Christian Music Broadcasters’ Pioneers: Joe Battaglia

Many have seen The Jesus Music Film, released in 2021, which chronicled the early history of Contemporary Christian Music.   Welcome to a series of articles/stories about some of the pioneers, (I call them “legends”) of Contemporary Christian Music Radio. In the coming months, I will share some of the stories of people who founded and grew the CCM radio format into what it is today. Some started radio stations with just a few dollars to their name. Some of them had radio experience. Many others did not. But all had vision, and a deep passion for CCM radio ministry in their community.  There was a time when they were considered the rebels of Christian radio and media…Today, they are the pioneers. 

 

Joe Battaglia – Networker, Collaborator, Visionary

Everyone and I mean everyone in CCM radio, both past and present, knows Joe Battaglia.  Maybe it’s because he is a great networker?  Maybe he’s a great sales and marketing guy?   Maybe it’s because of his stability and longevity?  Or maybe it’s because Joe loves and respects and values each and every person he meets? (If you have met him, you would know what I mean.)  Joe’s story is fascinating.  God used him in so many ways in this genre we call Jesus Music and CCM Radio. 

 

Beginnings 

Joe Battaglia (Joe B) actually came to Christ through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ while a student at Boston University in 1970 and was deeply influenced and discipled by people like Bill Bright and Josh McDowell, who were not well known back then, but played significant roles in his growth as a young believer.  He also met his first CCM artist back then who had just graduated from Wheaton College and came to the BU campus to visit a staff member. That was John Fischer, who would emerge as one of the pioneers of CCM. 

Joe B was not a radio guy.  He has never claimed to be.  His major was journalism in the BU School of Public Communication.  To this day he says writing is his first love.  After graduating college, he went back to New Jersey and founded the first Christian magazine for the New York area in 1973 called Alternatives Magazine as a voice for the New York Christian community.   But in 1974, one of New York’s top rock stations, WWDJ, switched to a Christian format and Joe wrote about the format change in a front-page story of his magazine, titled, “From Rock to the Solid Rock.”  After he shared a copy of the magazine with the GM of the WWDJ, it was just a few days later that he received a call to come and work for the radio station as a salesman because of all the contacts he had in the Christian community.  Joe accepted, and that’s how he got started in radio!  Little did he know how that would change his life and career path.  

In the early years at WWDJ, Joe was the only believer at that station.  Also, in those early days, the station sold program time to national ministries and filled with whatever music that was available from the early CCM artists like Jamie Owens, Larry Norman, John Fischer, Phil Keaggy, and they even mixed in some Southern Gospel songs and Gospel songs.

Joe’s early days in his office at WWDJ in 1975.

In 1975, he attended both the NRB Convention in DC and the GMA (Gospel Music Association Week) event in Nashville, which was called the NGRS (National Gospel Radio Seminar) at the time.  The NGRS was the forerunner of what is now CMB-Christian Music Broadcasters.    As for NRB, 24-year old Joe found the convention a little awkward.  It was very traditional back then and he didn’t see or meet many folks that were his age.   

 

Radio, Concerts, & Artists

By 1977, WWDJ was expanding and CCM music was growing with artists like Randy Stonehill, Don Francisco, Petra, Dallas Holm, the Imperials, etc.  So, Joe suggested to his station GM that they should produce and promote a concert.  He was told “go and do it!”  And since he had no experience at concert promotion, he thought, “What venue needs the Gospel?” So, he decided to approach a local Triple XXX porno theater in Passaic, NJ.   It turned out that the theatre manager thought WWDJ was still a rock station and so when Joe proposed the idea and told him that Phil Keaggy and the Love Inn Band would be the headliner, he says “Perfect!” Joe had to explain to him the station’s new format AND request two small stipulations! First, the theatre would have to remove the Triple XXX from the marquis AND second, the theatre would cover and/or remove the posters of all the naked women from the hallway. The date of the concert was October 1, 1977, and the event sold over 2000 tickets!  But, Joe also noticed something else that night.  Many of the theatre employees backstage were smoking grass (weed) during the show and really engaged with Keaggy’s performance.  It was at that moment that God spoke to Joe’s heart, saying “I am going to use this music to change lives.”  He says he knew then he’d be involved with this music all his life. 

In late 1978, Joe was given the opportunity to purchase 49% of WLIX in Long Island (while still employed full time with WWDJ) and he jumped at that opportunity. Joe immediately helped to stabilize WLIX and wisely hired Lloyd Parker as PD who had been producing an early CCM show on another station on Long Island. Lloyd turned LIX into a station with influence and impact.  During Lloyd’s tenure there, he hired several others who have gone on to become CCM radio long-time staples, like Jerry Williams and Dave Koch.   

In the late 80’s, Joe hired Frank Reed to be WWDJ’s morning show host. Frank came over after his stint at WNBC in New York and found himself in a much better environment than middays in between Don Imus and Howard Stern!  A few years later, Keith Stevens came to WWDJ from Z-100 that launched his career in Christian music radio. 

Because of his experience with the Phil Keaggy concert, Joe began promoting other concerts, including one with Keith Green in 1978.   He remembers that Keith actually showed up with his wife Melody and two of their children driving an old hippie van from the 60’s.  Eventually, the two became friends and Joe would become Melody Green’s contact person for the New York area when she needed the name of a local church to recommend to people who contacted them at Last Days Ministries.

Note from Keith and Melody Green

During another Keith Green concert the following year, the crowd was so large that it was decided on the spur of the moment to add a second concert that night!  It was a really cold, but 800-900 people stood waiting outside because they wanted to see Keith.  The announcement to the crowd of the second concert was Keith walking outside and asking some guys to pick him up and put him on their shoulders so he could shout to the crowd to “stick around!”  Years later, in 1982, two days before the plane crash, Keith and Melody called Joe to talk about their vision for doing concert crusades in the New York area. That would be their last conversation.

But there were more concerts to be promoted…2nd Chapter of Acts, Terry Talbot, and a special event with Andrae Crouch.  Eventually, concerts featured Steven Curtis Chapman, BeBe and CeCe, Twila Paris, David Meece, Sheila Walsh, Take Six, Kathy Troccoli, Steve Camp, Michael W Smith, The Gaither Vocal Band, and DeGarmo & Key.   Back in the early days, BeBe and CeCe would always bring their dear friend Whitney Houston as a “guest” artist with them!   Yes, Whitney Houston was their “backup” singer at several WWDJ events, including a “Night with the Nets” music event after the basketball game!

Concert Flyers

In 1982, he produced a concert with David Meece and Glad that also featured a last-minute addition to the lineup…an unknown artist named Carman.  They had met during GMA week a month earlier and Carman was so pleased to meet another Italian from Jersey.  Joe liked Carman so much that he added him to this concert lineup, paid him $200 to come, and he stayed with Joe and his wife in their home. That’s when artists might be willing to do that!!!

Carman with Joe’s daughter Alanna
WWDJ promoted Amy Grant’s first Radio City concert in October 1991.

 

NGRS to CMB

Even though NGRS had it’s first gathering in 1972, Joe first attended in 1975 (mentioned earlier), and the total group of about 20 people were all from the Southern Gospel side of music.  However, by the next year, in 1976, they began to bring together some of the early CCM crowd including John Styll, who had a vision for a magazine to talk about the new Jesus music coming out of Southern California. John would publish that first edition of Contemporary Christian Music Magazine several years later.

Joe became Agenda Chairman of the NGRS steering committee in the early 80’s, working alongside Chairman Jim Black (who had sung with the Chuck Wagon Gang before coming over to secure new artists to sign with SESAC.) Jim’s leadership was instrumental in the original start-up and early years of the seminar and stayed on as Chairman until 1986 when he stepped aside and named Joe the new chairman. By that time, Joe had already been elected to the GMA Board of Directors in 1979, along with Mike Sears from WAEC in Atlanta. The two became the first CCM Radio representatives on the GMA Board!  Joe eventually served on the board for 20 years straight, also being named Chairman of the GMA Board in 1990 for a two-year term.

In 1987, CCM music was growing and so were CCM radio stations and their influence on the industry, so the name was changed to NCRS (National Christian Radio Seminar).

Joe stayed on as Chairman of NCRS until 1999.  He had proudly watched NGRS/NCRS grow from a few people in 1975 to over 500 attending each year, which became the largest track during GMA Week.  NGRS had moved back to Nashville in 1983 after being held in St Louis, Dallas and Estes Park, CO. It would be held concurrent with GMA Week until the split from GMA in the early 2000’s and renamed CMB.

NCRS Steering Committee at Artist/DJ reception
The NCRS Steering Committee in Seattle, 1996 to plan the 1997 NCRS Week.

Today (A Letter to CMB Radio Stations from Joe B)

Friends, 

Today, when I attend Momentum, I like to stand in the back and see all the people who are part of Christian radio. I kind of feel like a proud grandfather to see so many fill that ballroom. It’s great to see what God has done. And remember how it all started. Like a mustard seed. Great memories. Great people who loved radio, the music, the ministry. That’s what I remember most. It’s always and foremost about the people and the ministry. 

I think the biggest lesson I learned throughout my involvement in CCM radio especially is to realize that only God could have orchestrated this amazing growth. It’s faith-affirming to start with so little like we had at the beginning and see where it went. And look back to all the miracles along the way. Much of the wondrous things that have happened can only be attributed to divine intervention…things outside of our control. No one person had anything to do with it. That is a freeing thought. Some of the great songs and the amazing acceptance they received had nothing to do with slick marketing or smart people at the top. Things unpredictable happened to drive their acceptance. As an example, I think of Michael English’s In Christ Alone and how Buffalo Bills quarterback Frank Reich pulled the greatest comeback in playoff history and attributed the inspiration for his performance that day to that song. It was all over the news the next day and the song skyrocketed. Really? No marketing genius did that! Only God can take something and through His providential design give it exposure for His purposes. Those things teach you to look for God’s design and favor, and that our jobs are solely to sow and not worry about who gets to reap. 

When I reflect on everything I’ve seen and been a part of over a span of 45 years, you also learn the reality of being steadfast. Every day, look for God in the common, ordinary things in life. Listen to God’s silent language.  Ultimately, they add up to a lifetime of work for the Kingdom. I think that’s what others should see who are new to the industry. The past is always important because it frames the future. When you see the hand of God in something, it affirms your understanding that God was in this…leading men and women to serve, performing miracles, giving people songs, etc.  Wouldn’t you like to know that what has gone on before you and what you are involved in now has God’s hand in it?  I do. I like to know that I can make a difference in my culture with people I respect and love and who want to follow God. 

The key to doing great radio is the same as staying fresh in our faith. to Focus on the basics. It’s all about Jesus, so study to learn more about Him and study your craft to wisely steward what we’ve been given. I heard Billy Graham talk about what he does before his crusades. He studies the city or country he’s in to know his audience and then uses that information in his message. So he preps. And then he prays…a lot! And has others praying a lot, as well.  He just doesn’t get up there and start talking.  Dr. Graham spoke to millions of people during his lifetime.   Do you realize that many of you may speak to more people in their career than Graham did in his lifetime at crusades? Every day, your station can speak to a huge audience that is listening to you for hope, answers, and more. Do you take your work seriously enough to prep what you say, and pray for that? 

Sincerely, 

Joe Battaglia
January, 2022

 

Joe B’s CCM radio story continues today.   He continues to serve as President of the company he founded 30 years ago, Renaissance Communications, where he provides unique programming content and promotional opportunities for CCM stations.  He’s also a founder and co-Executive Producer of “Keep the Faith,” serves on board of NRB and WAY Media, is recently married, and is the author of 6 books. 

I would love your feedback.  Do you have a suggestion for a future article/pioneer that should be featured? Reach out to me at fdice@onechild.org. 

Faron Dice has been in Christian Music Radio for almost 40 years. He is the former Chief Content Officer for WayFM, and currently serves at National Director of Radio and Artist Engagement for OneChild.

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2022 Membership Exclusives

January – 2022 Calendar
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