If you were to characterize Willobee’s career path in short, multi-dimensional would play a big role in your description. Although radio’s been a predominate force throughout the years, his penchant for taking calculated risks and attempting fresh challenges in different lanes of the business is what makes his story so unique. The collective sum of these varied experiences allows for him to advantageously operate in his current role with a broad understanding and vision of all relevant factors that could affect his radio cluster in positive ways.
By: Mase Brazelle
Willobee began his love affair with music as a DJ at various NYC landmarks including The Nursery, Electric Circus, Malibu, Danceteria and Studio 54. It was an era of music discovery and these venues certainly planted the seeds for a culture of music that would dominate a career. From the clubs it was onto radio where he enlisted at seminal ALT station WLIR. Yes, “the station that dared to be different” would have a pronounced influence on how Willobee would pursue and fulfill his career vision path. He worked his way across the country programming Rock and ALT stations including a start up in Santa Barbara (KCQR), and Edge launches in Fresno and Phoenix before it became a national brand.
His radio detours include an artist management venture in Santa Barbara, where he worked with Pete Townshend’s brother Paul, while also discovering Ugly Kid Joe. Other management forays included Phunk Junkeez, Flesh For Lulu, Gigantic and Chronic Future. He became an associate at Q Management in L.A. with Jeff Kwatinetz and Pete Katsis where he worked with Korn, General Public, Material Issue and Tuck & Patti, among others.
But wait, there’s more…Willobee launched his own company in Austin and helped create and build Two River Canyon Amphitheater, where he served as GM and worked with artists like Willie Nelson, The Dead, Neil Young, Toby Keith, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell and Los Lonely Boys.
But you always go back to your first love and he returned to radio full time as OM/PD for ALT independent outlet WEQX, then joined Shamrock Communications in Scranton, PA as OM/PD for Classic Rock 107 and ALT FM 92.1. He currently serves as Director of Broadcast Operations and Program Director for Shamrock’s four station cluster in Reno, Nevada which includes KRZQ, POP FM, Z105.3 and K-NEWS.
Throughout your long career, who have been some of your major influences and what were the takeaways from each of them?
I grew up listening to Scott Muni and Dave Herman on WNEW-FM, the progressive album rock station. Dave actually was my mentor and helped guide me into the career. Alex Bennett and Howard Stern were amazing talk hosts that I learned about story telling. Denis McNamara gave me my start at WLIR after college radio and taught me how to be a real air personality.
You had a career change midstream, leaving radio to focus on artist management and later creating and managing venues in Austin. What made you leave radio and then ultimately decide to return?
I had been managing and shopping bands as long as I have been in radio and made a few discoveries but really didn’t reap the rewards. I discovered Ugly Kid Joe but handed off the management to my attorney because I wasn’t ready to give up radio just yet. They went on to sell 8 million records worldwide. Kicking myself, I learned an expensive lesson and vowed not to let opportunity slip away the next time.
While I was MD and morning air talent at The Edge in Phoenix, I was working with a local band The Phunk Junkeez and also hooked up with former Flesh For Lulu members who started a new band called Gigantic. Before I knew it, I had both signed to major label deals while trying to hold down the radio gig. I called my buddy Pete Katsis for advice and he and his partner Jeff Kwatinetz offered to help me manage my bands if I helped them work with their bands, one of which was Korn. I moved to LA and worked at Q Management for a few years.
What were the most impressionable learning points for you from these outside experiences?
I took away a working knowledge of dealing with artists, touring, agents, promoters, merchandising and producing shows, all of which have come in handy back in radio.
What have been the biggest changes in the business you’ve experienced over time while you were away from it that caused you to alter your perspective on your position as it is today?
Aside from the technology moving so quickly into the digital realm, the consolidation of the industry was a drastic change. Voice-tracking into multiple markets was something that made me realize how insignificant air talents had become to the overall bottom line. I realized that I had to have a multiple skill-sets for job security.
Having worked at “non traditional” stations like the legendary WLIR, WEQX, as well as launching both The Edge in Fresno and Phoenix, do you subscribe to the PPM mentality of quicker, shorter breaks and “less is more” concept on the air?
I believe “less is more” no matter what methodology is used for ratings. We are bombarded by delivery of music and media in so many forms. At the end of the day, our competition for the eyes and ears of listeners is splintered so much we have to make sure we get to the payoff before they hit that button.
How do you find it most effective to coach your jocks to sound local, relevant and compelling, and keeping it for the most part under 30 seconds?
I find the best way to coach air talent is to make them air-check themselves. They are their own worst critics and they can hear for themselves when a break overstays its welcome. I don’t hold a stop watch to the breaks, but the most important thing is that the talent delivers the message in the most succinct way. I feel being relevant and engaging trumps the clock.
I know you and APD Chris Payne tend to lean KRZQ toward the guitar side of things without being too Active, but given the influx of Pop tendencies in ALT music for the last few years how do you achieve a balance to help maximize audience engagement?
We found out that by playing much of the Pop/Hot AC crossover music, we just weren’t connecting. With Reno being a black tee-shirt Rock dominated market, it’s quite a balancing act. We put every song through scrutiny to see if it’s a good fit for our sound and direction and that a track won’t stick out too much. We look at the ALT and Active airplay and sales charts and see what moves the needle in both worlds while maintaining our overall sound.
Do you see the Pop trend continuing or do you think it will come back around to a guitar based format?
It’s hard to say. There is a small faction of Rock bands emerging right now that can have one foot in both worlds, case in point Royal Blood and Highly Suspect. I think everything is cyclical and hopefully we will see more guitar based bands achieve sales success again. But at the end of the day, it really comes down to what labels and A&R departments find profitable.
Having also worked on the management side how would you describe the optimal radio/label relationship?
I believe it all boils down to building and maintaining strong relationships and having open lines of communication. Being honest and managing expectations on both sides of the relationship is key.
Can you contrast the methods and styles of label promotion today versus what it was like in the past?
Yeah, the budgets sure have shrunk, lol. A lot less attention is paid to artist development and more on the instant gratification of the bottom line.
Are labels more aggressive with artist and music partnerships on projects these days as the pressure to break new bands at the format throttles up these days?
Of course, they have to be. Less of a workforce, less stations and fewer slots, means the need for more aggressive campaigns to break a record.
Looking at your career, you’ve held every position from on-air to OM and everything in between. Is there any situation that became untenable for you?
When I first came to the west coast, I was given the opportunity to launch a brand new radio station from scratch. I had 11 days from the day I arrived to build everything from the ground up. The owner/GM was a first timer and didn’t have a clue. The harder I worked, the worse I was treated. Amidst the adversarial relationship, I persevered and delivered amazing results and beat the 20 year heritage competitor in two books. But the morale was it was the worst I had ever seen anywhere and I decided to go swimming instead.
It’s hard in this era of radio to not “play it safe” when programming, but in your career you’ve been known to really step out on bands. With 2016 just getting started, who are some of the bands you are already looking forward to leading the way on?
I am very optimistic for Highly Suspect, who already scored two Grammy nominations out of the gate. I think Blue October has a chance to make a comeback this year. And I’ve got my eye on Tyler Brant & The Shakedown to bring back some Rock sensibility to the format.
You are currently Director of Broadcast Operations and PD for Shamrock’s four station cluster, you have a wife and young daughter…not to mention Chris Payne to deal with. When you possibly have some spare time, what do you do?
ZZZZZZZzzzzzzz…Actually, I’ve become a somewhat decent Texas Hold’em player, and when I’m not shopping with my daughter, I am trying to win back what I spend on her.