Bill Willis: Nourish The Dream

First Radio Job: A part-time summer job at WCAO/Baltimore, a 5kw station.

Current Job: GM/Owner

WFLQ-FM, French Lick, IN

Your school? A Bachelor’s from University of Louisville, MBA from Central Michigan University

Typical work day: I’m Mr. Outside, and my wife Catherine is Mrs. Inside. We’re a typical Mom & Pop operation that used to be common, but there aren’t so many around anymore. My wife is the business manager. She handles traffic, and scheduling of the staff.

What are you reading? Small Market Radio Newsletter, of course.  I also read Radio Ink, BE. I’m one of the few small market broadcasters that buys the Broadcasting Cable Yearbook, as expensive as those are. I like to keep up with some of the people that I’ve met over the years.

I want to recommend one of the books I read this past year called, How Successful People Think by Dr. John C. Maxwell. He was pastor of a little church near French Lick years ago. Although the book is only about 120 pages, it contains many cogent ideas which we tend to forget to put into practice, such as thinking creatively by asking the right questions, like “why this?”  Also, encourage creativity by saying something positive and not frowning or responding with negative comments when suggestions are offered.

Favorite restaurant: There are several restaurants that I really enjoy in French Lick. Most are advertisers!

Favorite beverage: Cranapple juice. When I was a little kid, Arthur Godfrey was on the radio. I remember when he said he would go off of the air because he had cancer. He left broadcasting for a time, but then came back on the air and said he had beaten cancer, which didn’t happen very often in those days.

He said he had been told about the medicinal value of cranberries, and after eating them, he licked cancer. I remember him saying that, and I’ve been eating cranberries ever since because of Arthur Godfrey on the radio.

Website: www.wflq.com

Contact Info: (812) 936-9100, wgw@bluemarble.net

Cranberries, Coca-Cola, And The Radio

When did you start in radio? After I graduated from high school. I got my radio telephone first class license when I was 16. I got my ham radio ticket when I was 15, and then took the amateur extra exam, the highest license for ham radio, and I thought I would get a commercial license, because the questions were similar. I passed the exam, then got the first class radio telephone license, which is what you needed to be a radio engineer in those days. The questions, come to find out, were the very same questions.

One of them was a pretty complicated question about the source impedance for a resistor, conductor and a capacitor. I remember working on it for 20 minutes when I took the ham radio exam, but when I took the radio telephone exam, I remembered the answer, and I just wrote 3.28 ohms, and that was it. Such an exhilaration!

Bill Wills in his restored 1952 M-38 Korean War jeep during one of our WFLQ area parades.

Bill Wills in his restored 1952 M-38 Korean War jeep during one of our WFLQ area parades.

I worked during the summers at other radio stations. One of the stations I had worked at was WARL/Arlington, VA; it was country then. One of the announcers at the time was Don Owens. Don was a great guy; he hosted an interview program several days a week in the afternoon.

One day, I needed to get rid of all of the grass around the tower, which was several hundred yards away from the studio. I called the fire department to get permission to burn the grass; I wanted to make sure nothing would happen. They said to just go ahead and be careful.

I had a hose to control the fire, and I was keeping it under control. But, I didn’t see a very narrow strip of grass burn down along the pathway to the tower … and it burned through my hose. Suddenly I had no water pressure. Then the wind came up, things started blazing, and a pine tree went up in a big ball of fame. I called the fire department and they sent a truck out. But who was Don Owens interviewing at the time?  The Chief of the Fire Department, on fire safety! They hear the sirens during the interview, look out the studio window, and see the blaze all around the tower.Don Owens, Country Music Hall Of Fame

When it was under control, Don said “How can you do this to me?” Whenever I go to the CRS and see his plaque at the Country Music Hall of Fame, I always remember him saying, “How can you do this to me?

You’ve always worked for a radio station? Back in 1962, I believe, I sold equipment for Gates Broadcasting, which later became Harris. That’s what moved me from Maryland to Louisville, and from Louisville I covered about a 7 state region. One of those was Wisconsin, and I’ll never forget a visit to a station, WEAU in Eau Claire, WI. I went to the transmitter site, and haven’t seen this since.

WEAU had a 2-tower AM array. One tower was what you’d expect, a guyed steel tower. The other tower, you’d never guess, was a wooden tower with a copper tube down the center, which was the radiating element. The engineer told me the story.

This wooden tower was built because the station got a grant to go from 1kw to 5kw in 1941. They ordered the transmitter, and they contracted with a tower company to put up a directional array for this 5kw. And then, December 7, 1941 came around, and there was no steel to be had. The day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the owner of the station and his engineer drove to Chicago, where they were building the transmitter. They loaded it onto their truck and hauled it back to their station, because they knew if they waited, they wouldn’t get it.

They built the wooden tower for their directional array. You could hear the creaking and groaning as the tower moved. The wooden tower never would have happened but for the rationing on steel.

Beyond Radio, you served in the military? I’m a retired Colonel, US Army. I’d joined the National Guard in high school. My dad told me that my grandfather served in the military, and that he served in World War II.  He told me the National Guard was having a recruiting drive one week, and if I wanted to use the car that weekend, I would join.

I have 30 years of commissioned service. I served in the National Guard, US Army Reserve and the US Army. My last assignment was a headquarters positions at Army Material Command. I was a full colonel in that job, and was assigned as the Deputy Public Affairs Officer. Being in public affairs, I was involved with the media, and I went to an NAB convention. It was interesting to have that alliance through the military, but it was very convenient for a civilian pursuit.

I got the CP for the station when I was stationed at Fort Monroe. It was 1982. That was a beautiful day. I remember thinking how I had a phenomenal job, with great benefits and retirement, and I was going to start a new business based on retail sales in the worst recession of that era? What’s the problem?

Small Market StoriesWhy French Lick?  Catherine and I had been looking for a place I could put a new station on-air. That weren’t many places that were available. It turns out French Lick was a possibility, and she is from Scottsburg, IN, which is about 40 miles east of French Lick.

I was at the Pentagon when I applied, and we got the CP 4 years later. September of 1982, we poured the foundation for the tower. Some of my friends told me I should get the station on the air and then sell it, but that never appealed to me. I wanted to operate, and see some value added to 100.1 FM. I’m having fun in a small town, realizing my dream.

In college, I had a professor that shared his philosophy of starting up a new business. He said, “It’ll take twice as long, and it’ll cost twice as much.” We found that to be on the mark … we thought we would be on air to get Christmas business in 1982, and then January, and on, and then I finally said on April 11, “We’re going on the air tomorrow at noon, ready or not.”  We launched the next day with the noon news, and the sponsor of that broadcast is still with us, 30 years later.

Bob Doll was one of the most astute broadcasters anywhere, and he gave me a great piece of advice.  He said to not sell a one-shot deal: always try to get advertisers on for at least 3 months, and that way you don’t have to be spinning your wheels trying to sell something new all of the time. So, for me, it was easy enough to say, “Did you want to run this for 6 months, or just for 3?” That gave you 3 times more longevity than if you didn’t offer that option.

Another Bob Doll maxim, if you want to determine what your gross will be in a small market, take the average unit rate and multiply by 50,000 … the number of ads a station will run in a year. That’s pretty much right on.

How did you choose your format? I did some surveys at each of the area festivals. There were 6 festivals; I hired some teenagers to help with the surveys. They asked people what station they listened to and what kind of music they liked.

Back at that time, the top station was a 50kw country station, 50 miles away in Bloomington. They dominated. They had 54% of the listeners. I thought that if I could get a country format, and include local news and weather – which is different than the weather in Bloomington, 50 miles away – then it would work. It took a couple of years to get our ratings up.

For the launch, I got 6 billboards: “Q100 is Coming.” People started wondering what is Q100? Some people thought it was a cleansing powder! I did a deal with Coca-Cola, and I had 200 2-liter bottles of Coke to give away. We got calls immediately. One lady, the wealthiest lady in our county, called in to win and she was ecstatic, “It’s the first time I’ve ever won anything.”  And she had millions!

WFLQ-FMIt only took about 2 years for us to eclipse the ratings of the other stations in our area. It was 12 years ago when our ratings got to the same point of that Bloomington FM station. We got a 54 share in Arbitron, the highest rating of any station in Indiana. Of course, when you get ratings like that, then everyone starts saying “I want some of that.” We have still been holding a 25-30 rating in Arbitron. 2 years ago, when I subscribed, our cume audience was three times the #2 station in the area.

You’ve been active on the national scene.  When the station became a reality, I had a very great appreciation that I could become a voting member of the NAB. I held it in very high esteem, to be a member of an organization that makes it possible to have a radio station. I never considered the idea that it was optional … I felt it was obligatory when I became an owner. I never looked at the NAB or the RAB as something that I might not do.

About 5 years after we got on-air, I was appointed to the NAB Small Market Radio Committee. I was also on the RAB Small Market Committee for several years.

What do you do for fun outside of the office? It used to be that my vacation was going to the NAB. Attending those conventions were great thrills for me.

It was a number of years until my wife, who didn’t quite look at it that way, pointed out that for our anniversary we always had to do some kind of work. Eventually, we got to the point that we’d take a week during our anniversary and go to National Parks, or Lake Tahoe, a cruise to Alaska, Australia, Europe. Wherever we go, though, we visit radio stations.

In Australia, Cairns is on the Great Barrier Reef. It was beautiful. They had no screens, no air conditioners, and no bugs. We visited a 5kw AM & FM there – the only radio stations within a 100 miles. We went to Aukland, NZ. They don’t use their call letters there … they use their slogans. We were visiting the # 1 FM in Aukland, and I asked the GM what his call letters were, he didn’t know! He said, “That’s the first time anyone’s asked me that question. I don’t know.” He had to go back to the transmitter where his license was posted to see the call letters.

How do you support your community? We do the things that any traditional small market radio station does. I have joined the Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club. We’ve worked with Habitat for Humanity and supported fundraising activities. I suggested about 20 years ago that the Lions Club put up flags on the telephone poles for holidays throughout the year, and the President of the Chamber asked me to be the chairman … which I’ve done for 20 years now.

Q100We help promote the biggest local event here each year, the Pumpkin Festival, the first weekend of October.

One thing we do that’s a real service in communities with only a weekly newspaper is that we do an obituary report on-air twice each day. It’s the only way for people to know about funerals that might be scheduled before the next edition of the newspaper. It’s very important to our listeners.

Some of our programming is unique, like our Sunday morning gospel request program. Most stations are automated on weekends, but we are live, and we take calls. Our host has been with us for 17 years, and he’s an expert in the region on Gospel music. He’s requested to be MC at all kinds of events around here.

Our sports director has been with us for 25 years, and he’s won the Indiana High School Sports Association award as Sports Announcer of the Year. We do a lot of ballgames, and that level of professionalism really helps us.

HD? No. I just have not seen the value of adding HD. We have one station in the region that’s gone HD, but there aren’t very many receivers around. That will change.

Streaming? The cost of streaming is still too high; we don’t get any revenue from that. We stream a few programs, but not many. The only revenue we’re getting is an extra $25 or $50 for a streamed schedule.

Social Media? The station sometimes gets local news from our listeners on Facebook; we’re definitely there.

How should we help the next generation of broadcasters? We need to nourish the dream, just as my 8th grade science teacher, Fred Reskal, nourished my latent interest in ham radio into a career.

He knew I wanted to get an FCC license, and he was helping me with the technical questions. He had me practicing the morse code with a brass telegraph key. He knew I was working on it … but I did not tell him when I took the exam. I passed, and got my license in the mail 3 months later.

I’d talk to Mr. Reskal every day after class. The day after I got my license, I put it in my pocket just so it would be ready for my daily chat with Mr. Reskal.

“I want to show you something,” I said, and I pulled it out of my pocket.

“Why, you rascal!” he said. “Here I’ve been talking about getting a ham radio license all of these years, and you just go out and get one!

He gave me that brass telegraph key, and it still sits on my desk today.

After I moved on to high school, we kept up our daily chats for years, only now they were on the ham radio. He was the reason that I became broadcaster, and eventually a radio station owner.

That kind of interest on the part of a teacher, who can influence a lot of people … you just can’t measure it. The rest of us have an obligation to do that same thing when we can. That means encouraging, not discouraging. It’s not always easy to encourage, but it’s important we do that.

About Henry Mowry

Henry grew up listening to the World's Happiest Broadcasters on WHB/Kansas City. He found his way to Los Angeles, where he did radio promotions for Six Flags Magic Mountain. From there, he had a 22-year run with Radio & Records, doing everything from national radio buys to regional night club promotions to eventually becoming Director of Sales for R&R. After a couple of years working with Radio-Info.com, he became Director of Marketing for Smarts Broadcast Systems.
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