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."
Fitting such good deeds into his schedule must have been difficult, because Meade was already dealing with the legal repercussions of beating up Rover MacDaniels, a DJ with the now defunct Peak, at an Old Chicago in late 1999. "I saw him on a barstool and dragged him outside," Meade notes. "Unfortunately, that's where a couple of police officers were." This altercation earned Meade his own restraining order, which required him to stay at least a hundred yards away from MacDaniels and his producer, Erik "Squat" O'Connor, for the next year. (He got around this edict at a Limp Bizkit concert by yelling at MacDaniels through a bullhorn.) On top of that, he was put through more anger-management sessions, which he concedes were justified. "I had a temper issue," he recalls. "My short fuse would just ignite, and I'd go off." Today he releases pressure via weightlifting, which has helped him go from 175 pounds to a rippling 245. Are steroids part of his regimen? "Not now," he says.
He almost got a chance to work on his physique behind bars. In September 2000, Meade and his teammates in The Locker Room morning show -- Marc Stout and Darren "D-Mak" McKee -- led a slew of listeners to private property near Nederland for a day of four-wheeling they dubbed Mudfest. Afterward, the owner claimed that his acreage had been badly damaged, and he fingered the KBPI trio. Meade maintains that other mudding aficionados had been chewing up this land for years, and says he's heard through the grapevine that it's still going on. Nevertheless, the station paid an undisclosed settlement fee to the property owner, and Meade pled guilty to criminal mischief and defacing property, a pair of felonies. His agreement kept him out of jail in exchange for over a hundred hours of community service, which put his affection for birds and beasts to the test. "I worked at an animal shelter," he divulges. "I shoveled poop every Saturday for an entire summer."
After scooping up this last debt to society, Meade says he got serious, and devoted himself to proving that he was more than "a troublemaking DJ" who generated lots of income but needed to be "kept under control." He was careful not to augment his rap sheet, and his side job as public-address announcer for the Colorado Mammoth helped soften his image. By the time Richards left for the Springs, O'Connor was ready to groom Meade for bigger things.
The trial run included plenty of unpleasant tasks, not the least of which was canning McKee, his longtime partner. "Yeah, I was the one who had to pull the trigger on that," says Meade, who'd previously moved out of The Locker Room in favor of a midday show, only to see the morning drive-time listenership slide. "It was hard, because D-Mak was not only a companion and a co-worker. He was a guy I considered to be a decent friend. We had problems and issues early on, but we put all that stuff behind us. But truth be told, D-Mak had a little different style and delivery than we wanted. It had become a more produced show, more about set-up bits, and we wanted to bring the lifestyle back into it. So it needed to be done, and I did it." Meade subsequently returned to The Locker Room, and McKee landed on his feet: Richards hired him to co-host a program on KVUU in the Springs.
Some of Meade's moves fly in the face of corporate radio. Most stations don't put tracks on the air until they've been vetted to death by focus groups and the like. In Meade's opinion, "Research sucks ass. People are deciding if they like songs from a six-second hook over the phone, and to me, that's ridiculous. Most programmers are 95 percent research, 5 percent gut, and I'm 30 percent research, 70 percent gut." He also rejects the theory that the average dial surfer is unnerved by musical diversity. After hearing dirt bikers at a desert bash jamming to hip-hop and metal back to back, he launched Sunday Night Fusion, where "I'll go from Eminem to Static-X to Mudvayne to 50 Cent. It was a six-month fight to get that on, even though it's Sunday night, when nobody's listening. But it's turned out really cool, and people are loving it. This guy came up to me in the gym the other day and said, 'Sunday Night Fusion rocks!'"
Finally, Meade instituted "Flush the Format" segments, where virtually anything goes; midday DJ Double A Ron's sets can move from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. O'Connor isn't sold on this concept yet, referring to it as "a noble experiment" but exuding little enthusiasm. Meade's not backing down, though. "It goes against everything a radio person would tell you to do," he says, "which is one reason I like doing it so much."
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Breaking the rules had better pay off quickly, because before Meade formally took the helm, KBPI experienced a precipitous ratings slide. In the winter Arbitron survey, total listeners aged twelve and older declined 20 percent from six months earlier, landing the perennial top-ten finisher in thirteenth place. Meade calls these figures "wretched, dude," and acknowledges that KBPI's heritage is no guarantee that Clear Channel, which recently dumped KISS-FM's contemporary-hits formula in favor of a Spanglish mix, will preserve its format indefinitely. "It's all about the numbers for any corporation," he allows. "Let's face it: They don't care about what's coming through the speakers as far as content. Whether it's English or Spanish or rock or FM talk, I don't think it matters to them. What matters is, 'How's the station billing, and how's our stock looking?'"
Such comments make Meade's mid-May joke-announcement that KBPI was going country, and that he'd be changing his name to "Buck Naked," seem more wise than wise-ass. Still, there's a bright side to the gloomy Arbitron score. "I was glad the last ratings turned out that way," he says, "because it gives me a chance to show what I can do when the restraints are off. Before, I was helping implement a plan, but it wasn't my plan. So I'm looking forward to showing what the station can do -- and I like being the underdog. I've been in that position most of my life, and the station, and rock radio across the country, is in that position, too. So I'm going to strap on the gloves and go for it."
And if one of his DJs pulls the stunts he used to? "I've run that scenario through my head a dozen times," he admits, "and I think I'll be more like a brother than a father. It'll be, 'Hey, bro, you've got to stop this shit,' as opposed to, 'You're grounded, you're suspended, you suck.'"
The voice of experience.