RF Anniversary: WBLS’ Skip Dillard Interview

by Kevin Ross - Posted: June 21, 2012 at 12:25 am, Category: URBAN

skip dillardSkip Dillard has probably had one of the most interesting radio careers of most programmers. His career began during his senior year at Hampton University when he worked at WOWI in Norfolk at the time. Since then he has programmed: WYLD-New Orleans, WMXD-Detroit, WBLK-Buffalo and WPGC in DC. After working in Buffalo at WBLK, he took a break from programming and worked as the Top 40/Urban Editor for Billboard Magazine. That may have had a few people scratching their heads but believe it, a programmer who can also work for a trade publication is an impossible find. It was a brilliant move that helps to diversity a programmer’s experience giving him unlimited exposure to other programmers. In addition, the stint probably gave Dillard a much greater perspective of how the entire industry works. Shortly thereafter he headed to San Francisco for a short stint at KBTB. (Urban radio does not do well on the west coast) then it was back to Detroit to handle a cluster of Radio One stations, then WPGC and currently Dillard has the distinction of being the OM and PD of the only urban radio station in the Number 1 market, WBLS in New York City. He also programs WLIB the AM outlet for the heritage station.

RADIO FACTS: Over the last several weeks, WBLS has been through a lot of changes. The sudden deaths of Brian Carter and Hal Jackson and the new station acquisition and staff changes. How is the new lineup working out?

SKIP DILLARD: It’s been a tough time for all of us. As you know radio is different from so many industries due to the amount of time we all spend together. People become more than just co-workers and we’re still dealing with the fact we’ve lost two incredibly wonderful and talented people this year.

As for the new line-up, we tried to welcome as much WRKS talent as we could without losing any of our existing WBLS staff. I was very blessed to already have had two day parts to fill during the week along with two weekend shifts (formerly held by the late Brian Carter). Everyone is settling in very well and ready for the challenge of meeting audience expectations that are even higher with one less Urban to choose from.

RF: A lot of people loved and respected the legendary Hal Jackson but his early struggles were never mentioned enough to today’s urban industry people, why is it that?

SD: Hal wrote a wonderful book with his wife Debi Jackson a few years back, “The House That Jack Built” and I really wish more people would read it. I think Hal’s story holds such important lessons.   Hal Jackson lived about three lifetimes in one. He broke the color line in numerous industries from radio to sports, to TV to ownership and Hal gave back so much money out of his own pocket to help youth. One of the most beautiful stories I heard the other day was how he helped someone in our industry moving their business pay their three month deposit for office space so they could move and get up and running. What’s special here is the person hadn’t even asked him for help! If Hal saw a need he felt was important, he took action.

The problem is there are fewer veterans in both radio and records left to tell these stories. I was trained by PD’s and GM’s who were great teachers and storytellers. Some developed research platforms that formed the basis for much of the perceptual and music testing we do today even in PPM, others were distinguished in production and writing or were great morning talent.
Today, many PD’s (and even GM’s) are coming into their positions for the first time and it’s becoming much harder to find PD’s currently in the business who have held down an on-air shift for any period of time. That should never be a requirement but there used to be a balance of on and off-air programming managers. So the young kid out of college doesn’t have a sense of the proud history our medium has. Urban radio and radio in general have played a starring role in history’s theater from Civil Rights to 9/11. We’ve calmed people in times of crisis, given out crucial information, took to the streets, raised money for every important cause imaginable and we’ve introduced the nation to some of its most important voices. We must do a better job of passing our history on.

RF: Do you think the Number One market (New York) can sustain just one urban station or are you prepared for one of the other FMs to eventually flip formats to compete with WBLS?

SD: Competing against yourself can sometimes be more dangerous than having a direct threat. My only goal is to build the best R&B station possible and fight to be at the top no matter what happens in the future directly or indirectly.

RF: What is your philosophy on on-air talent, should they be nurtured, controlled or free to be themselves?
SD: Constant communication and guidance are always key. Being yourself is crucial but it has to fit in with the overall sound and personality of the station. You really can hear when someone’s connecting. They may have a unique sound or approach but they “connect.”   That’s the kind of radio that makes my day.

RF: What is the greatest problem that you see with urban radio today?

SD: I think not making enough effort to be creative. These days you get so bogged down in research, business and meetings that you kind of forget to have fun. This is a problem for everyone regardless of format.   For Urban, I have to FORCE myself to get OUT of the building often with just a jock or by myself with no clients or other managers along. This way I can stop talking business and actually shake hands and meet people. I find I often learn more from two hours at a community festival hanging with our core listeners than I often do spending day after day swimming in research.

RF: We once talked about the importance of urban radio stations paying greater attention to their websites. I know that you have always believed in this and that it’s a challenge for other stations but do you think it’s wise for urban radio to continue to ignore a web presence?

SD: I believe we have to find our way into our listeners lives wherever they are. We really don’t have a choice.

RF: Do you subscribe to the theory of what most urban programmers/corporations suggest to play only the hits or is there room in an urban format to expose new music?

SD: These days I get in more new Gospel music for consideration than R&B. With fewer major labels we have to keep our ears open for new/upcoming talent. That’s how Maxwell, Alicia Keys and the stars of thier day were found. I also believe artists need to develop working relationships with radio and not just count on managers and labels to hold those contacts. There’s a lot less room to experiment these days for numerous reasons including PPM but we’ve got to make finding great music an ongoing priority.

RF: How important is it for urban stations to be involved with the black community outside of coat drives and Thanksgiving and Christmas give-a-ways?

SD: As Wendy Williams used to say in one of her imaging liners, “Miss A Day, You Miss A Lot”. Be out, be visible and address your listeners needs on and off the air. Imhotep Gary Byrd was told years ago by Hal Jackson during a programming meeting that “The community IS your best friend.”

RF: Who are some of the great urban programmers that you respect most?

SD: Shout out to Jay Dixon who did a great job of giving WRKS a solid NY sound in the past few months. I always look forward to hearing Al Payne’s Radio One stations in Baltimore and enjoyed a nice level of energy and forward motion from Kashon Powell’s WOWI Norfolk. I enjoy listening to Derrick Brown’s work at WVAZ too. There are a few others that I know I forgot. Need to do some more listening in other markets.

RF: A new 19-year-old talent walks up to you and says he wants a career in radio. How would you direct him in today’s urban radio climate?

SD: Study those you admire and write down reasons you believe they are where you want to be. Find a mentor and look for non-traditional ways of getting in. Whereas I did the overnight weekend shifts no one else wanted, for someone today it may be updating the station’s website or handing social networking.