By Dave Charles
JJ Johnston, one of radio’s really great talents is ready to reveal his story exclusively to FYI right here, right now.
What is JJ Johnston up to these days?
Jj continues on working in markets in North America and beyond. This includes talent coaching in the media and non-media. Ten years ago I informed Corus that I was going out alone. They were supportive and became my first customer. I went alone because I always wanted to run a business, I wanted to be close to my ailing mom in the County, and I knew that I had to leave Corus before they left me.
Just after leaving Corus, I was able to launch 99.3 County FM, a nonprofit community radio station in my hometown area of Prince Edward County. This could not have happened if I was still working with Corus.
It was pretty interesting getting back down on the ground. We’ve put many radio stations on the air, always with money and people, but in this case, no money no people! Just me in the beginning in a small space with headphones, a cell phone and a writing pad on a card table. I then went to work assembling the excellent start-up volunteer team leaning heavily on friends and neighbours.
I did just about everything off the top, including The Morning Show for months till we were able to find volunteers and train them up to do it. I was quite rusty but regained my sense of the thrill of being on the air. I continue to do that 99.3 County FM morning show on Monday mornings, and that got me re-seasoned to be able to perform on a few other radio stations primarily in the U.S. where I do a daily show on WSRQ Sarasota FLA, and the midday show on Country 103 which has a massive signal that covers off hundreds of miles from Manitoulin Island, including Northern Michigan.
It’s a fluke how that all turned out, but it is a lot of fun for me. And as they say, if it’s fun, it ain’t work.
Give our readers of sense of your consulting business and the things that you’re working on day to day for clients.
My consulting business is a small firm suited to your needs. We have always been careful not to have too many clients so we can be on the other end of the line. We help you determine what your needs are, and then work together to define success and how to get there.
While we have a wide range of services, a good deal of what I do is coaching talent, whether in the media or in the non-media business world, and we service in many parts of the world. Thus, the JJ international media and management consulting business is now in its 10th year. In early September I will be in my 50th year of broadcasting.
What made a career in radio so attractive to you?
Well, I guess I’ve always needed attention haha. As a young boy, I listened to the radio around my Grampa’s antique radio and was over the moon to get my very first transistor radio. I just couldn’t get enough of it, and still to this day when a car drives by and I hear one of my radio stations I still get a thrill.
I was never in it for money off the top or even today, but money is nice to have and if you’re good at what you do that should follow.
We often hear of ‘radio’s magic’. Describe what that means to you.
RADIO Magic? The ability to connect with listeners, the ability to move your listeners in the community. We are so lucky to be able to be in a constant situation where we can make a difference.
Who were some of your mentors or heroes in radio that gave you a better understanding of radio as it should be?
I’ve had many mentors over the years. Start off with Bob Saint and Steve Young, who I can never repay, but I keep trying. Then I ran into a fellow named Dick Peplow in North Bay of all places who took me from being the screaming teenager to a major market jock in less than a year. In Ottawa, Dan Roman (Duff’s bro) was quite an influence on me. Another major influence for me was the great Tom Jeffries as I used to listen to him all the time on CFRA in Ottawa and I tried to emulate him and deemed him as my own air mentor. I didn’t meet him until decades later in Vancouver, where I had the pleasure of working with him, and we keep in touch.
Add in Don Kay, Alden Diehl, Chuck McCoy, Gary Russell, Gary Slaight, Blair Bartrem, Karen Steele, Jeff Vidler, Jim McLaughlin, Brother Jake Edwards, Andy, Frost, Gerry Forbes, John Parikhal, Dave Charles, Kurt Hanson, Jim Schaffner, my colleagues in Australia Guy Dobson, Mike Fitzpatrick, Erica McGee and many more. Each of these people taught me invaluable things along the way.
You’re well known for your great music chops in putting competitive music formats together. Give us an example of a music format that you took to the top. IE CFOX Vancouver. Break it down for me. Currents, Recurrents, New Gold, Classic Gold etc.
In terms of putting music formats together, one of the greatest successes was MIX 99.9. The great Pat Holiday put that station together and deserves a lot of credit. He knew that individuals designing their own playlists didn’t think in terms of format purity. Their playlists consisted of a lot of genres. I didn’t get it at first, but then Gary hired me after a soft book to come in and flip the format to Classic Rock.
Then, the summer book come out, and the numbers were way better so we didn’t end up flipping the format, but I and Hall of Famer Wayne Webster figured it out and evolved and marketed the format, and hired and groomed a great morning show that featured Rob Christie, Bruce Barker, Maureen Holloway, Darryl Kornicky, Donna Saker and more along the way. It took a while, but we went from 600,000 listeners to 1.2 million and became the number-one music station in Toronto. It was a dog fight with CHUM FM, and we were back and forth in the ratings. Ross Davies was an amazing programmer and made me better, and perhaps I helped him too. We had some hellacious battles that provided massive and entertaining radio.
Back up to CFOX Vancouver. The station had gotten beaten up by ROCK 101 CFMI and Jim McLaughlin and Chuck McCoy brought me in from CHAM Hamilton. The first thing I did was make Ross Winters the Assistant Program Director, and then we hired Larry and Willy from Thunder Bay who weren’t quite ready, but we all knew they could do it and boy did they! We also had the first female afternoon drive show with Liz McKinney and Valerie Ambrose who were brilliant!
We rolled up our sleeves and delivered big time. At the time we were about 50% current/recurrent, and the rest was the 70s and 80s gold with some cherry-picked 60s. We creamed our competitors and took the station to a 15 SHARE.
CFMI was adamant to hire me to get me out of their hair, and I eventually took the carrot. We quickly pounded away at the Classic Rock handle and repatriated an audience. The dogfight was on.
After leaving the market. Bob Mills came in as the CFOX Program Director and has the distinction of the only PD to beat that 15, sure. He did a great job.
Radio A.I. is making waves in the radio industry. Give me the JJ take on Radio A.I. from your perspective.
Artificial intelligence and RADIO? I listened with interest at CMW this year and agree with the consensus that AI has a purpose which ultimately leads us to more time to concentrate on better performance. AI helps provide tools for all of us to be better at what we do, but I wouldn’t want to see it replacing hard-working RADIO talent.
What in your view can we do to improve the way we measure radio listening? How do Numeris, Stats Radio, and Radio Counts stack up with you?
In terms of what to do for better radio measurement? Sounds simple but increase the sample size. This is a tough one in terms of economics, but when you can have as few as several people determine the way the book goes one way or another, it can be disheartening. My message to all is to believe that you are in ratings at all times and if you work on being compelling, exciting, and activating social media, you may not always do as well as you want to, but you will insulate yourself against huge wobbles. It’s always about, and still is word of mouth, which includes on the radio, in your marketing and viral activity.
You continue to champion new talent in Radio such as this year's Allan Waters Award winner Jenny West. Where do you look for new radio talent? How do you go about developing them with the available air slots in the diminishing radio spectrum?
I look for new talent pretty much everywhere. I’ve seen people in radio stations like Robin LaRose and Jody Vance, who were relegated to minor positions absolutely blossom when they got an opportunity.
A great success story is Hazel Mae at Sportsnet. She was a waitress at the Keg in Toronto when I first met her. We would go there every Friday night because she was so entertaining and fun and then I found out she knew lots about sports and we got her into CFRB to do some sportscasts. Gary Slaight got her right away too. I then made the mistake of telling Scotty Moore who was running Sportsnet at the time about her. He had her do a screen addition, and then that was that! She is still going strong and is one of the biggest MLB authorities in Canada and beyond.
As I always say, it’s our jobs as talent coaches to encourage our talent and courage in that word actually means to help them develop the courage to try different things and dust them off when they fall flat. Steve Young was so great at that. Great talent takes advantage of every inch of real estate on Radio. Great talents are the ones that will do what other people won’t do. I’ve seen, including myself, areas of opportunities to get as much airtime as possible. Yes, lots of slots in Radio are diminishing, but there are still a lot of opportunities out there, and voice tracking is one of them. So many people just bang off a voice track without doing the work. Voice tracking is no different than being on the air in terms of pride in your craft and being able to compel and move an audience. My best advice is to take advantage of every minute that you have on the radio to make a difference.
Who inspired you in the radio industry and why?
As I mentioned before, the biggest influencers in my career were Dick Peplow, Bob Saint, and the legendary Steve Young. They all made you want to act up around them. They were all ‘good rooms’. You wanted to entertain them, and they would actively appreciate it.
Radio Colleges are seeing enrolment decline. If that trend continues where will we find the next generation of radio talents in these areas (On air, production, sales, creative writing, marketing)?
Everywhere. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and be prepared to coach them. Often people outside the industry grow fast inside the industry. They don’t have preconceived notions.
Podcasting continues to grow. Is it time for a Podcast radio format? If so, who are some of the feature podcasts you would program on that station?
Yes, podcasting continues to grow. Is it time for an all-podcast radio format? I would venture to say that we’ve had that for a long time and it’s called Talk Radio. As for feature podcasts that I would program on a podcast station, it’s in the talk radio sauce, who is your audience, what are their interests, work at it and consistently deliver.
It’s 2023. What in your mind is a new radio format that needs to be created for today's media-savvy consumers?
I love the ‘join the conversation’ stations. In real time they see what is connecting with listeners and the smart ones activate on that. When the audience listens along and participates, they tell you what topics are working for you and which aren’t. The smart ones follow the reactions and weigh in deeply.
I’m a big fan of sitcoms and shows that story arc properly with compelling content can gather mass audiences in quite a hurry and stretch those hours tuned.
It’s all about audience interests, and the 'join the conversation' stations are great at it.
What’s on the JJ playlist that inspires you today?
JJ‘s playlist these days? Anything from Black Eyed Peas to Curtis Mayfield to Pink, U2, Taylor Swift, and assorted hits from all genres. I pretty much like it all. I’ve loved music since I had my very first single, Dance to the Music by Sly and the Family Stone, which by the way, is still my favourite song.
In closing I quote Captain Dan Geary, a U.S.A. radio Legend: ‘Be good to yourself, be kind to your neighbour and may the good lord take a liking to you!’