May 15, 2018

Five Lessons We Can Still Learn From Mike Joseph

You may not have heard of Mike Joseph, the radio consultant who recently died at age 90. If you’re in CHR, you owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Joseph for your format’s existence, especially if 1980s CHR got you hooked on this crazy business.

By the late 70s, many thought Top 40 was toast. Listeners were abandoning legendary AM hit music stations for Album Rock, Disco, and Adult Contemporary stations with a minimalist, “more music” presentation on FM. Playing hits from different genres, with a high-energy jingle-laden presentation, seemed passé.

However, that’s exactly what Mike Joseph helped his clients create with his “Hot Hits” format. Most famously on WCAU-FM Philadelphia, Joseph’s “Hot Hits” stations played tight playlists of only the biggest currents in rotations even heavier than today. “Hot Hits” played no recurrent or gold titles. “Hot Hits” played pop, rock, R&B and even country, ranging from The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache” to Alabama’s “Love in the First Degree.”

Already a 30-year radio veteran, many ignored Joseph at first. What could this guy seemingly stuck in 1962 know about attracting today’s listeners?

Then the ratings came in. The success of early “Hot Hits” adopters played a key role in CHR’s revival on FM in the early 1980s.

Almost 40 years after his biggest successes, there are still five lessons radio can learn from Mike Joseph.

1) Being different works. Joseph’s approach seemed woefully out of date to many radio programmers. To the average listener however, his high-energy approach sounded different than the laid-back minimalist sound common on FM at the time. Whether it’s a brand new programing approach or a revival of a forgotten technique, listeners notice stations that stand out.

2) Being local works. Joseph’s Hot Hits stations shared imaging and formatics, but they didn’t share a playlist. Joseph relied on local music research to pick the music for his clients, including carefully monitoring singles and album sales in each market. He also spent considerable time on the ground in his markets. “Hot Hits” personalities not only mentioned different towns, streets and high schools in their listening area, they understood the nuances that made each one special.

3) Name dropping works. Plenty of personalities name-drop the stars they meet, but how many personalities name drop everyday listeners? Hot Hits stations featured contests such as “Family Fortune,” in which listeners won when they heard their own name on the air. Nothing makes a listener loyal for life like making her feel like a celebrity.

4) Playing the hits works. There are eras when different music styles attract a more cohesive audience than in other eras. The lack of cohesion of late 80s pop, rock and R&B ultimately cooled the 80s CHR revival Joseph’s “Hot Hits” helped launch. Even in musically divisive times, however, people have an emotional need to feel connected to contemporary culture. CHR is at its best when it fulfills listeners’ basic human need to connect with what’s “in” in music. With a carefully researched playlist of only the most popular currents, “Hot Hits” fulfilled that need without exception.

In a 1982 interview with Billboard, Joseph summed up his programming philosophy. “Playing the hits, having fun generating excitement through promotion, contests and name-dropping—giving the people what they want to hear, when they want to hear it. The standard of show-business is to program the happening acts.”

Even if you don’t program a hit-based format, there’s another lesson anyone in radio can learn from Mike Joseph.

5) Having fun works. “I still get a tremendous charge out of working with new people to bring forth a fresh sound,” Joseph told Billboard when he was 54. “My feeling is that there’s fresh air around every corner.” When radio professionals are having fun, we create radio stations that are fun for our listeners.

Programming tactics may come and go, but fun never goes out of style.

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