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A couple of weeks ago, Stephen Meade, who's known to listeners of hard-rocking KBPI-FM as Willie B., received a complaint call about afternoon jock Greg "Uncle Nasty" Stone. "This lady said, 'Let me speak to the program director,' and I said, 'This is Willie,'" he recalls. "She said, 'Willie B.? You're the program director? You're just as crazy as Uncle Nasty!'"
She's got a point -- yet 35-year-old Meade has indeed been named program director for KBPI, one of eight stations in the Denver-Boulder market owned by media goliath Clear Channel. This is quite a switch for a man who's been the subject of more negative headlines than any DJ in recent Denver-radio history, many of them related to an on-air chicken toss and a mudding excursion on private property that resulted in separate criminal convictions back in 2001. Given his track record, Meade was as surprised as anyone that his superiors decided to kick him upstairs. "Me and the guys who run this building haven't always seen eye to eye in the past," he says. "But they appreciate my affection and my passion toward this station and this work that I've been doing here for so long. The ways I've gone about it aren't necessarily the best ways; I haven't done a lot of things right, or taken the right paths to get points across. But we all want the same end result, and I'm glad they saw it that way."
According to Mike O'Connor, director of FM programming for Clear Channel's Denver branch, the promotion had a lot to do with a characteristic seldom associated with Meade: maturity. "As one of the guys who's had to hand him his head a million times, he's grown up a lot, and he's made a serious commitment to try and grow his career with the company," O'Connor says. When previous KBPI program director Bob Richards left last September to become the overseer of Clear Channel's Colorado Springs properties, O'Connor stepped in on an interim basis, and during that period, "I took Willie under my wing and showed him some of the more boring sides of the business -- and he seemed to catch on and showed good leadership skills. He was creative but still very sophomoric, which is what KBPI is all about."
By these standards, Meade and KBPI seem made for each other, but the relationship has sometimes been rocky. A Kentucky native, Meade got his start behind the microphone in Winchester, a community east of Lexington, at age fifteen. After stops in North Carolina and Florida, in the early '90s he arrived at KBPI, where he operated under a literally and figuratively longer moniker, Willie B. Hung. His gruff variation on Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Jeff Spicoli immediately made a positive impression on the station's young-male-dominated demographic, but he chafed against the outlet's refusal to incorporate newer hard-rock acts such as Rage Against the Machine within its then-conservative playlist. Ensuing rock-scene developments proved that Meade had been ahead of the curve, and he wound up being named KBPI's music director, a position he's held in conjunction with his main DJ gig for over a decade.
At the same time, the station actively courted controversy. Richards received a restraining order for a November 1995 prank in which KBPI staffers put a frozen turkey on a competitor's lawn alongside a sign that read "Unlike this bird, your goose is cooked. This will be your last Thanksgiving in Colorado." Morning personalities Roger Beaty and Dean Myers stirred even more ire in 1996, when cohort Joey Teehan burst into a Muslim mosque to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- a stunt intended to needle then-Denver Nugget Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand when the National Anthem played before games.
While Meade was on the sidelines for these incidents, he didn't stay there. In 1997, he aired a tape of what he claimed was a cat in a dishwasher, prompting an investigation by animal-control officers; they concluded that the recording was a gag. Then in February 2000, he came up with a variation on Groundhog Day that entailed sending critters across a busy highway; if they failed to make it to the other side, there'd be six more weeks of winter. Meade didn't go through with this routine, but when a listener showed up with a chicken, he had an assistant drop the clucker out the windows of Clear Channel HQ -- once from the second floor, once from the third. The following year, he was found guilty of animal cruelty. "That was so far from the truth," he says. "I love animals. I used to pick up worms out of the driveway when it rained, because I didn't want them to drown. But the pendulum was swinging, and I was at the wrong end."
He was sentenced to 48 hours of community service and 24 anger-management courses. "I had to talk about anything that made me upset, and I had to take my dogs in, to show that I wasn't cruel to them," he reveals. "But there was a positive spin. The lady I saw was all into kids from Kenya, and I ended up sponsoring one of them."