Back in the golden age of radio — when being a disc jockey carried tremendous power and influence and could actually be the difference between an artist’s success or failure — we were fortunate enough in Boston to spend our mornings with Sunny Joe White.
Sunny Joe first hit the Boston radio scene in 1977, working at WILD (1090am) after starting out at the tiny WGIV in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C. White worked for WILD for two years before joining a group with an idea to start an all disco formatted station. In 1979, the team launched WXKS-FM “Kiss 108” in Medford at Wellington Circle-an FM frequency that had previously belonged to several ratings-plagued predecessors. Sunny Joe worked as a program director for the station, initially working morning drive, and later switching to evenings. The program direction White was responsible for providing the station was legendary work that made him the most sought after radio personality in Boston at the time. The Kiss 108 lobby was often full of various people just waiting to get a few minutes with Sunny. Any given morning you could find everyone from record company representatives, artists’ agents, and sometimes artists themselves lobbying for a few minutes with White. Sunny Joe always seem to find the time to try and talk to everyone-I experienced this first hand while crashing the lobby myself while seeking an internship with the station! The man seemed to have the perfect balance of understanding what people wanted to hear, coupled with a personality on and off the air that was magnetic. It was that balance that enabled him to build many long-standing solid relationships and made him a true influencer in the industry.
White’s programming instincts were never more apparent than when the disco boom was rapidly losing steam in the early 80’s. He pitched the idea that WXKS go to a major top 40-station format that set industry-rating records that still hold to this day. Sunny Joe was not afraid to deviate from the format if he felt a song deserved to be played-many of these handpicked tunes becoming national hits. White’s relationships with promoters and record companies also allowed the creation of the “Kiss Concert” which wound up becoming the foremost radio station concert in the country. As the constant changing nature of the radio industry goes, Sunny Joe White ended his reign at WXKS in 1987, spending time programming at WZOU and WVBF throughout the 1990’s.
Perhaps the most important contribution that White made was his unrelenting support and fight against the AIDS epidemic. At the time in 1990’s, facts about the disease were lesser known and White fought hard to change that. He helped organize the Boston against AIDS concert, calling in favors from his contacts in the music industry, and even talking his friend Cher into performing at the benefit. Sunny also encouraged WXKS management to have the station sponsor and get behind Boston’s first AIDS walks to support fundraising efforts and victims of the disease.
Sunny Joe White died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 42, but his legacy lives on as a legendary radio personality, program director, and most importantly as a caring human being who stood up and fought for those who needed it.
(by Mark Turner)