Joel Raab, Radio Whisperer, Explains the Art of His Craft

Courtesy of the International Radio Festival

When the Country Radio Hall of Fame inducts the new class on June 24 in Nashville, the honorees will include Joel Raab, a Long Island native who first heard country on 1,000-watt AM signal WTHE, which also became the first station he worked at as a teen. Raab programmed such important stations as WEEP Pittsburgh, WHN New York and WHK Cleveland during a 30-year run as one of the genre’s most influential consultants. He currently advises stations in 11 of the top 25 markets for such broadcast chains as CBS, Entercom, Beasley and Greater Media.

You have known for several months at this point that you’re being inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame. How are you feeling about that now?

You know, I didn’t think I would be nervous, but for some reason I feel nervous. I think it’s just the magnitude of it all. It’s a little overwhelming, I guess.

Considering the number of decades that went into getting this, it’s got to make you stop and think about how you got here and why you’re doing it.

It has. I started as a teenager. It has been over 40 years; it’s just kind of always been in my blood. It’s been my first love -- radio and country music were my two favorite things, and getting to do both together was just one great, wonderful opportunity.

When you were a teenager, country was a very adult format. Why did it appeal to you?

It was a combination. My mom’s family is from Hopkinsville, Ky., just up the road from Nashville, so as a kid I got exposed to it. And when I watched the Johnny Cash TV show [on ABC], he did something very clever. He would have Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Diamond, and then Merle Haggard and Charley Pride all on the same show. So he lured the pop music fans into seeing country, and that, combined with my mother’s side of the family, kind of got me into it. And I really was kind of an oddball growing up on Long Island because none of my friends were into it at all. But I was unapologetic. I just loved it.

You have been consulting radio stations for 30 years now. When you started, did you even know there was such a job?

I did not know that position existed. I think I first learned about consultants when I went to WEEP in Pittsburgh, and Ed Salamon was our consultant. And he was a great consultant.

I recently encountered some people in the music business who had no idea this job existed, and they were kind of offended by the idea of it. Do you often have to defend your job?

Not to people who understand what I do and use the service and benefit from the service. In the best-case scenario, I’m a resource for the station. I’m another person for them to bounce ideas off of, to get input from, and in the best consultant/station relationship, I’m giving my opinion and they’re making the final decisions. That’s when it works the best.

Radio drives country music more than it does pretty much any other genre. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because the stations have done a good job of being a conduit between the fans and the artists and the music. I don’t think the fans are finding that as much with other music offerings, shall we say. We saw this in Edison’s millennial study last year at CRS, that millennial country fans still like to meet the DJ, still like to win concert tickets, and these are things that nobody does better than country radio.

I kind of feel like part of it is the demographic. Even though country has gotten younger, it’s still got a large number of older listeners who really don’t have the time to be actively searching for new music.

The music director becomes much more important for them.

Absolutely. We are the curators of presenting the best music when there are so many choices out there. People want to hear a variety of music, but they still want to hear the best music, the really good stuff. People are increasingly busy. We cannot waste their time. So we can’t be presenting the weaker things.

How much of your Hall of Fame acceptance speech have you written at this point?

I wrote it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t change.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.