Steve Smith, Legendary Radio Programmer Who Helped Launch the Hip-Hop Format, Dies at 62

The radio world is mourning the loss of revered programmer and consultant Steve Smith, who died suddenly last Thursday (July 7). He was 62.

Tim Richards, Smith’s partner in Smith Richards Collective who first met Smith in 1992 at the MTV Awards in Los Angeles during a Westwood One broadcast, wrote on his Facebook page, “Steve was (that’s so hard to type) an incredible man. He was a radio innovator and one of the kindest and most creative programmers I’ve ever learned from.”

Smith’s family confirmed his death in a statement to radio trade All Access, writing, “Steve unexpectedly passed away peacefully at home, in his sleep on July 7…Steve’s highly successful career spanned 40 years and has broken countless records, won countless awards, and has irrevocably changed the landscape of American radio for the better.”

Smith, renowned for his long blond locks as much as his programming savvy, had more than 34 years of major market experience programming stations and managing programming staff, but was particularly credited with launching the hip-hop format with New York’s Hot 97 in the mid-’90s.

“The first time I saw Steve Smith was in 90’s walking up Broadway in NY, I knew immediately who he was,” Jeremy Rice, program director for XL 106.7/Magic 107.7 Orlando, recalled on his Facebook page. “Steve was already a famous PD with his trademark hair posted all over industry publications. Steve signed on Hot 97 in the ‘90s. This was the first hip hop station in the country. My first meeting with Steve was when we went hip hop in Orlando in 2004, I was really excited because he was a top tier consultant who worked with stars in N.Y., L.A. and everywhere. Steve and I went on to be great friends and worked together on Long Island, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa to name a few… Steve could sum up your radio station in 15 minutes. With Steve it was never analysis by paralysis, it was right to the point!

Smith’s radio career began in 1987 when he worked as director of programming at Hot 97.7 in San Jose, Calif. after graduating from Pepperdine Law School. Following three years as vp of programming at Phoenix’s KKFR, he moved to the corporate level, holding positions at AM/FM Radio Group, Emmis Communications, Clear Channel (now iHeart), CBS Radio and Cox Media Group.

Smith shocked the radio industry in November when he resigned as Cox’s vp of programming after 10 years at the media group, only to resurface this April as a founder of Smith Richards Collective with Richards and digital marketer Heidi McIvor-Allen. The consulting group handles programming for groups of stations of all formats, and also offers talent coaching and brand growth services. He has previously run his own consulting company from 2007-2011 between corporate stints, winning three Billboard awards for radio consultant of the year.

In a November interview with All Access’s Joel Denver, Smith recalled the origins of Hot 97 and the potential of the hip-hop format when he was still in Phoenix in 1993 before heading to New York, saying that despite the widespread popularity of Public Enemy‘s Fear of a Black Planet, “nobody was playing anything off of this album, there was no radio airplay. We started playing more hip-hop in Phoenix.”

Joe Riccitelli, founder of Golden Retriever Entertainment and former label promotion executive with RCA, Jive and other labels, remembers Smith from that pivotal era, telling Billboard, “I met Steve in the early 90’s and knew immediately he knew exactly what was going on. When he got to NYC, he really put Hot 97 on the track to make them the brand they are today. As a programmer he was ahead of the curve on so many levels. There is no doubt he made me a better promo guy in my early years [and] always challenged my teams as well. Not only did we lose an entrepreneur for our entire industry, we lost a soul of a human being. God bless you, Steve, you touched so many people in such a positive way.”

Former label promo executive Ken Lane, who is now with Primary Wave Entertainment and Right Lane Management, LLC, met Smith around the same time. “Steve was a true leader in his field on every level. I remember meeting him in the early 90’s and making the immediate connection that his best friend growing up in Great Neck, New York was my college roommate at Tulane,” he says. “Steve had a wonderful ear for talent on both sides of the music spectrum from rock to rap. For a guy that looked like Sammy Hagar, I always got a kick out of his passion for rap music.”

Indeed, Smith used his resemblance to Hagar to great effect, Rice recalled. “I did countless pranks with Steve at restaurants telling the manager, ‘Shhhh, Sammy Hagar is coming – NO Autographs!’ Once I got an airline pilot to believe Sammy Hagar was on the flight and he announced to the entire plane!”

Smith is survived by a son, two siblings and his fiancé.

Silvio Pietroluongo provided assistance on this story.