the room with the big boys like the gospel legend Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond," Wilson said. "Meeting these artists is a way for me to get away from the normal everyday life."
It was a routine begun as a child that laid the foundation for Wilson’s work with gospel music. As a child, he spent summers in south Georgia visiting his grandfather.
“Every Sunday morning, he’d turn the radio on, and the singing would come on. It would just fill the house. And he did it consistently,” Wilson said.
That musical and religious foundation had an impact on Wilson’s life, he said, citing his grandfather’s routine as a motivation for his work today. But the different radio announcers on Atlanta’s stations also had a positive effect in Wilson's radio broadcasting career.
“In Atlanta, I heard a lot of people on the radio, and that’s where the love started," he said.
He continued to listen and learn from radio announcers as a teenager.
“We’d hear them on the radio, and the little catchphrases that they always do or the jingles each station has — those jingles catch it, and they just became a part of me,” Wilson said.
He also emphasized the importance of speaking well and communicating, which he learned after serving as president of many high school organizations.
After high school, Wilson went into the workforce and attended culinary arts training in Atlanta. He’d always intended to be a chef.
"I was actually a cook at a Christian dinner club but when they discovered that I could sing, I became one of the opening acts, a featured singer at night,” Wilson said.
Abandoning his childhood dream of being a chef, Wilson was led in another direction.
What remains important to Wilson is the love for what he does and the chance to encourage his listeners.
“Pastors call me and leave messages on my phone saying, ‘Man, your show touched me. I was on the way to A.B.C. and I had you tuned in, and it just blessed me,’" Wilson said. "That type of reward you can’t buy with money. That’s what gives me goosebumps, to hear these things. You can’t fabricate that.”
For three years, Wilson served as chairman of Missouri’s Gospel Announcers Guildin the Columbia area, which is under the umbrella of the Gospel Music Workshop of America. In 2008, Wilson received a nomination for the Radio Angel Contest, and this year he has been nominated for the Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
“I’m really glad to be a part of KOPN, and I’ll be there for another 25,” Wilson said. “It is a great place for that because it’s community radio, and that aspect is what needs to be preserved in our community.”
To improve the city’s community radio and gospel popularity, Wilson is planning to host gospel concert series on regular basis. “One of my goals is to be able to bring the gospel industry to Columbia at least once per month. My goal is to have one concert per month.”
In the past Wilson has tried a couple of community gospel events. In 2008, he scored a success with a back-to-school concert featuring Damon Little. It wasn’t a full house, but it was a very good turnout, he said. He also expects to add some youth events in the coming months.
“Our young people have a flare for apathy. Some of them have drive, but not a good enough percentage of them have drive," he said.
For the younger generation, Wilson suggests: “They should notice and pay attention to those who embrace these certain aspects of our community, and when they do that, they can become inspired.”
“Whether we accept it or not, we do become a role model,” said Wilson, who hasplayed that role while playing some of his favorite music.