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Spreading the gospel, with a spin

Dianne Hughes rises before dawn and heads for a cramped, barnlike studio off 38th Avenue S. For thousands of Tampa Bay area listeners, her raspy, cheerful voice is the voice of gospel radio.

Should there come a day when her voice fails, Hughes says, "get the funeral home ready for me."

Gospel keeps Hughes alive; she keeps gospel alive. Outside her five-hour morning show, Total Praise, gospel is surprisingly hard to come by in an area where many people consider songs such as Nobody Like Jesus part of their heritage. Plenty of religious music is on the air, but no station caters exclusively to gospel.

Her home base, WRXB-AM 1590, is an R&B station, but it recently expanded its spiritual broadcasting to 45 hours a week for listeners in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee counties who said they wanted more.

In the studio now, she pops God Did It into the CD player. She thinks back to some rough spots in her life. He did do it, she says. "He wiped all my tears away."

Someone had called and requested Stop Complaining, so Hughes puts that in next. The theme ties in with the song before it, she says. After God wiped all her tears away, she stopped complaining about the disappointments of her past.

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The studio phone rings constantly. People call Hughes with their problems, and she prays for them. They dedicate songs to loved ones, songs they think will speak to God's way of healing problems. They listen for Hughes' interviews, like the one last year with Bill Clinton, or when she chatted with gospel artists Donnie McClurkin and Melba Moore and TV judge Mablean Ephriam of Divorce Court fame.

Being a radio announcer is the most fun the 52-year-old has ever had. Her childhood held no fond memories to speak of, she says.

"I can't say, "Ooh, I did this, and ooh, I did that,' " she said. "I'm just really starting to enjoy my life through this (radio) ministry."

When Hughes was 3, her mother took her to a cousin's house in Georgia and set her in a rocking chair on the porch.

"I'm going to town," her mother said. "I'll be back."

But she never did come back.

That cousin raised Hughes until she was about 6, when Hughes moved to St. Petersburg to live with other relatives. She was a teenager before she found out she had older sisters. She later met her mother unexpectedly at a family reunion.

The family kept in touch but never formed tight bonds. Hughes graduated in 1968 from Gibbs High School and went to what was then St. Petersburg Junior College. She got pregnant and had to drop out of college, though, abandoning dreams of becoming a nurse. She worked for years on assembly lines for various companies before getting into radio.

The one thing that remained constant in her life, Hughes said, was going to church and singing and listening to gospel music.

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Ten years ago, the Rev. James G. Davis was WRXB's host for a gospel program. But Davis couldn't do the job alone. He is blind and needed help answering phones and writing down names for his prayer list.

He thought of a woman named Dianne who called the station almost every morning. She'd talk to Davis and ask him to pray for her family. One morning, he asked Hughes if she wouldn't mind helping out.

Hughes began to meet him at the station. The two would talk about God and life's challenges. Davis offered to train Hughes to use the music equipment during downtime. She could say the announcements every now and then, too.

But Hughes didn't jump at the chance.

"She had a fear," Davis said. "I think her problem was what other people would think and (that) they wouldn't think she was as smart as the next person."

The station owner heard Hughes on the air one day. He pulled Davis aside and told him not to put her on again. Hughes lacked the vocal savvy of other announcers.

That was a benefit, as far as Davis was concerned. "With the kind of program it was, I thought it gave the show a more personal touch to have someone who wasn't radio perfect," he said.

Davis said he couldn't hurt Hughes' feelings by pulling her off the air. So he decided to walk off the show.

He didn't tell Hughes the full story, just that he was taking a break from the program. The station got other announcers to fill in for Davis. A week went by before Davis got a call from the station. The listeners were complaining; they wanted gospel. Davis could come back, even if that meant bringing Hughes, too.

He never told her what really happened.

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In 1996, Davis left WRXB in a flap with the station higherups. The station needed someone to fill his shoes. Hughes was willing, but her start wasn't smooth.

Some days, Hughes said, she would stand in the corner after making a mistake. She did something wrong with the sound board, leaving silence on the air. "I got nervous, shaky," she said. "My hands got wet."

After a few months, she got used to the various tasks: plugging the church announcements, preparing for commercial breaks, praying on and off the air, giving the weather forecast, taking requests and playing the music.

Bettye G. Davis, 66, started listening after her husband died in 1998. Some nights she couldn't sleep, so she'd turn on the radio. She called the station. "I was talking with this lady, you know, telling her all my ups and downs _ my husband's gone."

"Now, there's a brighter day," Hughes would tell her. One morning, Hughes challenged her. "I want you to get up out of that bed and just go to the door and say, "Thank you, Lord!' "

Davis got out of bed, walked to her front door and said, "Thank you, Lord, for this day!"

Slowly, Davis said, the tears dried up. "It's a miracle how the Lord works through her and ministers to me."

She met Hughes three years ago at a nursing home. Hughes oversees a choir that sings at nursing homes in the area, and Davis decided to join.

"I let her know that I am Sister Bettye G. Davis," she said.

Hughes remembered her right away. "Oh, you're the one!"

Davis schedules appointments for the afternoon, so she won't miss Hughes. "My life has turned," Davis said. "I wake up with her! I get all of my appointments after 10 a.m."

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Gospel lovers in the area say there is a strong market for the music, which is big business nationwide. In 2002, the Christian Music Trade Association estimated sales for gospel and Christian music at about $900-million. The Tampa Bay area is one of few metropolitan areas without a gospel station, so fans want as much gospel as they can get.

The Rev. Fleming Tarver of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg and founder of the Original Florida Spiritualaires gospel group says he has listened to radio in the Tampa Bay area for decades.

He remembers a few attempts to start gospel stations that failed. In the 1960s, he said, the Spiritualaires sang out of one man's home, and their music was broadcast on radio waves.

"There has got to be a way that we can get a full gospel station," the Rev. Davis said. "There are enough black businesses in this community to sponsor a black radio station." And if that can't happen, there should be at least one community-based black gospel station.

"Gospel is what brought us out of the fields," Davis said. "It has always been with us. It's a spiritual way of life."

Shortly after Larry Steele became WRXB's program director a year ago, he and Hughes were chatting together at a Denny's when two Total Praise fans walked over to their table. They recognized Hughes and had heard there was a new director. "You're not going to mess with gospel, are you?" they asked.

No chance of that, Steele says today.

"Dianne has increased the morning drive and her audience 110 percent," Steele said. "We have taken Dianne as our own Tom Joyner," referring to the nationally known announcer whose popular morning show is heard locally on WRXB's competition, WTMP-AM 1150. "Over here, we lean on Dianne."

But a once-empty part of Hughes' life is being filled, too.

"I always felt that I couldn't ever do anything," she said. "I always felt like I was a nobody."

Now, "I can feel it hugging me," she said, wrapping her arms around herself. "It" is the response she gets from listeners, the affirmation of herself. "If my mom doesn't ever tell me she loves me, that's okay, because I can feel it here."