Mike McKay on Mike Joseph
by Scott Benjamin
Former WABC air personality Mike McKay said that when he first met Mike Joseph, the consultant that had launched the Top 40 format nearly 17 years earlier at Musicradio77, he “thought that he was a little bit nuts” and found him to be “a quiet, shy” person who “was all business.”
Mike Joseph was hired in 1960 to turn WABC into a music station with its Swingin’ Seven air personalities, who included the suave night person, Scott Muni; morning man Herb Oscar Anderson; and Charlie Greer, who mostly did overnights during his nearly nine years with the station.
At the time, WABC had been playing Broadway tunes and airing talk shows in a format that had little cohesion.
“The joke at the time was that WABC was one notch higher than the police calls in the ratings,” Bill Owen, another of the original Swingin’ Seven, said in a 2006 phone interview with Musicradio77.com.
Mike McKay didn’t arrive at WABC until November 1979, after the station, which had long been the most listened to in the nation, had suffered a significant ratings decline as FM radio started to attract larger audiences in the late 1970’s.
He started at the station just weeks before longtime air personalities George Michael, Harry Harrison and Chuck Leonard were released as program director Al Brady, who had recently succeeded Glenn Morgan, started to alter the Musicradio77’s sound.
In the spring of 1977, Mike McKay worked with Mike Joseph, who was the consultant that was taking WTIC-FM in Hartford, Conn. from a long-established classical music format to what became known as the Hot Hits.
The Hartford Courant has reported that the format change prompted petition drives from longtime listeners, including then-U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, who later served as the state’s governor, who objected to losing their classical music.
McKay said in a Jan. 8, 2009 phone interview with Musicradio77.com that the seven air personalities, who were selected from a pool of at least 160 applicants, worked with Mike Joseph for six weeks doing practice shows and meeting in a conference room on the 18th floor of the Gold Building in Hartford, where WTIC was located.
Joseph has been called the grandfather of radio consultants, having started working in that capacity in the 1950s.
“He was a very quiet, shy man,” McKay said. “He was not someone to pal around with or trade jokes with. He was all business.”
“However, he did like to talk about his accomplishments,” he said. “There was a little bit of pride that he expressed about starting WABC. He thought that it was a feather in his cap.”
“Rick Sklar deserves a lot of credit for what that station became, but Mike Joseph did get it started,” McKay said, making reference to the legendary WABC program director.
Rick Sklar became the program director of WABC in June 1963 and assembled a talented corps of air personalities, a short play list, rapid-fire jingles and clever promotions, which turned it into the model for Top 40 radio.
McKay had been working at WKAT in Allentown, Penn. immediately before being hired at WTIC-FM in the spring of 1977, as the station was about to become known as 96 TICs.
“We thought that he was a little bit nuts,” he said the first impression that the air personalities had of Joseph.
“He was so focused and didn’t seem like a radio person,” said McKay, who is now a part owner of four radio stations in Las Cruces, N.M., and does the morning show on one of them, KVLC-FM, which has a conventional oldies format.
“He wore a dark suit and dark tie and was very precise in his mannerisms,” he said of Joseph. “You might have thought that he was an obstetrician.”
“He even was strict with the executives at WTIC that hired him,” McKay said. “He wouldn’t take any nonsense.”
“There were pages of rules to memorize,” the air personality recalled regarding the training that was conducted before the format change on Thursday, May 12, 1977.
“There was a jingle between every song, so you weren’t supposed to repeat the frequency, for example, if the jingle had just mentioned it,” McKay said.
“You were to only talk on the outros of songs, never on the intros,” he said.
McKay quoted Joseph as saying that he had seen reports that “focus groups don’t like air personalities to talk over the intros to songs.”
“Mike Joseph kept notes on a legal pad and gave us grades,” said the air personality and voiceover artist, who mostly did the morning show during his two and a half years at WTIC-FM.
“If you had four seconds of outro music on the song, then you were to talk only four seconds, and he deducted points if you went over,” McKay said.
He said that, for example, Sir Duke, by Stevie Wonder, had a cold ending, which meant that the title of the song never got identified on the air.
“In an hour you might be required to make 10 call letter references, 10 frequency references and five slogans,” McKay said.
“It was a radio school that was unparalleled, at least based on anything I’ve heard of,” he said. “It was tremendously valuable.”
Wikipedia has reported that the “high-energy, jingle-heavy” presentation that Mike Joseph developed at WTIC-FM “was an instant success.”
“There were no recurrent recent hits, there were no oldies, you just played the 36 to 40 songs that were then on the charts,” McKay said of the music selection.
It became known as the Hot Hits format, and, according to Wikipedia, Mike Joseph “put it into use at other stations around the United States, most notably WBBM-FM in Chicago.”
Air checks from the WTIC-FM Hot Hits era can be heard at www.stevemcvie.com and www.reelradio.com.
McKay said that while he was at WTIC-FM, Jack Miller, who was then the program director at WCBS-FM in New York City, wanted to hire him for the air staff at the nation’s premier oldies station.
“He told me that I pretty much had the job,” he recalled. “Then the general manager heard the air checks and said that he didn’t think that I could do their format because everything that he was hearing was from the restrictive format we had at TIC.”
Some time later, after WTIC-FM’s format became less restrictive, Rick Sklar, who had then become a vice president for ABC Radio, recommended McKay to Al Brady, and he worked at Musciradio77 from November 1979 until the format changed to talk radio in May 1982.
He then spent two years as an ABC staff announcer.
“It wasn’t until later that I totally appreciated all that I had learned,” McKay said regarding the six weeks of training that he had with Joseph.
“He is the individual that shaped me more than anybody else,” he added.
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