Country At Its Best
By Seldon A. Pierce
News Journal correspondent
Longtime residents who tune in to Channel 33 WHBR or Cox Cable 13 might see a familiar face and hear a name that once greeted them every afternoon on the sports pages of the Pensacola News.
Ronnie Joyce, a former sports writer and editor, is now host of "Gospel Country."
''Ronnie knows gospel music,'' said Jim Williams, a regular listener in Ensley. ''I was wondering which group recorded a certain song. I called Ronnie and he knew right off the top of his head.''
Joyce, 64, has faithful listeners all over Northwest Florida and South Alabama and in Mississippi.
''I did the programs live for awhile,'' he said, ''but now I find it easier to tape the shows to broadcast later.''
Joyce had many different experiences while doing the live shows. One listener called him to request a certain song, but she didn't know the title or who recorded it.
'" 'Let me hum it to you,' she said. And she began humming the tune to me over the phone,'' Joyce said. ''That didn't really help though.''
Joyce wasn't always a gospel music fan. He was born and lived most of his life on Nine Mile Road in Ensley. His family owned and operated Sunshine Dairy and their cows once grazed where the Ensley Delchamps store is now.
Joyce graduated in 1951 from Tate High School, where he played baseball, basketball and football.
''I did everything I could to get away from feeding and milking cows,'' he laughs. ''That was a job I hated.''
After high school, Joyce attended Murray State in Kentucky on a football scholarship. Then he joined the Pensacola News as a sports writer in 1962.
''Those were lean years at first,'' Joyce said. ''My starting pay was $45 a week.''
Joyce left the News in 1965 to write for the Jacksonville Times Union. But he couldn't get Pensacola off his mind so he returned to the paper here in 1966.
A new life
Joyce was promoted to sports editor of the Pensacola News (the paper printed two editions a day then) and later was the executive sports director.
''Ronnie was the kind of sports editor who knew and loved sports and brought his athletic skills into the management of the News Journal staff,'' said J. Earle Bowden, editor emeritus of the Pensacola News Journal. ''He had the ability to motivate young sports writers - all of whom were devoted to him.'
'Joyce changed careers after a religious experience.
''I was saved in a church service at Burgess Road Baptist Church on July 24, 1975. The lifestyle of a sports writer began to bother me. So I decided to do something else.''
He resigned from the paper in 1981, accepting a job as editor of Singing News, a magazine for gospel music fans.
In 1989, Joyce bought a restaurant between Knoxville, Ky., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn. That's when he met J. Brazell Mull of the Mull Singing Convention fame. ''He was a blind preacher who operated a gospel radio station near the restaurant,'' Joyce said. ''He'd come in to eat and we became good friends.'
'Mull encouraged Joyce to try gospel music promoting. So, when the restaurant was sold in 1991, Joyce returned to Pensacola.
He started a gospel music program on BLAB-TV at a time when the station was off the air on the weekends. It immediately attracted an audience and sponsors.
Joyce added Saturday mornings to his air time on BLAB, doing live call-in shows. That's when he decided to begin promoting live gospel concerts. He's had such groups as Charles Revivers, The McKameys (a husband, wife, sister and daughter team), Gold City Quartet, The Kingsmen, Tony Gore and Majesty, Quinton Mills, Windy Bagwell and The Singing Cookes.
''We've had as many as 1,900 people in attendance at the concerts,'' Joyce said. ''I would give away a certain number of tickets to promote the concerts,'' he said.
Joyce has given up almost all concert promotions because the market is now saturated by other promoters.
Most of his efforts are concentrated on the "Gospel Country" show. He has more than 14 sponsors for his television programs. He and his wife, Jo Ann, have just moved into a new home and Joyce is enjoying semi-retirement.
Kay Arant, program director at WHBR, said "Gospel Country" is one of the most popular shows the station airs. ''Older people love gospel music as well as some of the younger listeners,'' she said. ''When the show is aired live, the phone rings off the hook.'