Did Mike Joseph Die And Take Hot Hits With Him?

I didn’t like Mike Joseph’s “Hot Hits” WCAU-FM Philadelphia when I first heard it. I liked WIFI, the presciently named “Wi-Fi 92.” WIFI was pretty hot by 1981 CHR standards and threw in interesting gold. It was foreground enough compared to the rest of the sterile format, and when WCAU-FM came along, WIFI had just cracked a four-share after segueing back from Rock 40. How much more saving did the format need?

For that matter, I hadn’t liked Joseph’s WPJB-FM (JB105) Providence, R.I., either. I’d heard a few hours of them on a trip to Cape Cod in spring ’77. I’m pretty sure we never intended to listen; they were just wafting in through open windows because somebody or everybody else was listening. At age 14, I hadn’t really picked up on what “high-energy” Top 40 was. By that time, stations were ratcheting down the yelling and screaming, but there was still plenty of it on JB105, which was also calling itself “The Big Banger”—a reflection of ‘70s radio double-entendre, not an enduring interest in astrophysics.

JB105’s other concession to the mid-‘70s was that there were no jingles, just group “shouts” of the station name. WCAU-FM was awash with jingles, sometimes several in a row, sometimes punctuated by jocks on either side. Their content was brief and heavily stylized—town mentions, crossplugs goofing on other jocks. One of my programming mentors of the time compared it to Bill Drake’s ‘60s formats, but it sounded to me more like the less streamlined late ‘50s/early ‘60s Top 40 stations that I was just discovering through airchecks at the time: not Drake, but what Drake saved us from.

As an architect of WKBW Buffalo, WKNR Detroit, pre-Rick-Sklar WABC New York, Joseph would cheerfully admit to channeling the format’s early days. (WKNR, now lost to history for most, is as phenomenal a radio story as any. For at least a few friends, that’s the station that people should be writing about today.) In an e-mail to Steve McVie Solomon, who has been “Hot Hits” true scribe through the internet era, Joseph’s son teases Solomon for being interested in his dad’s “now archaic” format. But it sounded archaic in 1981. And that turned out to be the magic.

I’m not sure what brought me around on WCAU-FM (or makes me remember JB105 considerably more fondly now). But as I discovered more radio history, I realized I liked high-energy CHR, especially in contrast to the anodyne version that marks bad times. Also, Joseph’s emphasis on record sales—“looking at the box-office results”—meant WCAU-FM was playing R&B and early Hip-Hop beyond what was creeping its way back into the format elsewhere. And as the “Hot Hits” phenomenon grew, and it became clear that WCAU-FM was a turning point for the CHR format, it was hard not to get caught up.

WBBM-FM Chicago was next. I remember hearing them around Labor Day 1982 (several months old)  and again at Thanksgiving. By that time, there were already adjustments to the format. “BBM-FM” had been modified to B-96. Recurrents were making their way into the all-current format. Joseph’s M.O. of the time was to move on to the next client shortly after a launch. When he did, those left behind—often bruised by the regimented nature of the format and a total universe of 50 current songs—couldn’t wait to tinker. Joseph was sometimes derided for having no act two, but that was actually his successors’ issue.

I got to hear WHYT Detroit from the beginning. That one happened 40 miles away from me in 1982. WHYT was exciting to all of my radio buddies, but it never quite galvanized the market like WCAU-FM had. Plus, there was WABX, doing a CHR/new wave hybrid, and, for me, CKLW in its last year of Top 40 on AM. CKLW’s response to the imminent launch of WHYT was to put back its early ‘70s jingles, but not copy the format in any other way.

As the CHR revival continued, some stations would license “hot hits” from Joseph, but not his formula. WCAU/WBBM owner CBS Radio eventually did their own almost-Joseph version of the format at KHTR (Hitradio 103) St. Louis. That station was more phenomenal at the time than any of Joseph’s subsequent efforts; reviving CHR in a market where it was indeed thought to be dead. As the format proliferated again, PDs were more likely to copy that less stylized version of the format. Or they copied KIIS-FM Los Angeles, which licensed the “hot hits” name. None of which lessens WCAU-FM’s import.

Electric 99 99.5 WGY-FM AlbanyJoseph would resurface in the mid-‘80s at the short-lived WTRK (Electric 106) Philadelphia just as Mainstream Top 40 was being upstaged by Rhythmic CHR. He would relaunch WGFM Albany, N.Y., as “Electric 99” WGY-FM in 1988. With the single withering in the late ‘80s, Electric 99’s innovation was to add cuts from hit albums, including compilations, meaning that Electric 99 was mostly currents, but punctuated by “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss. That was an old Joseph trick, too. The two “Electric” FMs seemed quaint. Channeling 1958 had helped save the format in 1981. Channeling 1981 couldn’t do much to help Top 40 as the format slipped in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

The best indicator of Joseph’s validity was the client that most people didn’t think about, WKAQ-FM (KQ105) San Juan, P.R., one of the few stations he was involved with for years, not months, despite not speaking Spanish, he said. I don’t remember if KQ105 was doing “Hot Hits” exactly when I heard them in 1993, but you could certainly hear the influence in that station and rival X100. At a time when it was reasonable to wonder if Top 40 would ever rebound, the format’s most exciting market was off most broadcasters’ radar. KQ105 didn’t need a second act, because the first one kept working.

The format that I wanted to hear from Joseph was the one he talked about, but which no owner ever took him up on. In his description, it was a tabloid version of WINS/WCBS-style all-news. It was a fascinating idea for the post-O.J. mid-‘90s, but even as spoken word radio grew, no owners were willing to make the heavy investment that a new all-news outlet would have required.

By then, as radio editor of Billboard and then Airplay Monitor, I was hearing from Joseph occasionally, particularly to hype the launch of WGY-FM. A few years ago, fellow trade journalist Adam Buckman published a memoir, recalling similarly breathless calls from Joseph. I remember finally getting to ask him about the mechanics of the formats. A friend had once posited that music was absolutely incidental to Hot Hits—something to break up the repetition of the call letters. Joseph seemed surprised to hear that; it was always about the music, he said.

Because of his usually low public profile, the odd early ‘60s look and demeanor that he carried throughout his life, and the staffs that remembered him as a formatic drill sergeant, Joseph sometimes came off as not such a sociable guy. But if making the other person feel like the most important person in the world is the true measure of affability, I realized that Buckman and I had both had that experience.

If you are determined to declare Top 40 radio dead, Joseph’s April 14 death at age 90, finally announced yesterday (May 9, 2018) seems like punctuation. It was a few years ago, as CHR started to falter again, that I began to get calls from friends speculating on whether Joseph was still among us. As with radio in general now, the real issue is the line of succession. If the secrets of 1958 or 1981 aren’t enough, what else have you got?

But don’t entirely discount the secrets of 1981. Over the years, I’ve speculated from time to time about how WCAU-FM would play now. Here’s one such consideration from 2004. That essay talks about a long-ago time before PPM, but 50 songs and brief personality wasn’t so different from the formula that marked CHR’s PPM-driven resurgence around 2009. The hard part now would be the currents. Could you really find 50 of them, when radio has only a handful of truly hot hits? Could you use the industry’s new metric of “consumption” the way Joseph used sales? That would lead PDs to more Hip-Hop. Is the notion of more Cardi B and even more Post Malone daunting? Or the same as WCAU-FM playing “Apache” by Sugarhill Gang—never a CHR record at the time, now a B’nai Mitzvah staple?

Here’s my recent take on one such attempt at all-currents.

I’ve seen a lot of Joseph appreciations that rely heavily on Wikipedia. Here’s Solomon’s more definitive site on Joseph.

And your thoughts about Joseph, CHR in 1981, and CHR today are appreciated. Leave a comment.

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  1. Bob VanDerheyden says

    Little known Mike Joseph fact.

    When Bob Hyland and I arrived at WCAU-FM to turn around the station
    Mike Joseph was already there consulting WCAU-AM All News.

    He had an office in the building.

    Shortly after Mike switched to FM and we were off and rockin’

  2. Steve McVie Solomon says

    As always, thank you so much for the mention! I truly appreciate the press you’ve given to the Hot Hits format and my contributions over the years. I hope this is not the final chapter!

    1. wtk says

      Steve, thank you for all the effort you have put into preserving this remarkable chapter of radio history and the work of one of the medium’s underappreciated giants.

  3. wtk says

    Joseph always said in interviews and articles that his fundamental strategy was counterprogramming everything else in the market. Writing in Billboard, consultant Jim Smith in 1982 called him a contrarian. At a time when Top 40, especially FM Top 40, was following AOR tropes with low-key voices, no jingles and cold-segued sweeps, Joseph had at least one jingle between every record, in and out of stopsets, etc. (“I’ve got one helluva brainwashing job to do” when launching a station, hence the jingles, he once said in an interview.) At a time when Top 40 was heavy with recurrents and the radio dial overall was swamped in oldies, Hot Hits was all-current.

    Given this contrarian philosophy, whatever else a modern-day Mike Joseph CHR station would sound like, I suspect that like all that preceded it, it would be fully staffed with foreground jocks and include lots of local mentions! After all, what could be more contrarian today than personality and hyperlocalism?

    A couple of side notes:
    1. Joseph launched WKBW in 1958. How much of his original plan was intact by 1961 isn’t clear, but in the legendary 24-hour aircheck made by Paul Carlson that year (hear this remarkable feat of archiving at http://rockradioscrapbook.ca/kb61.html ), KB is playing a list of 30 records plus one pick hit and absolutely no oldies!
    2. One of the best published resources on Mike Joseph is the lengthy interview he gave to Radio and Records at the time he was programming JB105 in Providence. It’s in the Oct. 14, 1977, issue.

  4. Michael St John says

    You forgot the original “Hot Hits” format didn’t use the phrase!
    It was WTIC-FM in 1977. I had the honor to learn from Mike Joseph
    “How to bee a dee jay!” As his PD, it was like working for Hitler.
    To this day I use a version of his “Formatics” on FUN92-7 in Alabama
    and FUN93-5 in Tennessee.

  5. jaypea5000 says

    Yes, Joseph always counter-programmed what already existed in the market. His first run in Philly was WFIL, at that time a sleepy, sluggish, talky, bottom-dwelling MOR station. The big Top 40 station was WIBG, sounding much like the late 50’s-early 60’s style of Top 40. Song, talk, spot, jingle, more talk, next song. But who could argue when jocks like Hy Lit were getting 70-shares. Mike Joseph could, that’s who.

    Annenberg and his management were given the name of Mike Joseph as someone who could make something of WFIL. And boy, did he!

    in a very short time, WFIL (now, Famous 56) and Joseph’s Pop Explosion wiped up the floor with WIBG. His format was totally modern, streamlined and tight. So tight the jocks would even talk up the intros in the jingles and commercials (!) as well as the records. There was never any dry talk. It moved at 90 miles a minute. A million miles away from 1960-style Top 40. Fun, upbeat, exciting from day one (September 18, 1966, seven days after my 6th birthday when my parents gave me a transistor radio as a gift from the brand new Radio Shack that opened two blocks away)

    WIBG countered by trying everything under the sun. Even Paul Drew and the “Fake Drake” format was steamrollered by WFIL. WIBG didn’t have a chance.

    Having lived through this, upon hearing “Hot Hits” on ‘CAU-FM at launch in 1981, my impression was totally opposite of Sean’s. Here was Mike Joseph jumping in to re-streamline what was becoming a stodgy, plodding, unexciting, all-liner/no-jingles/low-personality radio format.

    Of course, ‘CAU-FM marked the end of WIFI as we knew it. WIFI brought in Rick Carroll to consult and went “Rock of the 80’s” for a while (poor Mike Brophy and Andre Gardner having to call themselves “Bill E Thrasher” and “Moe Hawk”, respectively). But I digress…

  6. Michael St John says

    Rest in Peace, my friend.
    I had the opportunity to do an “in depth interview” with Mike while at HITS! Magazine in LA.
    He actually stayed at our house and was really a deep and delightful individual when you
    got to know his “outside the industry” persona. We stayed in touch up until about six years ago
    and when visiting New England in Fall 2016, went by his house at 11 Punch Bowl Circle in Westport CT but found
    no one there. He was a “radio genius” that never got the props he deserved.

  7. Hayet says

    Michael Thomas Joseph is my father. His *real* name in Arabic is Mikael bin Touma bin Youssef Kassis. The second name (Thomas) is that of his father/my grandfather. The third name is that of his grandfather/my great grandfather. The last name means ‘priest’. (His great grandfather & my great great grandfather was also Youssef – but I decided not to torture people unnecessarily by giving that even longer name. And ‘bin’ it means ‘son of’).

    His father/my grandfather came from Marjeyoun in South Lebanon as a young teen in the early 1910s. He had followed his elder brothers who had arrived in Youngstown OH as the second two Lebanese (then Syrians) in town. Some Lebanese travelling to Youngstown were killed in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

    My grandfather was a confectioner but in the 1930s ran a nightclub that hosted what were called “Gay Boy Reviews” during what was then called ‘The Pansy Craze’. An LGBT activist w/ a radio show & online podcast had a poster from their club w/ the advertisement of “Gay Boy Reviews” that I saw on his website recently. Basically these were beautiful young men who sang songs of the day dressed in female clothing; to an audience of straight & probably some closeted gay couples. (Like in ‘Cabaret’).

    So my father was raised by his father & uncle in an open minded world of entertainment – beginning as a child. But despite that – according to my mother – he was not accepted for his interests in theatre & performance amongst his aunts & uncles & even his father. They wanted him to be a doctor & lawyer. Even later w/ his national success; I was told they did not understand his world of music & musicians & performers.

    His mother had died in childbirth w/ him & when he was 4 his older brother/chief protector/best friend who was age 8 was killed when he was hit by a careless driver of a sedan. Eventually these traumas took the life of my grandfather as well – in what must have been unresolved grief & PTSD.

    At Youngstown’s Chaney High School (now a performing arts satellite school) my father involved himself in drama club & Latin club (which also put on plays) & the school marching band in which he played drums. Several years ago a town reference librarian sent me the photos from the yearbook of him in these clubs.

    The drama club involved itself w/ the local radio station & that is when my dad became interested in radio vs acting. He had wanted to be an actor & continued acting in community theatre after HS. He was still acting when my mother met him after her arrival from Germany as a Red Cross Displaced Person/refugee c. 1949/50. He was in his very early 20s then.

    The reason he threw himself into radio & ceased acting was due to his realisation that he was only being cast in the role of “villain”; such as the part of the evil husband who he played in the Youngstown Players production of ‘Gaslight’. (Apparently this is one of America’s most acclaimed community theatres btw).

    He was briefly VP of NBC radio in the mid 60s. Something that I rarely see mentioned about him.

    Another thing that I don’t see mentioned is how many people he mentored *outside* of the stations he worked for. For example a young David Geffen who rang my dad & spent hours on the phone w/ him. That will come as no surprise to anyone who knew anything about DG as it is mentioned in a documentary about him (DG) & the Joni Mitchell song ‘Free Man in Paris’ about DG. So obviously DG spent loads of time on the phone w/ others aside from my dad.

    That was great because when DG started producing Broadway shows; if I wanted to see one I would just wander uptown from my lightless Lower East Side (NYC) tenement cell – past the walls of gold records to pick up the free gifted tickets from the receptionist.

    Likewise at home in CT an hour from NYC we had a cellar full of tens of thousands of records sent from record cos large & small & even smaller – of *every* sort of music imaginable. He donated a lot to the local public library; but even I was surprised at some of the albums he chose to keep in his prized “collection”. Some obscure punk album on a tiny label would be next to West African music on Nonesuch which was next to Nick Drake (which nobody in the States had heard of then) which was next to Anthony Braxton & Bob Marley & Richard Hell & the Voidoids. Lol. Basically it was almost *everything* put out on vinyl. It was an obsession & when I read these articles & remembrances online over the years; they simply do not reflect the passion & breadth of knowledge that he had about recorded music.

    And not only recorded music but also the live Arab music & dance that we would be dragged to as kids – to hear & see. When he wasn’t dragging us to those crazy circa Woodstock outdoor Rock festivals. We saw Joan Baez & The Who at Tanglewood (in Stockbridge MA) in 69 when a swarm of hollow eyed & disheveled kids took us over – asking how to get to Woodstock. (It is right over the border to NYS). We learned later that The Who had to fly from there to Woodstock when the roads were impassible. When we drove down to our house in CT an hour from NYC our lane was empty & the other lane going North was packed & at a dead standstill. Lol. We wondered what was happening. Btw – lol – my dad would take us to these festivals in a white 1966 Mercedes. My Berlin mum thought they were safer cars due to the solid body inner construction. (Which they were).

    My dad was also a distant cousin of Marlo Thomas. My grandfather went to a Mahrajan (Arab American festival) in Youngstown attended by various Ohio Lebanese & sat down at a picnic table & began talking to another man. After a little while they discovered that their grandparents or great grandparents (?) were brothers. (I’ve forgotten the details now). I think Danny Thomas is from Toledo OH.

    My grandfather came here as a refugee after witnessing an occupying Ottoman soldier shoot his cousin in the head & kill him in the cellar of their home. We are descendants of the first earliest Syriac (Aramaen) Christians for 2000+ years & as evidenced by what happened to the Assyrians & Armenians & Greeks (massacres & death marches) we were not always treated well by the occupying Ottomans. For this reason in this day when there is so much hatred directed toward Syrian & African refugees & anti-Islam & anti-Arabism & misunderstanding of Palestinians & Gazans; I would like to remind everyone who admired my father’s radio work & influence that *more* than anything he was really proud of being Lebanese & proud of being Syrian & proud of being Arab American. In fact he is listed in the Arab American Institute’s list of ‘Famous Arab Americans’. Lol – our house looked like the inside of a goat hair tent full of Oriental carpets & saddlebags etc. w/ a few Scandinavian modern pieces thrown in. We ate Arabic food in the traditional manner w/ our hands. And my dad did the traditional clapping & responses called out to performers when we saw Arab musicians performing. I still can’t clap as well & perfectly as my father.

    He was also really angry at anti-Arabism & an early supporter of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination committee from its inception in 1982 & profoundly supported Palestinian human rights & right to self-determination. All whilst most of his closest friends were Jewish Americans.

    And by the way: the old fashioned way that he wore his hair that comes up in so many posts & articles – long & slicked back w/ gel – had to do w/ being Arab also. Because it was really really thick & he would have either had to cut it *super* short (which he was not conservative enough to do then – as that’s what short hair meant then) or wear it long & in a ponytail or braids (our traditional way to wear our hair) which he was not prepared to do amongst the suits & purse holders of the networks either! Although I really wish he had rocked traditional Bedouin hair then! (As my Yemeni friend called it). Meaning a shoulder length blunt cut without layers. Thus the 1940s/50s slicked back hair for too long. Lol. And the suits – never jeans etc. – were about him being a clothes horse.

    Speaking of Indigenous Asiatic looking people: when my dad was at the station in Hawaii for six months; my parents were friends w/ an Indigenous Hawaiian named Momilani. We had a beautiful portrait of her in our house for years afterward; painted by a woman who was a mutual friend of Momilani & my parents then. Recently I found out that Momilani was the grandmother of Keanu Reeves – through her son Keanu’s father.

    Thus the internet can be an amazing tool & I want to thank you for allowing me to post this here. And for those of you who believe in Allah (God) & another world – wether you are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Indigenous American or etc. – please pray for the soul of my father to know God. InshaAllah. Thank you. Shukran. Thank you for your hospitality here. Three kisses. xxx

  8. Michael St John says

    Your father was a brilliant, wonderful man at heart. When I got to interview him
    in the mid-90s, he stayed at our house and I heard several of the stories you mention
    here. He was an active, demanding broadcaster who demanded your best. His “process”
    was often misunderstood but never flawed- and yes, it could still be successful in today’s
    radio universe.

  9. Chris says

    I grew-up listening to WCAU-FM. It accounts for probably 90% of why I’m working in radio today. Thank you, Mr. Joseph.

  10. Sean Ross says

    Thanks to all for the great comments and to Hayet, whose comment is a column unto itself. Joseph often presented as unknowable, except clearly when he wasn’t.

    The summer of 1982, when Hot Hits was at its most phenomenal, was also the summer I read “The Fountainhead” so it was easy for me to see Joseph as Howard Roark, the severe man who would build you the skyscraper you needed, with no concessions to popular taste or the passage of time. (One of my friends, represented on this thread, responded to this theory with “then who is John Galt?”). But beyond the harshness as a teacher, and the holdover ’60s look (because it wasn’t yet “throwback”), Joseph also had the manners of a courtlier time in friendly encounters.

    Similar to jaypea’s comments above, New York radio veteran Dave Stewart e-mailed me to point out that JB105 was the childhood station that made him want to be in radio. So it was surprising, he said, that we had such opposite reactions. I should clarify that my reaction to both JB105 and WCAU was stunned fascination. It was sort of the reaction I had to odd ’70s novelty records. Is “Shame Shame Shame” by Shirley & Co. a good or bad song, for instance? Like “Shame 3X,” JB105 and WCAU ended up as favorites, too.

    The intervening week since this column was first published has brought bad PPM news for many CHR stations, even some that seemed to not be participating in the recession. So thinking about what would bolster the format is top-of-mind this week. Almost everything about Hot Hits now is contrarian again, except for the PPM-era brevity of the jocks, and even that was surrounded by a pile of now verboten jingles. But contrarian is the point, right?

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