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Jonas Cash, Pioneer of Independent Radio Promotion, Dies at 81

Roy Trakin
·4-min read

Longtime record promotion executive Jonas Cash, who founded the influential radio programming competition AIR (Active Industry Research) in Baltimore-Washington, MD, died at age 81 in his Columbia, MD home.

“He was not just a promotion executive, but a real artist development guy,” says veteran promotion/marketing exec Michael Plen, who recalls how Cash helped him break Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio.” “If he believed in a record, he’d go all out.”

AIR established competitions for radio programmers in five different musical genres in 1983, testing new songs’ potential by having programmers listen to and respond to each song’s hit potential using a national chart as the qualifier. The overall winner in picking the hits would receive a car.

In conjunction with his partner Alan Smith, Cash developed Billboard Airplay Monitor, which started out in 1993 as an eight-page publication covering Top 40, Top 40 Rhythmic, Crossover, Urban, AC, Hot AC, Rock, Alternative and Country. Eventually, four different publications under the Airplay Monitor title would turn into a leading source of hit music information. The publications were combined in 2001 and later changed their name to Billboard Radio Monitor in 2003, which was relaunched under the Radio & Records banner in August 2006. The move was a result of a merger between R&R and Radio Monitor after VNU Media acquired R&R on July 6, 2006. The relaunched R&R would later cease publication in June 2009.

Cash was often seen as the Baltimore/Washington member of Hit Men’s famed Network, which included such characters as Jerry Brenner, Joe Isgro, Fred DeSipio and Ralph Tashjian, though Cash was described as one of the “good guys… very old school, but very important,” and was close to many top radio programmers, including iHeartMedia’s Tom Poleman, fellow Maryland native Steve Kingston and former CBS Radio executive Kevin Weatherly, all of whom were AIR participants.

Another well-loved top promotion exec from that era, Herb Rosen, died last week.

“Jonas treated everybody like family, but he was a bulldog when it came to promotion,” said another longtime colleague. “He was relentless.”

Jonas started his career as a dancer on “The Buddy Dean Show,” an “American Bandstand”- type dance party featuring high schoolers dancing, where he met his wife and dance partner for life, Joan. The show owned the Baltimore market afternoons – the Dick Clark-hosted, Philly-based competitor was never broadcast in Baltimore as Buddy had a 70 share of the market for a decade on the ABC affiliate. Dean’s show served as the inspiration for the dance program in fellow Baltimore denizen John Waters’ film “Hairspray.”

After a short stint in the Marine Corps reserve, Cash began working at Washington, D.C.-area distributor Schwartz Brothers in the ‘60s, moving to Nashville to take over as head of promotion for Monument Records, where he was influential in the career of label stalwart Roy Orbison. Cash was in the studio when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend cut “Pretty Woman,” while his wife Joanie personally answered all of Orbison’s fan mail in longhand.

Moving back to Baltimore, Jonas formed an independent promotion company, Jonas Cash Promotions, and in 1982 had an idea for a music contest for radio programmers which became AIR, a music industry fixture for nearly 25 years – as well as a great way to establish a relationship with every PD in the country. NBC’s Brian Ross, with his report on independent promotion in 1986 that put many indies out of business (and created the still-existing “tip sheet” Hits), allowed AIR to flourish with FCC approval.

“He wasn’t mob-related,” laughs David, his son, “but he did have his own territory, his niche in Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia, and never overstepped it.”

David recalls that his father, a horse-racing fan who owned a few ponies, liked the idea of betting on hit records in AIR, attracting major- and small-market programmers alike (like a young Tom Poleman) before New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer’s investigation of payola shuttered it in 2005, when record companies made a public display of pulling their support for independent promotion.

His son recalls his father dealing with one recalcitrant PD who wouldn’t play his record by sending him a Christmas package of horse manure in aluminum foil with the missive: “From one asshole to another.” The song got played.

Another time, Cash bet then-WPGC/Baltimore PD Jim Elliott his own brand new 1972 Mercedes, his dream car, if Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” hit the Top 10. Elliott left it at #11 for weeks. “Foreigner had a smash and my dad kept his car,” said David.

Cash is survived by his wife, Joanie, his son David, and two grandchildren.

An outdoor funeral service will be held on Thursday, April 22 at Meadowridge Memorial Park in Elkridge, MD. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made in Jonas’ honor at Children’s Oncology at Johns Hopkins.

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