10 Questions with ... J.J. Johnson
December 9, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I first went on the air on Saturday, January 6th, 1968 at WABQ/Cleveland. I then moved to KYOK/Houston the following year. In 1971, I was hired at WGRT/Chicago and later that year moved to KFRC/San Francisco. After being promoted to PD at KFRC in 1973, I was then hired by 1580 KDAY/Los Angeles in 1974, which I personally signed off in 1991. I also worked at KMPC/L.A., KJLH/ L.A., KACE/ L.A., among others. With Lou Rawls, I hosted the 24-hour radio specia, "The Music of Black America," and was the announcer on the "Budweiser Concert Hour," produced by Westwood One. I hosted "Highlights," produced by Bullitt Productions, which featured segments hosted by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, actor Dorian Harewood and B.B. King. I was the main commercial and announcer voice of Motown for 30 years, including work on the Emmy Award-winning "Motown 25." I was segment announcer on Paramount Television's "Real TV with Ahmad Rashad" and appeared as a ringside sports announcer in the motion picture "Penitentiary III." And, I did occasional ADR work for the studios including being one of the opening "news voices" in "New Jack City."
1) You have worked for and with many legendary personalities in this business; please tell us about some of them...
My first PD, Mike Payne, was the quintessential disc jockey. He was one of the greatest I ever heard and he lived the jock fantasy lifestyle. He knew everybody, it seemed, from the mayor to the high school principals, most of the black music acts of the era and Dr. Martin Luther King. Too few know about Mike. Paul Drew was a Top 40 legend in his own time. He was the most meticulous and efficient man I've ever worked with. He was always up for a professional scrap with competitors and he was a good friend. Don Mac held down mornings at 1580 KDAY. Mac was and is a funny guy who simply put his real self across on the air. I worked -- sort of -- with one-time KHJ morning man Robert W. Morgan when I was at KMPC. Morgan was similar to Mac in that the guy on the air was the same guy you'd run into at Martoni's. He was quick and low-key at the same time. Jim Maddox, who hired me at 1580 KDAY, particularly excelled at on-air promotions. He came up with one of the two greatest on-air promotions I've ever worked with. I've had the pleasure of knowing and working with some incredible people. This is a partial list.
2) Could you share with us your Bill Drake story?
I have Bill Drake stories ... plural. One concerns the onset of deregulation: He and I were chatting when he came up with the story of how he and his partner, Gene Chenault, bought L.A.'s FM 100 for about $2 million. (These figures are not necessarily bulls-eye accurate, but close.) Then, about two-and-a-half years later, they sold it for about $4 million and thought they had committed grand theft. A few years later, those owners sold it for $64 million! We both laughed and had another drink.
3) How do you see the future of radio?
Many are predicting the death of radio. I would say that's premature. I don't see that happening. The air exists as do the frequencies. Death would necessitate complete abandonment and that's highly unlikely. I think the pendulum will, of necessity, swing back and place the programming departments once again in the hands of talented, local PDs. Consultants will still be around, but micro-management from a distance will go away.
4) You hired a young Doug Banks, how did you keep him on course?
With a whip, a chair and a pistol.
5) You have a lot of great stories and insight. You just wrote a book; would you share a few bits and pieces with us?
Actually, I have already. What's in the book includes stories such as the Drake story above, stories on celebrities I've known and befriended, record people, programming, the running of the programming department (of which programming is but one aspect), rants about this and that and other observations. When I talk about the contents of the eBook ("Aircheck: Life in Music Radio," Amazon.com), people tend to get the idea that they somehow know the contents. It's the same with those who check in with the "Aircheck" Facebook page. I post a lot, so people think they know a lot. You gotta read the book to know the book! And, it's an easy read.
6) How was it working at KDAY? The air staff was incredible.
1580 KDAY was just a great radio station! When I arrived, Gary Price was GM. He had been a jock, MD and PD, so he knew the language. When I became PD there, that was a luxury few PDs knew. He was fine with me being the PD and no stupid questions. The rest of the staff was great, too. I'm still in touch with a number of ex-KDAY people. And, given the times and the location of the facility; it was a Hollywood thing. We hung with the stars who, naturally, listened to the radio. It was mostly a dream. Of course, there were trying moments. But, overall, KDAY was a great place full of wonderful people.
7) Would you share some of your funnier radio stories with us?
Well, less than two hours into my career; I said "shit" on the air. That wasn't funny when it happened. But, it became funny two days later back at school.
Robert W. Morgan and I were sitting with a young lady at Martoni's one afternoon playing music trivia, an activity in which I held myself in pretty high esteem. I figured Morgan would be pretty good at this, too. The girl smoked us.
Bill Speed and I had attended a Janis Joplin concert at Cleveland Public Auditorium. Afterward, Doc Nemo, a progressive rock jock and a friend of ours, invited us to a party in Janis' honor. Turned out to be in Murray Hill. In 1969, black people did not go to hang out in Murray Hill; only to drive through, stopping only for the light. But, that's where we ended up. Next surprise: It was hosted by the local Hells Angels! In Murray Hill. Ended up having a good time.
8) You started your career at an interesting time for radio, FM was the Internet of its day, wasn't it?
FM was where owners relegated their jazz, classical and other "non-serious" formats. The jocks at WCUY, the local jazz station, sold time as well, for example. WHK (later to become WMMS) began airing "underground" music; hard rock. Where else would you put all that "non-hit" music by unknowns such as Blood Sweat & Tears featuring Al Cooper or Chicago Transit Authority before they "grew up," dropped "Transit Authority" and went pop? That was in the late '60s. No one would have predicted at that time that FM would become what it became.
9) What are the key ingredients to doing personality radio and what are some of the misconceptions?
Learn to do simple things well. Pay attention to minute details. Everybody does the big things right. You win or lose in the margins. You can run a tight format - and there is such a thing as "too tight" - and still put forth personality. Personality is what we - all of us - are! Suggestion: Remove the headset from one ear. You'll hear what's going on in one ear, but you'll hear yourself talk as you talk in real life. You'll thus be more inclined to talk like the real person you are. That person IS personality. (I wrote about this in the eBook at some length.)
10) What profession would you have chosen had you not gone into radio?
Acting and directing in theater, movies and TV. I started out in life as a child actor. I think I'll do that next lifetime.
What is next for you?
Dunno. I'm wrestling with marketing this book at the moment. Writing is easy. Marketing is a bitch.
What do you like about radio today and what don't you like?
I like that there are still great personalities to be heard. I don't like the overall inattention to detail.
What is your advice for those wanting to get into this business?
How bad do you want it? What do you know about it, really? It's show biz. Therefore, you'd better have rhino hide. This business is not for the sensitive or the meek. Learn your craft; however you go about that, down to the last detail. If you're not a true "radio geek," go do something else.