By Lee Zimmerman
There are Beatles fans and there are Beatles fans. Consider Joe Johnson among the latter. The host of the nationally syndicated program, Beatles Brunch, he’s been able to take his love for the Fab Four into the cyber universe, where he’s been able to share it with their other ardent admirers on a weekly basis.
“I’m as much a fan of The Beatles as I am a host of this show,” Johnson admits. “When I meet listeners at an event or on a cruise that I happen to be hosting, I love to hang with them and discuss our mutual love. I enjoy being around people and they like hanging out with me because they know I’m someone who has actually met a Beatle.”
Given the fact that for the past 25 years, Beatles Brunch has devoted itself to all things having to do with The Beatles, Johnson can claim an inside track on the music and the iconic individuals who were responsible for what’s considered by many to be the greatest music ever made. Each week, Beatles Brunch can be heard on some 70 radio stations around the country, thanks to the fact that it’s been syndicated throughout the U.S. for the past 17 years. Taking on a variety of themes that encompass all aspects of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s collective careers, not to mention the full scope of their solo outings as well, the one hour show has become a magnet for listeners and aficionados that obsess over everything having to do with The Beatles, their lives and their legacy.
A big part of the show’s lure are the interviews that Johnson has managed to acquire along the way. He’s had the opportunity to speak with both Paul and Ringo, in person and on the phone, as well as Beatle widows Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono. In addition, he’s talked with others inside and outside the immediate Beatles family, including Wings members Denny Laine, Lawrence Juber, Denny Seiwell, original drummer Pete Best, prominent solo sidemen Peter Frampton and Gary Wright. And while he’s enjoyed every conversation and appreciated the kindness all of them have shared, he admits in retrospect that it was producer George Martin that awed him the most.
“I met George and his son Giles at Cirque Du Soleil’s premier of The Beatles ‘Love’ performance in Las Vegas,” Johnson recalls. “He’s a producer and I’m a producer, so I was very nervous. Yet, I also felt a kinship. For example, I peppered him with questions about the obscure differences in the stereo and mono mix of ‘If I Fell,’ where Paul’s voice cracks in the mono version and it was patched over in the stereo mix. He looked at me with this curious look on his face. Beatles fans obsess about stuff like that, but the people that were part of the process don’t remember those things. So later, at the after party, he came up to me and asked me how I enjoyed the performance. He said he had been worried about my reaction. Maybe it was just good PR, but I felt that revealed his real warmth.”
Of course, his interviews with Paul and Ringo have had their own anecdotes as well. He remembers McCartney remarking on the fact that Johnson’s minidisc recorder failed when Johnson tried to turn it on for a taping. Ringo, he says, was very astute, and when he was shown archival photos of the band’s early performances, Starr could describe all his drum kits in detail.
Still, there are limits as to what he can ask. The artists’ handlers always insist that he focus his questions only on current matters — new albums or upcoming tours — while staying away from subjects solely about The Beatles as they existed back in the day. Inevitably though, the pair will bring it up themselves, as Paul did while describing something having to do with the writing of “Hey Jude,” or Ringo expressing his fondness for South Florida, the place Johnson calls home.
It’s hardly surprising that the inspiration for Beatles Brunch was borne simply out of wishful thinking. “In 1992, I bought a car with a CD player and I took a long drive to visit my family. I grabbed a big pile of Beatles CDs which had just been remastered, as well as an audio copy of the “Sgt. Pepper” 25th anniversary special that had just been aired on the Disney Channel. That was really fascinating, because George Martin would be adjusting the different channels and revealing all these nuances I hadn’t really noticed before. So it got me to thinking, why hadn’t anyone done a radio show devoted strictly to The Beatles. At the time, I was working at the Miami radio station Magic 102.7, and so a couple of weeks later, I approached the program director, Rick Peters, about putting a show like that on the air. At his request, I put together a demo, and soon after, on May 31, 1992, Beatles Brunch was born.”
The company that owned Magic had four other stations in their network, and with Peters’ help, Johnson managed to get the program on the other outlets as well. He then began pitching it on his own, eventually accumulating 38 stations in major markets like Sacramento, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. He also began talking to syndicators. Dick Clark’s production company took interest but indicated that Clark himself would be the likely choice to host the show. “That was a deal breaker,” Johnson insists. Fortunately, when he brought it to the radio syndicator Westwood One in July 2000, he found an immediate bond. The head of programming was a Beatles fan himself and liked what Johnson was proposing.
Indeed, the show has come a long way over the past two and a half decades. At first, Johnson made individual taped copies of the show, typed up the show’s rundown and sent out individual packages to each individual station. Today, he records the program with Protools in his home studio and then uploads directly to the syndicator, which in turn, digitally distributes it to the stations in their network. He also owns a web domain, Beatlesbrunch.com and an interactive subscription site, brunchradio.com, where fans can hear archived programs and participate in contests in exchange for a nominal monthly subscription to reap additional benefits.
“We were one of the first programs that allowed listeners to hear our programs on demand,” Johnson claims. “Podcasts are all the rage now, but we were doing something similar 15 years ago. Live streaming is an integral part of the process.”
Although the hour long show is aired on Sunday mornings in most of the markets that currently carry the show, it keeps connected with listeners in other ways as well — through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other forms of social media. Even so, Johnson goes a step further than most.
“I give listeners my cell phone number,” Johnson insists. “I tell them that if they’re quizzed and they find themselves stumped for a Beatles related answer, they can always call me. Most Beatles fans are friendly and respectful. Besides, what’s the worse thing that can happen? I need to change my number?”
NOTE OF CORRECTION: In the December 2017 issue of Goldmine, it was incorrectly stated that radio show host Joe Johnson interviewed Badfinger’s Pete Ham. Pete Ham died in 1975.