Radio icon left his mark on county, region
By Dennis Hill
Published in News on August 19, 2012 1:50 AM
Goldsboro and eastern North Carolina lost one of its most captivating personalities recently with the passing of Robert "Popa Bob" Swinson, whose career in gospel-oriented radio made him a virtual legend among listeners.
Swinson, who was 93, not only graced the airwaves with his own unique voice, he influenced the development of many younger radio and gospel music figures, recognizing young talent, often giving them their first break into the field and always generously supporting those who needed an extra hand.
Elder Dr. L.D. Melvin of St. Luke Church of Christ in Mount Olive was one of those younger talents who looked to Swinson for guidance.
"He was just a wonderful man," Melvin said last week. "He gave me the opportunity to promote programming and was like a father figure to me and many others. He didn't mind spending the time with young radio programmers and gave financial support to a lot of gospel groups."
But it was Swinson's own voice that separated him from other professionals in the gospel radio field. As a young man, he had started his own taxi business in Goldsboro while holding down another job. One day, two women passengers he was taking to a local radio station took notice of his deep, rich voice and suggested he give radio a try.
Hesitant at first, Swinson eventually met the radio station owner, who immediately hired him.
"He had one of the most unique voices I ever heard," Melvin said. "His voice would just capture you. It was out of this world."
Soon, his program, "Sepia Tones," became a favorite of gospel and rhythm and blues fans. It wasn't long before he became the first black radio personality in the region, learning much about the trade while attending the Chicago School of Broadcasting.
Music was Swinson's passion. He eventually opened a music store and helped bring nationally known gospel and rhythm and blues performers to the area to perform.
Swinson operated WOKN radio station and later WSSG 1300 Gospel Radio, giving many future radio personalities their start.
The Rev. Louis Leigh of First African Baptist Church, where Swinson was a deacon for more than 30 years, said Swinson was widely known as "the minister of the airwaves."
Leigh said travelers en route to North Carolina from parts north would eagerly search the radio dial, looking for his station.
Swinson was a businessman right up to the very end of his life, Leigh said, dressing every day for work at the station right on into his 90s.
Ed Jones of Goldsboro was another gospel performer who knew Swinson well. He said Swinson was always ready to help someone trying to get into the gospel music field and gave many singers or instrument player a way to display their talents, hooking them up with groups or other performers who were looking for talent.
"You mention Bob Swinson, it seemed like everybody knew him," Jones said.