The man born Stephen Meade and originally known as Willie B. Hung has gone from being a graveyard-shift wildman to anchoring KBPI's ultra-popular morning-drive show and serving as the outlet's program director. And instead of making the kind of headlines that nearly got him fired, as was the case with the so-called mud fest controversy in 2000, he's pouring his energies into what promises to be the biggest charity project of his career: obtaining, restoring and giving away 100 cars to needy families during the 2018 holiday season.
During the following conversation, Willie talks about his Deep South boyhood and early decision to become a DJ ("Weird Al" Yankovic played an unexpected role); the day he fell in love with Denver and the circuitous route that brought him to the Mile High City; early battles with management over music he saw as stodgy and behind the times; the bet he placed on himself that led to his move to mornings; the muddy mess that nearly cost his career and how he got out of it; and his devotion to what he refers to early and often as "the BPI Family."
In addition, Willie offers new details about KBPI's recent signal shift from 106.7 FM, where it had been for more than two decades, to 107.9 in order to accommodate a new country station, The Bull. Turns out the transition was more difficult than anyone imagined thanks to a series of technical challenges that are closer to being resolved now than they were at the time of our original chat, which took place on March 13, shortly before iHeartMedia, KBPI's owner, declared bankruptcy. According to Willie, the quality of the signal on the east and southeast sides of the metro area is much improved, and engineers are hard at work boosting it for listeners in and around Boulder. Before long, he's confident that all of metro Denver will be rocking as hard as ever.
Just like Willie B himself.
Willie B: Originally I'm from a small town called Winchester, Kentucky.
How long did you live there?
Until I was nineteen.
How would you describe the town and your family?
I grew up in a fairly large family. I had my twin brother and an older sister, but the family has a lot of roots. On my dad's side of the family, he had a couple of sisters, and I have lots of cousins. And we lived on an 850-acre dairy farm. I grew up on the farm, milking cows and doing all that shit. On my mom's side of the family, it was an eastern Kentucky, Appalachia little country-store scenario. So it was a very weird, middle America, rough, hard-work type of thing when I was a kid. My rite of passage was — people would call it a machete now, and we'd use it to clear tobacco on a ten-acre plot. You've got your own little carved-up machete with your name on it and you've got to go to work on the farm. It's kind of weird thinking about that as where I grew up and where my original roots are at, being here now.
When did you first get into music? What's the first stuff you remember really connecting with?
It's funny. I like all types of music. When I was growing up, one of my best friends was this black guy named Bubba Gatewood, and me and him would breakdance. I went from breakdancing with that kid to everything else. My town, being a very, very small town, didn't have a true rock station. So our version of rock in my home town would be like Grateful Dead and the Beatles and so forth. But I got into radio really early. I knew in fifth grade I wanted to be a radio DJ because this dude wouldn't play my song.
Do you remember which song?
Oh yeah. Dude, are you ready for this? It was "Weird Al" Yankovic, "Another One Rides the Bus." No kidding. I was in fourth grade, and back then, if you recall, you used to be able to hit the play-record button on your cassette player and it would record the song, and you would have it taped. That was our version of downloading. So I was waiting for this song to come on after I called to request it, and when it didn't play, I called this dude again, and he finally lost his temper. He was like, "You dumbass. When I said to call back later, I didn't mean call again in twenty minutes. If you want to hear your song, get your own radio show. Go get your own radio station." He was, like, dogging me really bad. And so I was kind of hurt by that. The next morning, I walked up and told my mom, "I want to be a radio DJ." She was like, "What?" And I said, "That's what I want to do." And literally that phone call changed the direction of my life.
That desire to become a radio DJ was still going when I was in seventh grade and our teacher said, "Go to the card catalogue and pick out something you want to be when you grow up." I was looking under "D" for "DJ." She told me to look for a real job. And when I got on the radio and started doing weekends, she was the first person I ever put on the air.
Oh, yeah. My mom's a teacher, so we were all friendly, so the first time I was on the air, I called her up and went, "Guess what I'm doing? Remember you told me to get a real job?" It was funny. My very first phone call on the air was kind of rebellious — like "Nyaa, nyaa, did it," you know?
Did you do any radio in high school? Or was this a job at a commercial station?
There was a radio station called WFMI. It was an FM station, and we used to call it a border blaster, because it sat on the Clark County line. Literally about ten feet off the county line, and it aimed toward Lexington, which was a big, monster city in my eyes. I wanted to be on WFMI, but my stupid Kentucky Southern drawl was so bad that the program director wouldn't put me on. He put me on WHRS-AM, which stood for "Horse Radio," and I did things like the tobacco report.
So you weren't playing music at first?
It was an easy-listening station, and it had big pancakes of tape. You'd stop the tape machine, you'd flip a toggle, turn a big knob, read the tobacco report or some liner card, and then you'd turn the mic off, turn the toggle down, reach up and hit "play," and this big pancake would go. Then, every hour or so, you'd switch the reel-to-reels. We had, like, fifty of them. It'd be, "Here goes this reel."
The funny thing was, I got on overnights, but I also used to run Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown on WFMI; I would call my friend and tell him to wake up at 6 a.m. on Sunday and have him do the weather report. I did that for a long time, and I was finishing up one Friday night on WHRS, and the overnight guy was too drunk to come into work. My boss called and said, "Do you know how to run the board on the FM?" I said, "Yeah, I run Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown on Sundays." He's like, "Go on. Just play music. Don't talk and cover his shift." I did that, and by, like, the third song, I was on — started shooting the shit, taking phone calls.
My boss knew right away. He said I sounded stupid because of my accent, and if I got that right, I could come on and do a couple of shows. So I went to speech therapy and had them help me with my accent.
How strong was your accent? If you were talking the way now that you did back then, would people from Colorado even be able to understand you?
They would be able to understand me, but you have to understand that at the time, I had a big, enormous Southern drawl. I have my mom on the radio, making football picks every season, and everybody thinks it's a riot, because my mom has such a strong Southern drawl, too. Her dipthongs are all weird. And that's my mom, who lives in Florida and has been out of Kentucky for a decade and a half, two decades. But you get my aunt on the phone and then you really hear how deep my family's Southern drawl is. My aunt and the rest of my family in Kentucky have a severe Southern drawl. When you hear them talk and the way they say certain things and words and describe things, it's hysterical to hear, because it's so out of place. But there it just seems natural.
Yeah. They finally put me on the FM side, and I took off from there. By the time I was a senior in high school, or just getting out of high school, I became the seven-to-midnight jock on our little hometown radio station. Then I got a job offer in Charlotte when I was nineteen. Took the job, moved there, and helped put a couple of radio stations on. That's when I kind of discovered the rock thing.
What was some of the first rock music you got into?
Back in the day, it was weird. I started leaning toward a lot of the grunge stuff, but also a lot of the industrial stuff — early Front 242. And Ministry. Dude, Psalm 69: That CD changed my life. I remember listening to that, and at the time, I was working at a station that played a lot of mainstream rock — and in 1989 and 1990, what was mainstream rock? It was Poison, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." So when you hear something like Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hotrod," it's so distinctively different and so much more aggressive. It changes the whole aspect of how you ingest hair bands or Poison songs.
In a weird way, that Charlotte station led to the connection that took me to Denver. I used a guy named Randy Michaels as a consultant for my show and for my station in Charlotte. It did really well. Then the operations manager got a job in Florida, and he hired me to do the same thing I did with the station in Charlotte — taking it alternative, kind of industrial, and doing some cool stuff on it. I went down to Orlando, did that for a while, but it didn't go the way I thought it would. My purpose to move to Orlando was to flip that station — it was called WVRI, which stood for Variety 101 — and make it rock that leaned alternative. So I pulled all the rules on our music-scheduling system and told the owner, "This is going to get your cume to pop, but in reality, we'll fade. Then we'll hit the format change." But when the cume popped, he didn't want to change formats, and I was like, I'm not staying at more of an adult-contemporary kind of station. And the ironic thing was, just like I predicted, WVRI faded, and it ended up switching a year later to WJRR, which became a pretty legendary rock station in Orlando.
Anyway, I didn't want to stay in that format, so I called my consultant, Randy Michaels, who was working his way up the ranks at Jacor [a company that was a precursor to Clear Channel and, later, iHeartMedia].
Randy Michaels became a big deal.
Yeah. When I used him in Charlotte, he was just a consultant, but he started dabbling in programming and was helping some stations — and he really took off after that. When the Orlando thing fell through, I called him, and he got me a job in Tampa behind Bubba the Love Sponge. I worked there for a few months, and then I started getting some other job offers. I was offered a job in Phoenix, and I was in the running for jobs in some other places that were decent. But where I really wanted to go was Denver.
I came out here, got a room at the Quality Inn off of Hampden, then got in a rental car and drove up 285. I thought, I'll just drive west, and I got up in the mountains and it was snowing and the flakes were, like, two inches. They were huge. My car was covered. I turned around after I got to Bailey and drove downtown, and it was just amazing: It was like sixty degrees and people were running around in T-shirts and shorts. I was like, this is the craziest place I've ever seen in my life. I've got to be here. It was the first place that ever felt like home. So I told Randy, if you ever get something in Denver, let me know. He hit me up when I was in Tampa and said, "We've got a job at a rock station in Denver. It's a bottom-of-the-barrel job and it's a pay cut. Do you want it?" And I said, "Hell, yeah." I moved out here, bro, in a pickup truck with a suitcase, a house plant, two cats and a toolbox.
When you got to Denver, how old were you?
I was 23 or 24.
At the time, it was looked at as young, but it just seemed natural, because that's what was happening. That was the era when grunge was just getting going. You could tell there was something different and aggressive. There was something in the swell of the kids and the youth. I remember coming to town and telling you there were forty-year-old dudes who weren't into the lifestyle programming music for 18- to 34-year-olds! [Willie B. told me this for a music column that predates Westword's Internet archives.]
After that article ran, I got called into [then-KBPI overseer] Jack Evans's office. He read what I said in Westword and asked, "Do you really feel that way?" And I said, "The reality is, that's the truth. I know you're here to give me shit, but that's the truth. You don't understand it." That was always my sort of battle with those guys.
I think one of the bands we first talked about was Nine Inch Nails. When I first came here, these guys had no Nine Inch Nails tracks in their library, and I was like, "If you're not playing four or five songs off Pretty Hate Machine, you're an idiot." They just didn't get it. But at the time, that was one of the cool things I could bring to the table that these guys were completely oblivious to.
How did you break down the barriers and get them to let you put more edge into the music you were playing?
Honestly, dude, I just played it — and I was fortunate, because I had free rein. When I got hired to do nights, it was one of those things where they basically said, "Willie, we're not sure what we're going to do with this format, how we're going to make this work in Denver." It was just literally, "Just get us some ratings."
There's a phrase that goes, "It's better to apologize afterward rather than ask for permission." Was it that kind of situation?
Yeah, and it is even now. I've been playing Jacob Cade, who's not on our playlist. He's this kid out of Parker, Colorado, and he's a riot. He's badass. Kid's got crazy energy. When I find something like that now, it's much different. But in the early years, I'd find something like that and play it, and it'd come with a lot of pushback from the people that were kind of controlling the station at the time. It came with a lot of, "Why are you doing that? It's not tested. It's not proven" by all those filters and the litmus tests that people gather. At the time, the people who were programming our music were doing all this testing — like, "We need to put in five songs from this category and five songs from that category, and have them rotate 50 percent. One category rotates this hour and the other category rotates that hour." It was really formulaic. Just a homogenized, cookie-cutter formula that they used in a lot of stations at the time. It was probably pulled from Top 40 stations, the way their rotations were, and they'd put them in rock. We just changed that whole thing, which in this town I thought was really needed.