Steve Smith, Pioneering Hip-Hop Radio Programmer, Has Died At 62

Jaelani Turner-Williams Jaelani Turner-Williams is a contributing news writer for Okayplayer with…
Photo Credit: Chrissi Higham

Legendary radio programmer and consultant Steve Smith, who assisted in launching Hot 97 in the mid-90s, has died at 62-years-old.

The music industry is paying tribute to radio programmer and consultant Steve Smith, who co-launched hip-hop format on the radio station Hot 97 in the mid-90s. Smith died suddenly last Thursday (July 7). The legendary radio programmer was 62-years-old.

In a statement to All Access, Smith’s family confirmed the news of his untimely passing.

“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.”

Along with assisting with the start of Hot 97, Smith had more than 34 years of experience with major market experience programming stations and programming staff management. In 1987, Smith became director of programming at Hot 97 in San Jose, California after graduating from Pepperdine Law School. Serving as VP of programming at Phoenix radio station KKFR, Smith went on to hold a host of executive positions at AM/FM Radio Group, Emmis Communications, Clear Channel (now iHeart), CBS Radio and Cox Media Group, per Billboard.

While based in Phoenix in 1993, Smith recalled introducing 1990 Public Enemy album Fear of A Black Planet to local radio listeners.

““[I was] looking at the Billboard album chart and the No. 1 selling album was Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet, and nobody was playing anything off of this album, there was no radio airplay. We started playing more hip-hop in Phoenix,” he told All Access.

After 10 years at Cox Media Group, in November 2021, Smith resigned, becoming founder of Smith Richards Collective in April of this year. The company was co-helmed by Smith’s longtime business partner Tim Richards and and digital marketer Heidi McIvor-Allen.

On Richards Facebook page, he wrote, “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. Most of all, he was a great person. I’m so blessed to have known him and the world will definitely be a different place without his presence.”

Joe Riccitelli, founder of Golden Retriever Entertainment and former label promotion executive with RCA spoke with Billboard about the integrity of Smith’s work at Hot 97.

“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,” Riccitelli said. “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.”

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