In the radio business, where a year or two signifies longevity, Joe Johnson is the definition of a true survivor. He's been a mainstay on classic hits station WMXJ, Majic 102.7 FM, since 1987, serving as production director, DJ, and producer, winning a number of notable industry awards before landing in his current slot holding down middays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week. He also hosts his own Beatle Brunch
program on Sunday mornings, which airs across the country on more than 100 stations.
The idea for Beatle Brunch originated during a lengthy road trip. He brought along a stack of Beatles CDs to keep himself entertained, and hearing those songs, still sounding so fresh and exhilarating, he began to ponder the prospects of having a show devoted exclusively to their music.
After getting the green light from his program director, Beatle Brunch made its debut on May 31, 1992, and 20 years later, it is syndicated nationwide by Dial Global Radio Networks (formerly Westwood One), the nation's largest radio syndication company.
Week after week, Johnson plays the ever-engaging host, offering exclusive interviews with those closest to the Beatles' inner circle, including the band members themselves, along with music, trivia, and cool prizes for his loyal listeners.
We recently spoke to Joe about his radio career and his fascination with the Fab Four.
New Times: First, give us a little history. How did you get started in the biz, what was your first gig, and where did you work before Majic?
Joe Johnson: I started at Love 94 back in 1978. I won a heart-shaped Bobby Caldwell 45 of "What You Won't Do for Love." And it was skipping when I played it, so I called the station and asked if I could come trade it in. That was really just a ruse to get into the station. I met program director Rick Peters, who then played my record on his turntable and it didn't skip. He gave me a new one anyway, which I still have.
I started to ask him about radio, and he told me some things about processing and carting up songs. As we were wrapping up, I asked him if there was anything I could do at the station, and he told me that the morning guy (Skip Herman) needed someone to help him gather traffic information, so I came in the following Monday and started to help Skip. I actually used an AM radio with push buttons to "steal" the traffic from the stations with planes, and I would pass that on to Skip. However, he kind of ignored me on the air.
It wasn't until they hired Greg Budell that I actually went on the air. Rather than read my scratch, Greg just flipped my mic on and made me do the traffic, so then it was Budell and Allen (that's Keith Allen, his partner) and me as a backup or third sidekick chiming in and producing some bits from Greg's tapes he would bring in.
What turned you on to the Beatles? Was there some special moment where they lit up your life?
I was always a fan, but I was a little young when they played Ed Sullivan, only 6. Still, I remember it well. It wasn't until the late '60s and early '70s that I really started to get into them, maybe around the "Lady Madonna," "Hey Jude" period. I still have my 45s. I also have older sisters who had the records. I liked the songs and the melodies. I didn't understand the political undertones of the band at that time, but I appreciated their songs. I especially recall a fellow student coming to school with a cassette of Sgt. Pepper and the guy was going off on it, how great it was.
Give us an idea of how Beatle Brunch originated?
Around 1990 or so, I had gotten some bootleg CDs called Ultra Rare Trax. It was the first time I heard these amazing quality outtakes. I had been to New York, in Greenwich Village, and I used to buy bootleg albums, but they were hard to listen to. When I got these CDs, I also just got a 1992 Mitsubishi Eclipse with an in-dash CD player. I was on a long drive to my family's home in South Dade to do one of those family photos you do at a studio, and in my hour-long drive, I was listening to the CDs in the car. They sounded so amazing in wild stereo, and the quality was so good, that I went back to my program director. It was Rick Peters, but now it was Majic 102.7.
I had been there about five years, and I was the creative services director and 6 to 10 p.m. jock. I told Rick about the CDs and said that I was surprised that there was not a weekly show on the Beatles in our town, and that I'd like to do one. He suggested I make a demo of what the show would sound like, which I did. I played it for him a few days later and he liked the idea. He wanted to play it on Majic and the four other stations our company owned at the time in Rochester, Indy, Laconia, New Hampshire, and Baltimore. So it debuted on five stations on May 31, 1992. I used to have to make a reel to reel of the shows, and I'd mail them to the stations every week. Eventually, I got a sponsor for the show and was able to offset some of the costs of materials to do it.
How did you get your syndication deal?
I built the show up to 38 affiliates by the year 2000, adding them one at time, calling radio stations, faxing, sending out demos. The show is provided free to the stations and they air the commercials that are inside it. I had approached Westwood One many times about carrying my show, but they already had a show called The Beatle Years so they weren't interested.
Then I began talking with United Stations, which also carried Dick Clark's Rock Roll & Remember. They were interested, but hinted that since they had Dick on board, I might not end up as the host of Beatle Brunch. So I took that as a red flag. Meanwhile, the director of programming for Westwood One often visited his girlfriend in Detroit and would listen to Beatle Brunch on WOMC, so he knew the show very well.
I don't recall if I contacted him or vice versa, but in 2000, we put an agreement together for Westwood One to syndicate Beatle Brunch. Up until then, I would use a high speed CD recorder and make 40 CDs every week to send out to the 38 stations. Once we did the deal, I only had to send one master copy to Westwood One and they would put the commercials in and distribute the show to the stations. They also added more markets through their affiliate relations. Westwood One merged with Dial Global, and now Beatle Brunch airs on about 100 stations in the U.S., Canada, and the Virgin Islands, as well as streaming on the many stations that carry it.
You also have a website, right?
In 1999, I built a website beatlebrunch.com
(today it's brunchradio.com) but Apple Records had a problem with the first one. We have built a side website called The Beatle Brunch Club, in which paying members can hear every week's show on demand commercial-free, plus get audio and video content, participate in live chats with celebrity guests, and are automatically registered in a monthly drawing for great prizes. This month, it's the entire Beatles Remastered
catalog on vinyl in a collectible box set. Last month, we chose a winner and his guest who will attend our Cruise for Beatles Fans sailing on the Allure of the Seas March 3 to 10, with guests Mark Hudson (of Ringo's band, the Roundheads), Joey Molland (of Badfinger), Billy J. Kramer (from Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas) and the Beatles cover band Revolution. I'll be the host. This is our fifth Beatles cruise, but I've been invited to host many others, and it's always a great vacation.
Why do you think the Beatles continue to fascinate and entertain music lovers some 50 years later?
More than half of their music is about love. You won't find a warning sticker on a Beatles album or a solo album. Despite having their personal issues, they always spread the universal message of love, through their music and through their charity. It would be hard to find anyone more dedicated to helping the less fortunate or down-trodden than Sir Paul McCartney. Even Yoko continues to do a large part for the underprivileged through John's work.
Do you think the younger generation that was born after the Beatles broke up also shares that fascination?
It's great fun to go to Beatles festivals and see the kids wearing huge Beatles T-shirts that drag on the ground, walking around singing "Yellow Submarine."
In that same regard, with all the evolving technology, especially in the area of mass communications why do you think radio continues to be so resilient? And why do you think the Majic format is still so successful?
People like to feel good and we provide that on the air through our music and promotions. Certainly on Beatle Brunch, the message is always positive, and even though the music is dated, the information presented is new and fresh. I do present the new songs from Paul and Ringo and also feature John and George's releases on the show.
I think technology has partitioned off the audience to being able to hear whatever they want, when they want, via their iPods, their cell phone audio, Pandora, satellite radio and personal CDs. Certainly the competition is greater than when I started in radio some 35 years ago.
Which Beatles have you actually met and interviewed? What was that like, and were they as friendly and helpful as you had hoped?
I've met and interviewed Ringo on several occasions. He's very nice and friendly, but always seems a little rushed, although I have had him on my show five or six times. I've interviewed Paul over the phone a few times, but in 2005, I met him backstage in Tampa and did a 20-minute interview with him. He was very warm and pleasant and happy, and really listened to the questions and gave fun, honest answers. I never met or talked with George or John although I have interviewed Yoko, Olivia Harrison, Pete Best, George Martin, and many others connected. Olivia especially was also very warm and real.
Beatle Brunch airs Sunday mornings on Majic from 9 to 10 a.m. on Majic 102.7 FM.