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Interview with Pandora’s Joshua “J1” Raiford

Recently, TheIndustry.biz honored several industry notables including JOSHUA “J1” RAIFORD with an Innovator Honor. He is the VP of Music Programming – at Pandora and Program Director SiriusXM Pandora Now. Below is the interview

I felt like female DJs get more ignored than a lot of male DJs. So, I wanted to just give an opportunity to dope female mixers who know the craft, that appreciate it, that love the music, that love to DJ and showcase their talents

Joshua “J1” Raiford
Joshua “J1” Raiford

Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Joshua “J1” Raeford always had a love for music. He began DJing at 13 years of age. After seeing the likes of Sean Combs, Kevin Liles, Steve Stout, and Dame Dash, J1 knew he wanted to be a music executive. After working 12 years at Radio One, starting as an intern and ultimately becoming the Program Director in three different markets (Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Washington DC) J1 was named Head of Hip Hop at Pandora music. Using his programming experience and his ear for music and relationships throughout the industry, J1 made an immediate impact by enhancing the current listening experiences as well as curating new stations and playlists. He also created a “Pandora Playback Series,” which features sitdown conversations with various established artists. J1 has been critical in bridging the program gap between SiriusXM and Pandora by creating shareable content, launching specialty shows, and programming initiatives, including Uninterrupted Radio in conjunction with Maverick Carter’s Springhill company, hosting a new music show on SXM’s “The Heat’ based off his Pandora Top Shelf Rap & R&B station, programming “Pandora Now” channel 3 on SiriusXM and breaking new artists. In 2022, J1 was named Vice President of Music Programming.

Kevin Ross: How long have you been in the industry?

J1: If we want to count, starting from my first internship in the music business, about 20 years.

KR: So, it doesn’t seem like overnight for you?

J1: No, it definitely wasn’t overnight for me. I wish I could say it was overnight, but no, it’s been a long journey. I’ve enjoyed it, I’m still relatively young for my level of success, and even when I was a program director, I was still relatively young compared to most other program directors.

KR: Alright. So, I want to start off and ask you what made you take the job with Pandora instead of sticking with radio and kind of going through what a lot of other people go through in radio and what made you say, let me go in the direction of the road less traveled?

J1: I’m always forward thinking even when I achieve an accomplishment, or I get a new position, or I level up. I’m always thinking about what’s next. And that’s going all the way back to when I first got into radio as an intern/mixer. I was like, okay, well, how do I crack the Mic? How do I get behind the desk? How do I start programming those logs? So, when I became a program director for Radio One in Indianapolis, my next goal was like, okay, how do I either become an operations manager or how do I get to like a top 10 market? And one thing about me is, man, I give all glory to God, and God has always ordered my steps and has moved me when it’s time to move. So, eight or nine months into Indianapolis, they moved me to DC. 

So, I was in a top 10 market, but again, I’m thinking what’s next, and I think the aha moment for me was, I’m starting to go to these festivals, and I’m seeing artists that I’ve never played on the radio before having these huge crowds, signing their songs word for word. That was one. And then, even when I was in Atlanta about to leave, I saw artists like 21 Savage, an NBA YoungBoy who was getting, at the time, $20,000 to $40,000 a show and didn’t have one song on the radio

So, there was something going on that I needed to figure out, and it was definitely that streaming was becoming more and more prevalent, especially since the litigation finally caught up with the technology, being that you remember when streaming first came out, it was the Wild West. They didn’t know how to monetize it, and a lot of the labels, especially the urban labels, were losing money.

But once they figured out a way to monetize it, it kind of gave Hip Hop a second wind, it gave the urban department a second wind. And you were seeing all the sub-labels pop up again, all these artists just pop up and doing shows and getting all these fans without any radio play. And I’m thinking to myself, I’m like, man, I’m young by industry standards as a program director, so I’m going to have a lot of time in this business. I didn’t know what radio was going to look like in 10, 15, or 20 years. Not saying that it would completely fall off the face of the earth because everybody’s been saying, oh, radio’s dead. They’ve been saying radio’s dead for the past 20 years. It’s not going anywhere. I just didn’t know what it would look like for me and where the growth opportunities were looking in the future 10 years down the road. So, I knew for me the next logical step was streaming. 

So, I did a lot of research on it. I called different people who would at least talk to me. I got to shout out Tuma Basa. Tuma was one of those people that gave me a lot of advice and told me what to look for, told me how they interview. But again, it was divine intervention because I got a call from one of my label heads saying that Pandora was looking for a new head of Hip Hop. This was like right at the beginning of 2019, and they were interested in me that my name came up in different circles. So, he asked if he could pass my information along. I was like, of course, this is Pandora. 

And I spoke with the hiring manager, and everything worked out, and he hired me. But going back to what I was saying about divine intervention, I’m going to tell you a quick story. I was visiting my sister like I normally do around the holidays. She lives in Oakland or Berkeley, California, so she was driving me to the airport to fly back to Atlanta for the holidays where my parents stay. 

And when we were driving on the highway, I looked up, and I saw the Pandora sign, and I looked at it. I didn’t pay it no mind. I just asked my sister, and I said, “Oh, Pandora’s out here?” And she said, “Oh yes, their headquarters are out here.” So, I was like, “Okay, cool.” And then, two weeks later, I got a phone call that they were interested in me. So, I didn’t believe that was just circumstance. I felt like God was really showing me where the next step in my career was. 

KR: So, DJs typically, and I don’t know if it’s like this in your generation, but when I was coming up, DJs were the most ignored people at a station primarily. They kind of did their thing, they did the mixes, whatever, and they didn’t get a lot of attention from the program directors, they didn’t get a lot of airtime, they were always hungry but they were ignored. Did you see a lot of that when you were coming up? Or was it different?

J1: I think it was different for me, one because I’m in Atlanta, where the DJs have such a major thumbprint. There are certain markets where the DJs are just like the lifeblood of not only the city but the radio station. I feel like Atlanta’s one of those markets, and New York is definitely one of those markets. LA and Chicago are those markets, and even Houston and Dallas to a certain degree. So, I didn’t necessarily feel ignored or anything it was just more so a matter of like how much I wanted to be involved because you do have some DJs that will show up, do their mix, and then they’re going home, or they’re going to the club, and that’s cool that’s what they want to do. I knew I wanted more; I wanted to be a program director. 

J1 and Megan Thee Stalliion – Photo Credit SiriusXM

But when I got into the actual station and saw how things worked, and when I saw the artists or the label reps walk in, the people that they wanted to talk to, it wasn’t the DJs, it wasn’t the personalities it wasn’t the sales managers; it was the program director. I realized the program director was the one with the real power and could influence and move the music and the culture. And that’s when I said, okay, that’s the position I want to be in. But I felt like I was blessed enough to work for program directors that realized the power of the DJ and shout out to Hurricane Dave. He was actually the program director that made me the mix show coordinator when I came to him with a proposal on how we could organize and amplify the mix show department within Radio One Atlanta at the time.

So yes, I could see how they can sometimes get ignored, but I think that’s a two-way street. I think some DJs are just happy with doing their mixes and going home, but you have some DJs that want to be more involved or don’t know how to go about it. And you have program directors that sometimes do ignore their DJs, but I was one of those PDs, and still am, that lean on my DJs. I want to know what you’re playing. I want to know what people are reacting to because I still think that the DJ is your first line when it comes to like interacting with the music and actual people.

KR: Well, there’s also an advantage to it because when you’re ignored, then that means you can not only be unhappy, but you can also be an opportunist.

J1: Yes.

KR: So, it’s kind of like you obviously were an opportunist, and you saw opportunities, you wanted to go for them. And I’ve seen some DJs do that. But one last question about DJs. I’ve always been curious about why is it that, and it must be because of the music, that Black DJs are not making as much money as white DJs, the ones who are on the Vegas strip, etc. What’s the deal with that?

J1: That’s something I’m still trying to figure out. It’s frustrating because you have DJs or DJs from other races that are headliners for actual shows and festivals and stuff and are getting paid and treated like artists. You have that in Hip Hop, but it’s like a handful of DJs that get that type of treatment, or you have to come out with some sort of song or be an artist yourself, down there. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it, and I don’t want to make any assumptions or put anything out there that’s not fact-based or anything, but I just know it’s something that needs to change. DJs, in general, need to get paid more, but what’s happened for DJing as a whole, which might contribute to it, is that the barriers of entry to becoming a DJ have been lowered tremendously due to technology.

Before you had to have a vinyl collection, you had to be able to, like, put records together. There was a craft to it, now all you need is a laptop and somebody else’s hard drive, and you don’t even have to know the skills of it. The technology will pretty much blend the records together for you. It’ll tell you the beats per minute. So, even if you’re not musically inclined, all you got to do is set your laptop to the beats per minute and just go from song to song in that spectrum right there. So, I think because more people got into it and you have more DJs that will say, I’ll do this gig, I’ll do the whole night for $150 or $200. And you have promoters out there that could care less about sometimes the quality of the DJ, but they’re just trying to make the bottom line. And as long as they’re playing the hits, they don’t really care. It’s diluted the whole craft of it. So, I think that might have contributed to what’s happening. And unfortunately, it’s affected Black DJs more than any other race,

KR: So, now that you’ve made a move to Pandora, do you still have the desire to do radio or are you looking at other things in the near future? Are you into the whole streaming aspect of it?

J1: Well, I mean, the cool part is I still get to partake in the best of both worlds because when I started at Pandora, that’s when SiriusXM acquired the company. And even though I was hired exclusively for Pandora at the time, I saw it as an opportunity to kind of bridge the gap because I did have experience in radio, and I was able to learn streaming relatively quickly. So I was able to kind of talk both languages per se. There were terms in radio that some of the people in streaming didn’t understand, and then there were terms in streaming or data in streaming that some of the radio people didn’t understand. But because I was able to kind of understand both, I could explain it to both sides and say, Okay, this means that, or this is how you would look at it. This is how it compares to research, or this is how we would do things at radio, and this is how it could translate over here. And then, I program a station on SiriusXM, so, again, I’m able to use the data and the technology that I have on Pandora to create a listening experience on a radio channel on SiriusXM. So to me, I feel like I was fortunate enough never to completely walk away from it.

KR: What do you think are the qualities of a person in your generation to be successful in the industry today? What does it take to be successful, and where do you think people often fall short?

J1: I think my generation; we have a tendency to be very impatient. I’m a millennial, and I’m an older millennial, so I kind of get both sides. I understand the younger generation as far as like living in a microwave society because that’s the technology that they’ve grown up with. That’s what they’re accustomed to. I grew up when all that stuff was changing, but I remember when you had to dial up your internet modem, and it took like a minute or two just to get on the internet, and if somebody called your phone, you got knocked off. A lot of kids, if their Wi-Fi is slow, they are looking at you like you live in the stone age. I remember what it was like not to have a cell phone, and it seems like ancient history. How did we survive without it?

KR: You’re not talking pagers and beepers?

J1: Pagers and beepers. Yes, exactly. So, I think a lot of my generation, or the generations after me, want what we want now we live in an on-demand society. I mean, people only watch sporting events in real-time now or maybe the news, but most of the time, you get everything you need right here from your phone. So, I think that’s where a lot of people fall short; we see what we see on social media, which is the gift and the curse. And we see the success stories, but we don’t understand what it took to get there, or the patience or the losses that it took to get there because not a lot of people post that. They only post the wins or when they’re up and when they’re doing well, or when they have the nice car or have the nice clothes or the jewels or the money and stuff. But they don’t post when they got to sleep on their friend’s couch, or they are still staying at home with their parents because you aren’t going to get any likes off of that.

KR: Right. What do you think about the people who are the younger generations who say that older people in the industry are holding them back, that they’re not providing opportunities? Do you see some of that? Do you think there’s some merit to that?

J1: I think it goes both ways. I think there are people like that in the industry that don’t provide opportunities; it’s not everybody because I’ve seen others who either provide opportunities or mentor the next wave of executives or musicians or whatever you call it. I know I can speak for myself personally. I’m very intentional as far as like giving back or at least speaking to people when they want to seek knowledge making myself available for those who want to learn. Making sure that I’m going back to my alma mater, Morehouse College, and making myself accessible to those young brothers and sisters at Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University. Speaking at classes. I can’t provide opportunities for everybody, but at least I can give people the blueprint and the tools. 

So yes, it’s on that side. Some of the older generations need to do a better job of providing those opportunities and being secure enough to say, “Okay, if I give this young brother or sister a chance, I’m still going to be okay.” I think a lot of it is fear of losing what they have. At the same time, the younger generation can’t use that as an excuse not to push forward. When I was coming up, there were a lot of older DJs that didn’t want to see me shine or didn’t want to give me opportunities. I didn’t let that deter me. I used it as motivation. Like, okay, well, I’m going to knock this old MF off his horse, and I’m going to take my spot if you don’t want to help me. That is on you. You know what I’m saying? You could either move up or move out. That was my mentality. 

So, I think it has to go both ways, and you have to ask yourself are you reaching out to the older generation? Are you providing something that they need? I always feel like a mentor and mentorship have to be a two-way street, not just to be pouring into you. How are you helping me out? Because I love hearing from people that I mentee. What do you think? Because they view the world differently from me, they have a different lens, and they might see something that I don’t necessarily catch.

KR: Right. Well, if it’s any comfort to you, it’s the legacy of the industry because when I was younger, it was the same thing. It’s like some of the older people did not let a lot of the younger people in. I do find that a lot of the younger people are, as you said, very impatient, and I think that some of them, I don’t want to say entitled, but I think they understand that they have options and they’re not great politicians a lot of times. 

J1: No, they’re not.

KR: There’s a lack of respect, as a matter of fact, sometimes for older industry people. I’ve seen that, and that’s definitely not going to get you anywhere. So, as you said, it’s a two-way street. What would you say is, as far as today’s industry is concerned, what are we lacking outside of what we just talked about? Diversity’s one thing, inclusions another. What do you think about that?

J1: I definitely think it’s a problem not only in the music industry, but it’s a problem in America in general. But if you look at the music industry, since we’re talking about the music industry, Hip Hop is pop culture, we can all agree on that. But when you look at who is in the C-suites who are on the board of directors, what’s the composition of the executive levels? We are the minority when the music generating the revenue is the majority, so it’s not adding up, and it’s something that I’ve been vocal about. Black artists have to somehow get involved and speak up when they walk into the rooms and they don’t see people that look like them. They need to say something about it because they have the power, and they can help affect change, whereas, like, yes, I can say something. Still, I might not be able to have the impact that somebody, like when Rihanna or Beyoncé walk into the room and say, “Well, I’m not going to work with you all until you get some more diverse executives of color in here.”

KR: And to their credit…

J1: … They’ve done that.

KR: They both have done that. Yes, exactly.

J1: They have done that, and it’s moved the needle. So, we need more of that, and we need it to be more consistent. It doesn’t even have to be an artist on that level. And I’m not saying that all black music should just be exclusively run by all Black people because you have examples like how Def Jam was founded, you had Rick Rubin, and you had Russell Simmons. Fast forward to 300, you got Lyor Cohen, and you got Kevin Lyles. So, I’m not saying that it should be just all Black or all white, but we need to do better. It needs to be more balanced and more diverse in a reflection of the music itself.

KR: Okay. So, I know you’ve created some shows. Tell me about some of those shows and how the ideas came about.

J1: Yes, so one of the shows that I created is a new music show on The Heat; it’s called Top Shelf. And Top Shelf was a station/playlist that I created on Pandora, which features the newest and hottest R&B and Hip Hop. Because I have access to so much new music, especially before it drops, I was able to help curate a show where it’s a good listening experience. Shout out to Dion Summers, who is VP of SiriusXM Black Music. He was with it, he helped put the show together, and we’ve been doing it for like three years now. Then I run Pandora Now, which is a SiriusXM channel, and I do a mix show called Ladies Night Now, where it’s all-female mixers, and we rotate female mixers every Saturday night. And I purposely wanted to do that because you got some dope female mixers out there, and we talked about earlier how DJs get ignored and stuff. Well, I felt like female DJs get more ignored than a lot of male DJs. So, I wanted to just give an opportunity to dope female mixers who know the craft, that appreciate it, that love the music, that love to DJ and showcase their talents.

KR: Do you find that there are people who either listen to the radio or streaming? Or do you find people do both?

J1: I think people do both. It just depends on your listening preference. It depends on what you’re going to each platform for. So, for example, if I’m like an Uber driver, and the car by myself, or I’m not talking with people or let’s say I’m a UPS driver, I might want to listen to the radio because I want to hear somebody talk. It kind of gives me the interaction, and if you’re a good radio talent, you make it very personal. I always tell people, or the talents that I’ve coached, I want you to talk to me. You’re not talking to millions of people. You’re talking to one person. Who’s that one person that you’re talking to? And the greats always know how to do it. So, if I’m looking for that, then yes, I’m going to listen to the radio if I want to know what’s going on in my community. I’m going to listen to the local radio station and it’s still very important. If I want to find out about new music or I want a specific listening experience, then I’m going to go to streaming. I’m going to find that Pandora station that caters to me and what I want to listen to. If I want to listen to nineties Hip Hop, I’m going to go to nineties Hip Hop radio. If I want to hear new Hip Hop, I’m going to go to new Hip Hop; and if I don’t want to hear anybody talk, I’m going to go to streaming. So, it just depends on what each individual’s looking for. I think people still listen to both platforms; obviously, streaming has become massive. And the pandemic sped that up, and it set up the consolidation and the syndication of radio, but I will never write radio off and just say it’s dead. 

KR: What do you think when we talk about jocks; I know you’re a personality or a jock. What do you need to be today in order to capitalize and go further in the radio or entertainment industry and to have more opportunities?

J1: Definitely got to be a personality and…

KR: Can that be taught?

J1: Well, I mean, there are things that can be taught, like getting in and out to your breaks and stuff and certain ways to address your audience, but you don’t want to overteach somebody because then they’ll sound like a jock and they’ll sound too polished. It needs to sound conversational, it needs to have that connection, and it needs to be authentic. That’s one thing about this new generation, or the younger generation, they’re into authenticity. They know BS when they see it. That’s why these social media platforms like TikTok and all that are so popular, some of it is staged, but it’s real people just doing stuff, and it moves very quickly. People’s attention spans are very short. So, I think you just have to be a total personality and that old phrase that you have a face for radio that doesn’t exist anymore because everything is on video now as a video component people like to see it. You notice most radio stations when they’re doing interviews. They’re filming it as well, to put on their YouTube pages or to put on their apps. So, you have to be an all-around talent. You got to be able to touch people. You got to understand social media. You got to understand how to connect to people. So, personally, when I was looking for talent, I look for the intangibles before I look for tangibles. I could teach you what you need to know; I can’t teach you how to be a star; I can’t teach you how to hold people’s attention/ Either you got it or you don’t.

KR: Who are your greatest mentors? I heard you mentioned Hurricane Dave earlier, but who are maybe like three people that you look up to in the industry?

J1: Yes. From a radio standpoint, Hurricane Dave was one of my main mentors. Bill Black was another one who, and I am always going to have love and respect for Steve Hegwood because he gave me my first opportunity at radio, and he is one of the smartest programmers I think that’s out there. What he’s been able to create is phenomenal as well as how he’s continuing to grow in this environment.

KR: And with a small signal.

J1: With a small signal. You got to tip your hat to that man. I also have a lot of respect for my current chief content officer, Scott Greenstein. He’s a very smart person and visionary. He takes a lot of chances, which I can appreciate. He’s always thinking about the big picture and the next level, so I’ve learned a lot from him. And then there are just people who I’ve admired from afar, Kevin Lyles. I love the way he’s moved throughout the industry the Tuma Basa’s of the world. So, for me, I’m a sponge. I feel like I can learn from pretty much anybody, good or bad. Whether you’re in the radio industry or not, whether you work for a label, or whether you’re an artist’s manager, I try to observe people from all walks of life. Coach K & Pee, I’m a big fan of theirs. LVRN and Tunde Balogun. I used to DJ clubs with Tunde to see what he’s created, and he’s my peer. We’re pretty much around the same age. And he has a multimillion-dollar corporation, and I love it, so I learned from him.

KR: I do want to mention that you have a very good reputation, so you’re doing something very right. I haven’t heard anything negative, as a matter of fact, people are excited to see that we were going to put you in this magazine.

J1: Oh, man. I appreciate that, and I thank God for it because you know how this industry can be. It’s like people will love you one day to hate you the next.

KR: How do you feel about it when people have mistreated you? How do you respond to that, and have you still been mistreated?

J1: It depends. There’s blatant disrespect, and there’s passive-aggressiveness. I almost prefer when somebody blatantly disrespects me because you know where they stand, and you could kind of address it head-on. It’s the passive-aggressive people you kind of have to watch out for because they don’t outright say it. They say just enough, you know, not to cross the line or not to say anything offensive, but you knew they were taking a shot. Once you allow somebody to upset you in a way that you come out of character, you’ve given them your power, and I have to catch myself sometimes when if I’m upset or I’m offended. They can’t interrupt what God has for you. 

J1 and Lil Baby – Photo credit Morgan Richard

KR: I’ll tell you something I’ve learned the hard way. When people mistreat you, number one, it’s rarely about you. It’s almost always about them. Number two, if they do it in front of people, it’s not humiliating for you, it’s humiliating for them because we’re always our own walking resumes. Number three, karma is absolute. So, whenever someone does you wrong, they will always pay for it. You may not witness it, but they pay for it. We get away with nothing. Finally, whenever somebody mistreats you in this industry, they will usually end up needing you for something. 

J1: Yes, that’s true.

KR: Thanks for your time and continued success.

J1: Thank you, Kevin. 

Kevin Ross
Kevin Ross
Kevin Ross is the CEO of Radio Facts. He is a music and radio industry vet who has been a programmer and a radio host in several markets like Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, and more. He started The Industry Dot Biz in 1995 as a voice for Black industry executives to have a voice in the industry. Ross is a musician, writer, voice talent, and author. The Industry Dot Biz is currently the largest urban industry trade and site.

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