Wednesday, May 9, 2018

R.I.P.: Pioneering Programmer Mike Joseph Dead At 90

Longtime radio programmer and consultant Mike Joseph died last month in Los Angeles at age 90.

Mike Joseph
Joseph, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, began his radio career in 1950 at WTNS in Coshocton, Ohio, and soon moved on to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to program CBS Radio affiliate WJEF (now WTKG). In December 1955, he moved on to Flint, Michigan, to transition old-line NBC Radio affiliate WTAC into one of the nation's first Top 40 stations and a stunning success. WTAC's owners, the Founders Group, installed him as their national program director, and Joseph also oversaw stations in New Orleans, Honolulu, and Syracuse, NY (the Syracuse station, WFBL, would later become one of his "Hot Hits" stations in 1979).

From Flint, Joseph moved on to program WMAX in Grand Rapids and WKBW in Buffalo, and then in 1960, he helped transform WABC in New York City from a struggling, cash-strapped block-programmed outlet into one of the dominant Top 40 stations in North America.

In the fall of 1963, following another success story in Grand Rapids at WLAV, Joseph oversaw the transformation of struggling MOR station WKMH in Detroit into WKNR (Keener 13), still fondly remembered as one of the Motor City's most popular radio stations ever, and a few years later oversaw a similar turnabout at WFIL in Philadelphia. His resume also included stations in Minneapolis, St. Louis, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and other markets.

In 1972, Joseph set the stage for what would become the first wave of Hot Hits stations on the FM band when he was hired to program WMVM, a struggling beautiful-music station in Milwaukee. In June of that year, WMVM's calls were changed to WZUU, and Joseph installed a tight Top 40 playlist of 30 current songs (with no recurrents or gold) which he dubbed "Super Hits." Joseph later credited his approach at WZUU for helping to end the dominance of Milwaukee's two AM Top 40 stations, WOKY and WRIT-AM (WZUU today is Classic Hits WRIT). Further success came in 1975 at WPJB "JB105" in Providence, Rhode Island, with a similarly styled format known as "Big Hits."

The creation of "Hot Hits" was Mike Joseph's method of combating the "more music, less personality" approach that was becoming prevalent on Top 40 radio at the time, as well as the splintering of Top 40 into urban-leaning, adult contemporary-leaning and album rock-leaning camps, and what Joseph perceived as neglecting the needs of younger listeners aged 12 to 24 to focus solely on older adults.

"Hot Hits" stations played the Top 5 hits every hour and in between other hits on the current chart. The top hits on an average Hot Hits station had a turnover period of 45 minutes to an hour, thus guaranteeing that when listeners tuned in, they were more likely to hear a hit and less likely to hear a "stiff" or a "bomb."

Joseph put lots of effort into making his stations sound "localized" by having his DJs frequently mention cities and towns in the stations' listening areas, as well as streets, high and junior high schools, and other local landmarks.

The first Mike Joseph-consulted station to actually use the term "Hot Hits" on the air, and one of the few AM stations to try the "Hot Hits" concept, was WFBL 1390 AM in Syracuse, NY.

The "Hot Hits" concept really appeared to grow in popularity after WCAU 98.1 FM in Philadelphia, which had been struggling through unsuccessful Urban, Oldies and Disco formats for over a decade, relaunched with Hot Hits on September 22, 1981, as "98 Now."  WCAU-FM came to dominate as Philadelphia's choice for hit music for much of the 1980s, until flipping to Oldies as WOGL in 1987.

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