Willie B!, Creative Services Director, WEGQ-FM/WBMX-FM, Boston, Massachusetts
Willie B! If you haven't heard of him, give it a little time. A few years ago, Willie got out of a long stint in the construction business to return to radio, something he always enjoyed. It took him little time to wind up in the Boston market, and it's taking him even less time to get a free-lance "stationality production" service off the ground and servicing about twenty stations in the U.S.. In Boston, he handles the image production for two FMs in a 4-station facility equipped with nine, yes nine, Orban DSE-7000 digital audio workstations. He has taken the ambition and drive necessary to make it in the competitive construction business and applied it to radio production. This month's interview visits with this rare individual who has successfully combined business savvy with talent--his own and others--and a true passion for his work, and he's just getting started. Look out, here comes Willie B!
RAP: You have an unusual radio background in that you left radio for several years and went into the construction business. How did you get in and out of radio the first time around.
Willie: Well, pretty much like everyone else, I was willing to go to the local radio station, take the trash out, and go to the convenience store for the Program Director. And when the first Sunday overnight shift became available, yours truly was able to jump in and do a radio show, and the birth of Jesse Sky took place in 1979. It's funny. I think the Program Director was somewhat of a naturalist. All of his air personnel had names that had something to do with the stars, the moon, or the earth. His name was Tony Sands. Our midday person was Allison Hill. I think for a short time we had someone there working under the name of Robert Moon, and I was Jesse Sky. This was in Fort Myers, Florida. Actually, that was the market. The town was Bonita Springs. The radio station was in an old mobile home trailer that had no air conditioning. The administrative and sales offices were in downtown Fort Myers. It was a fun beginning.
I was going to high school at this time, and I ended up getting the night shift. Once I graduated, I did the midday shift and even had a television show for the local ABC affiliate called "The Pepsi Generation Rock Show" which I did a little segment on. It's been quite some time since I've even thought about that TV show, and I think I must have still been in high school at the time because I remember my classmates teasing me after they'd see me on television.
After my dad passed away, my family relocated. My mother's family was in New England, so everyone moved there. But at the age of seventeen or eighteen, I decided just to stay down in Florida, go to school, and finish my career in broadcasting. Then when I thought it was time to expand, I came to Boston hoping to land a job up here, not knowing the difference between market size two hundred and something and market size six or seven, which Boston was at the time. I had a tough time getting started, so I ended up getting involved in the construction business. A friend of the family was in construction. So in 1980 or 1981, I actually left radio behind and went on to do construction, and I rode the crest of the construction boom and wave during the late eighties and early nineties.
RAP: How did you get back into radio?
Willie: Everything seemed to fall apart with the construction business, and remembering that I had done something that I truly loved years and years before, and remembering how much fun it was, I attempted to get back into radio. Actually, throughout that period of ten or twelve years in construction, I did some part-time work in radio at WERZ in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but the workload ended up being too much. So I got back out of radio again. At this point, I had no production experience at all. As a matter of fact, the only reel-to-reel I had ever used was the one in the control room to record callers for contests.
I had made friends with someone earlier, and they had a little radio station in Saco, Maine. They asked if I was interested in getting back in radio, and I said, "Sure." This station was probably about a three thousand watt radio station that we'd shut off at night, and I went up to do the afternoon shift. I was there for about four months.
Then in September of '92 I made a phone call to Pete Falconi, the Program Director I had worked for at WERZ. He was the Operations Manager for Precision Media who owned WERZ and WMYF, and they had just picked up a couple of stations in Rochester, New Hampshire as well. Pete, not knowing if I was ready to make a serious commitment again, gave me the opportunity to come in and do an overnight shift, just to familiarize myself with the board again. Then they made room for me after a period of four or five months and hired me to do the night shift.
RAP: When did production become part of your bag of tricks?
Willie: In Saco we were using the old Scully reel-to-reels, and I remember that the brakes on the Scullys didn't work. So when you hit the stop button, the tape just kept going. It was a real trick to get the timing down so when you hit the stop button and caught the reel, the tape didn't come flying off the deck. That's where I started to learn the techniques of production. You combined the two cart machines with the CD players and a couple of turntables and the Scully reel-to-reel, and you made sure that your hands were fast enough to stop the tape when you hit the stop button on the Scully. And you tried to do all of this in real time while going to one reel-to-reel to produce a sixty-second commercial or promo.
I think this is a story everyone certainly can relate to. We've all been there. It's about pushing the elements, pushing what I had for tools, to get the most out of it, which still, to this day, is the key to successful production, I believe. We can have the nice toys, but unless we're willing to push our creativity and the equipment that we have to the maximum, you're really not going to be able to take advantage of your own abilities.
RAP: Were you able to apply anything from the construction business to radio once you got back in?
Willie: After WERZ hired me for the night shift, that's when I brought my business experience to the table, I guess you'd say, because in the construction business, I was used to selling things in units. I sold so many units and so much of this type of product, and the more I sold, the more I made. I realized that sort of thing was really not available as an on-air talent. You worked your air shift and felt fortunate if you had good ratings and continued to do that. On the other hand, I saw that production gave me the opportunity to do the same thing I did in construction where the more I was able to do, the more I'd be able to put into my back pocket.
So, my first goal was to learn the equipment and understand what production was all about. When no one was in the studio on Saturdays and Sundays, I locked the door and just stayed in there and learned the equipment. I watched how the sales department interacted with the clients. In fact, my first couple of free-lance clients were actually commercial type clients. They had heard a commercial I did for them on our radio station and wanted to expand their advertising to other radio stations. So I worked directly with the clients and built some specific campaigns.
Then I went to my General Manager, Al Perry, and said I wanted to organize the production department. I went to the local lumber yard and bought some two by fours and some shelving. I went back and constructed shelving and put together a system that we actually built right in the production studios for organizational purposes.