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iHeartMedia’s EVP Urban Doc Wynter on Preparing For Radio’s Future and Expanding Reach

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“… this new generation wasn’t necessarily brought up on radio. I’ve found that there are more people that are actually passionate about hip-hop… “

Doc Wynter

Executive Vice President Urban/Hip-Hop Programming Strategy & Program Director Real 92.3 Los Angeles – , Inc.

By Kevin Ross 

I’ve known Doc Wynter for almost three decades and no matter how successful he becomes, he is still the same person he was in 1990. He has a great sense of humor and has been a good sport to my consistent one-liners since his days at KMJM. I constantly hear industry people speaking highly of him, his position, his influence and his legacy at the most progressive radio corporation in the industry, iHeartMedia. It’s always great to catch up and learn something new from the progressive industry vet who just welcomed a new son. I have to honestly say it’s an honor to honor him as the “Broadcast Executive of the Year” because I’ve watched him grow over the years from doing the Quiet Storm at KMJM to his current position as one of the most respected people in the industry. 

Any of us who have been in the industry for more than 25 years have seen the industry reinvent itself several times and few have survived all of the changes — but it’s no surprise that Doc is still on top and ready for new challenges by continuing to educate himself and eagerly embracing rapidly changing industry technology.

KEVIN ROSS: We spoke when you first arrived in LA. I remember telling you that LA is a very interesting place and it can change people. How long have you been in LA now? About four years?

DOC WYNTER: Yeah, it’ll be four years in February. I really like LA. We’re having a good time. Obviously, I love working with Big [Boy] and you never know how things like that are going to turn out. Even somebody who’s an icon in LA and who has been working here so long, you just hope that the chemistry jells. It’s been a great experience working with him.

Kevin: What have you seen change in the last four years concerning radio that you think is the greatest plus?

Doc: I don’t know if I’ve seen anything change that’s a plus, and I think the landscape is obviously among the most competitive in the country, so you know our battle is song-for-song. I’m trying to convey that to my team. Understand, like, you can’t take any breaks off, you don’t take any songs off, because it’s really that competitive.

The festival space has changed things in some respects. All of a sudden, guys are making tons of money who get virtually no radio airplay, probably just streaming airplay, and you go to these festivals and the audience knows every word to every song. And, again, little to no radio airplay. That’s humbling in some respects, but also exciting for hip-hop. It’s truly finally being recognized in the format that it is. For somebody that was there at the very, very, very beginning, I’m fortunate to still be in it now. It’s just amazing to see the evolution.

I was in it from back in the clubs in New York City, where the DJ was on the phone and an MC just grabbed the mic and started rapping to King Tim III on The Fatback Band album or to Rapper’s Delight. It was like, wow. All these years later and it’s the format, it’s popular music, it’s changed the nomenclature of the country. It’s pretty amazing.

Do you think the radio should be more cognizant of the fact that there are so many other avenues right now?

Oh, absolutely. I think within the space that we have, we’re a utility for people that come to hear, in most instances, their favorite talent. And to have their favorite talent accompany them on whatever journey it is that they’re currently on, while they play their favorite music, as well. I think now, more than ever, you gotta have great talent.

That’s interesting because when we started, and we came up in the industry, that was not the general consensus. It was that the music was the star — you remember that?

Yeah. But if you can go get it anywhere now, like, what’s the difference?

I see that iHeart just purchased the biggest podcast company, and I see you guys are doing an award show for podcasts. I admire the way that iHeart is aggressive in their approach to grasp concepts outside of radio. How have you been able to work that into what you do? 

We had a lot of great content in any way that just needed to be converted into a podcast framework; you know, so much video, so much compelling entertainment. Whether it is from The Breakfast Club Radio Show, Big Boy, Angie Martinez, or, you know, Homegrown Radio with DJ Hed and Chuck Dizzle, it was just there. It’s just putting it into the proper bucket and teaching best practices about how to best introduce this to those who are seeking podcast content. What’s great about our company is the fact that we craft these mediums and then, of course, we learn to be the best at it.

Why do you think jocks are still afraid of being progressive and doing their own podcasts and branding themselves outside of the company? 

I know a lot of people who do them. I think a lot of jocks in our company have great podcasts. I don’t think that people are afraid to do it. I think the people that want to be in that space, who feel like they have something to say — those are the people who gravitate to that space. It’s not everybody’s thing.

That’s an interesting point. Everybody thinks that radio people should automatically graduate to that, but perhaps it’s a rude awakening to discover “maybe I’m just a jock that talks to people every day, but I really have nothing to say!”

Yes, having a great voice is not what podcasting is about.

Is there anything that you can talk about what we can expect from iHeart?

Nothing that I can really share at this time. We just continue to find great talent and I continue to tell people how proud I am to work for this company.  I know it sounds like a sales pitch, but I love this company and what it stands for. You know we have set out to find the best people, to make the best product that we can. And even for the opportunity to come and program radio in Los Angeles, which is a totally different urban environment, I had to learn to understand the sensibilities of not only African Americans but also Mexican Americans and Latinxs. This is something that I briefly learned a little bit about when I launched “The Beat” in Miami years ago, but these are Latinxs that are from an entirely different country of origin. So learning and understanding the sensibilities for Latinxs that like hip-hop and live in Los Angeles has been fascinating.

How do you find talent today with so many opportunities for people to be independent? Like with podcasts?

I’ve got to find people that love radio, and that can be somewhat of a challenge because this new generation wasn’t necessarily brought up on radio. I’ve found that there are more people that are actually passionate about hip-hop, but not necessarily passionate about radio. When I do find people that I like, I have to make sure, like, “Yeah, is this what you want to do? Is radio what you love?” And, if not, I understand. I get it. I grew up on radio, so it’s a part of my DNA. You need to understand how important this is for me and, if you’re going to be on my team, I need you to understand like, “Yo, this how I take care of my family!” So I need you to be on the same page with me. If not, that’s cool, I’ll help you go get something somewhere else where you can express your talent and your passion.

What do you think about bringing back the Quiet Storm concept?

I think, on a market-by-market basis, it definitely makes sense. I have found myself wondering like, “Man, what music do people make love to [today]?” You know, what are you listening to? You don’t hear a lot of that out there. I work with Keith Sweat who does one of our shows. Whenever he’s in LA, I’ll go to see his show, just to say “hi” and there’s still a passion for that music. The place is always packed. Everybody knows every lyric and, you know, you still got guys out here doing R&B like Tank, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo, and newer people like SZA; I love SZA’s new album. You’ve got Ella Mai and more. So there are still people out there that are making those records and we’re beginning to see R&B make that turn back to being really relevant. So I think it makes sense that you’re seeing Quiet Storm. For a minute it went away because it was no longer viable on the mainstream stations. People wanted to hear hip-hop and so Quiet Storm kinda got relegated to shows and, you know, depending on who that station’s audience was, it may not have been the right cup of sauce to use, so that’s good stuff. I’m glad to hear that it’s coming back.

I’ve actually talked to a couple of record reps who state that older singers think that the Urban Adult format is insulting and that whole format should be abolished.

I’ve had the conversation before, that it should be called R&B, but even that format needs a splinter because you have to ask, “Does the R&B from 2018 necessarily fit with a Peabo Bryson from 1975?” Now, I’d argue that you know, chances are the people don’t want those songs, the juxtaposition, you know what I’m saying? It really is about the available audience. How many stations can you put on? That’s one of the things I love about the iHeart app – I can go to the app and create a “Trey Songz Station” there and hear other artists that are like Trey Songz.

I work at Real 92.3 all day, but there are those times when I’m driving home and I want to hear music from back in the days when I was on the radio, you know, like Blackstreet, Johnny Gill, etc. I use the iHeart app for that and I can be in that space.  It’s fast, it’s convenient, and it does the trick for me.

Do you still want to be on air?

Noooo! You know what’s fascinating to me though, man? The number of times people reach out to me for records that I used to play and it’s the craziest thing because, as I’m reading the text, or if it’s via social media, they really expect me to remember this record that I played back in 1990-something and, if I’ve had five requests, I’ve gotten the record right all five times. Just crazy. They usually don’t know the lyrics and will say a man sings it or a woman sings it. The station played it all the time, etc. It’s amazing.

I know what you mean. They will say “Do you remember that song you played in 1989? I don’t remember the name of it but the lady said ‘oooh.’ What’s the name of that song?”

So tell me about your staff at the station right now. How long has Big Boy been in radio? Like 20-something years?

Uh, yeah, I think he is at about 20, 25. Yeah, 25 years.

Isn’t it amazing how fast 25 years go by?

Oh man. It’s incredible. And his story is so amazing, man. Like the way he just fell into that from being a bodyguard with The Pharcyde, then he’s on the air, and his growth. You travel with him in LA, it’s insane. And the crazy thing about it is, I’ve gone with him to New York. I’ve gone with him to Wyoming. I’ve gone with him to Miami. It’s the same thing everywhere. When he’s out, he takes every picture and you forget he’s done movies so, you know, everybody knows him.

Yeah. He has a great history. So, I know he’s doing syndication again. How’s his show doing now?

He’s on about 25, 26 markets. In the markets where it makes sense, it’s a great fit. And then, you know, you got The Breakfast Club Radio Show that are doing their syndication in other markets on the East Coast. So, it’s great having that kind of arsenal and you’re, you know, like, which one do you want? You know, it’s kinda cool.

What do you think of syndication?

I think it makes sense for a lot of radio stations that can’t afford high-quality talent. Unfortunately, we went a period where we were putting people on the radio who just liked radio but weren’t necessarily the most talented people. And, uh, there became a need for talent. I remember back in the day, like being among the first Tom Joyneraffiliates. When Tom left us, there was the Steve Harvey movement. Then we had Star and Buc Wild as our first hip-hop syndicated show.

I remember everybody else at that time wanted syndication first. They didn’t want to have any local success first, they wanted to be syndicated. I remember Cadillac Jack and I talking about The Breakfast Club Radio Show and putting Envy, Angela and Charlemagne together. I remember ten months into that, we were like, “is this gonna work or not?” And I was like, “Man, there’s something about them.” For me, it was actually more about the chemistry that I saw that they had off the mic than they had on the mic. And I was like, “Man, if we can ever get that chemistry on the radio, this is going to be crazy.” And it came to fruition. They just became this viral sensation. And it’s amazing.

I’ve got some amazing talent in Los Angeles too, like Bootleg Kev and DJ Hed who do nights for me. They come on at 5:00 pm. I think they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in LA. They just have incredible chemistry between them. Kev is more of the radio guy, while Hed is an LA dude. We got a white guy and a black guy doing nights in LA and they sound amazing. They got this feature called “Celebrity Smash,” when people call in and talk about their experiences in bed with celebrities. Of course, we never reveal who the celebrity is, but it’s actually pretty entertaining radio and this is the perfect market for it.

DJ A-Oh is my APD and does mid-days for me. He used to work at WGCI in Chicago and WMIB in Miami. Nina Chantelle, who also worked at those two stations, does afternoons for me. Then there’s Abby De La Rosa, who does late nights for me at 10:00 pm. They’re so talented and, you know, they just make a great crew.

We both have been around a long time. From this perspective (industry trade) I can honestly tell you that I’ve seen many people endlessly waiting for a gig and, in the process, they die. I’ve seen it happen more often than not. I think that a lot of it is their lack of a willingness to change. I think with technology, there are certainly other resources they can use to progress or to do something else, either permanently or in the meantime, but they’re really afraid of change.

What is your advice to people, over 40, who have been accustomed to doing radio a certain way and want to have longevity in the industry? Is it possible? And, if so, how do they do it?

That’s a really interesting question. How do I answer that question? I think that there are some options, depending on the company you worked for or how you were brought up in the business. Programming an urban station in Atlanta vs programming an urban station in Los Angeles are two different things. You have got to be flexible enough to understand the intricacies of each market and you’ve got to be smart enough in order to articulate your vision to your staff and to your bosses.  

I think that there have been a lot of people in our business who have had some amazing reputations, whose names and reputations were not necessarily commensurate with their skill sets and so you hear sometimes “I can’t believe such-and-such can’t get a job,” and it’s usually from people in the industry who may or may not be qualified to really assess whether that person was a great programmer. They just know the person’s name. A lot of times, in some instances, the person just worked for a great radio station at a time when great brands succeeded because of the nature of the measuring system, and now the measuring system has changed. And so now you’ve got to be keen enough to understand what was a “TSL” (time spent listening) business versus today, where we are in an “occasions of listening” business in terms of diary versus PPM. And so whatever you might’ve learned in a diary experience, whether it be how frequently you should turn your powers versus what might make more sense now, you’ve gotta be willing to say, “Okay, I have got to think about this.” And does it make sense? And you’ve got to be able to introduce that into the conversation and then determine whether or not that is the best course of action.

I’m trying to be honest but, at the same time, I’m not trying to make light of anyone that has struggled in this business. But I, myself, because of this job, I’ve come across a lot of people who had great reputations but when it came down to having a conversation about a programming strategy, they suffered from that lack of liberal arts thinking (a broad foundation of knowledge) in terms of making an adjustment. In their mind, this is how this station was programmed and successful back in 1995. So that same strategy should work in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but it’s not going to.

What did you do differently when you were younger to create this path for yourself?

I had a phenomenal education. I went to a great high school and, although I played basketball in high school and college, instead of going and playing Division One basketball, I played Division Three at a very good basketball program at a very excellent school and I specifically remember getting into an argument with my guidance counselor because I wanted to take a Cobalt class (a programming language), and he refused to allow me to do it. He was like, “I don’t care, you can take a basket weaving class, but you cannot take that class.” And later on when I graduated from college, and I began working as a computer programmer, I wanted to find him and hug him and kiss him because when I went into computers and started working at the company that I started working at. I learned everything so much more quickly because I understood the science of programming versus how to program that specific language, and that message has always followed me throughout my career because I’ve been like, “okay, this person has a liberal arts education in radio and that person learned how to program in that space, at that time, in that year, in that measuring system — and that’s about all they can do.”

So you leveraged your computer programming experience and you brought it to radio programming. How did you make the transition from computers to radio?

I liked computers, but I loved radio. I couldn’t imagine being a computer programmer for the rest of my life. It was the most boring thing that I have ever done in my life. I went to college for it, but I loved radio. And I grew up listening to WBLS [New York] and KIIS in New York, and Frankie Crocker, Don Imus, and Howard Stern.

Who gave you your radio break?

Oh, my first break was a guy by the name of Greg Dixon at WNOU in Willimantic, Connecticut, and then Jazzy Jordan and WNHC in New Haven.

I didn’t know Jazzy worked in radio.

Yeah, Jazzy was my PD there. Then I had left urban radio for a year and I worked at WNHC in New Haven, which was a Top 40 station where I worked with Tom Poleman, who is our President of National Programming at iHeartMedia now. There was a looseness about urban mom-and-pop radio that I didn’t like because I came from the corporate, structured environment. But then there was also a cadence to urban radio that I preferred more than I did Top 40. So after experiencing Top 40 for a year, I transferred to St. Louis where I worked at KMJM.

Being the PD of Real 92.3 and helping to run so many other stations around the country, your time has to be very limited on a daily basis. Give me a guesstimate of how many requests you get each day. Like people calling you, stopping you or emailing you, asking you questions, etc…

I don’t even know. That’s basically what my job is. It might be someone from another market, something about another market, a distant relative, someone I used to work with, someone that I met at a club, or it’s an artist manager with a new artist, etc. You know, some of the best relationships I have are with artists who have lived past their peak and who are trying to stay relevant.

That’s interesting.

Those relationships are amazing and some of the best conversations I’ve ever had. And when you’ve been doing it this long, you know, you obviously hope that it’s going to continue.

You remember the great runs like R. Kelly’s run – INSANE – but it came to an end. Gerald Levert, great run, came to an end. Keith Sweat, great run, came to an end. But now he works for me. And so we’re able to go back and talk about those previous situations now. I remember one time having a conversation with (the late) Gerald Levert about the show he did for us in St. Louis reluctantly and, you know, it was because his dad made him do it. I think he performed like three songs, then he just dropped the mic and broke it, and just walked off the stage.

So, like ten years later, I’m in and I have this job at a station and Gerald is trying to remain relevant and, you know, we’re in the production room, we’re talking, and we’re comfortable enough where I brought up the experience and I really believe he had no recollection of it whatsoever. He was drunk on fame at the time. Seeing that happen to people, and then to see the drunkenness wear off and they’re normal again and, you know, you’re like, “Wow man, what was that run like?” It’s insane. For some people, there’s probably nothing more difficult than when they stop running after you.

So funny you say that because I interviewed Gerald a few times. He wasn’t a big fan of doing the promotional radio visits. I’ve actually found several artists to be like that. They feel once they get to a certain point they shouldn’t have to go do radio interviews and get up that early.

I think at some point it has a lot to do with the fact that when you have a certain amount of fame, you’re expecting to make a certain amount of money and, I’m sure back then with those record deals and the way they were structured, it probably wasn’t what he expected. And not to say that he wasn’t doing well, but the idea is doing something for free at some point in your career you’re like, “Yo, are you kidding me?” And from our vantage point, we were just like, “Man, what’s going on with you? I’m a huge fan of yours and I came to see you perform and you’re acting like this?” And again, he had no recollection of how he was acting that day or at that event. I’ve had similar conversations with Keith, and he just has no recollection whatsoever.

Again, these guys were drunk with fame and they don’t recall the way that they were acting because it was real for a number of years. They had incredible runs and then all of a sudden, one day, they woke up and times had changed.

I can see why you would be interested in those conversations, but a lot of working industry people actually run from it. They don’t want to talk to people who want to talk about the “good old days.” They see it as draining and regressive in progressive business. What do you think is the takeaway that could perhaps benefit younger artists?

For me, it’s just having a conversation because we became friends. It’s pretty much like you’re just trying to hold on. Because, at the time, they didn’t think that their time was done. That’s not really their call. That’s the audience’s call. There’s always going to be people that will be bitter because their time is different. Look at the festival business. I submitted a request the other day for a guy to do a festival for me that I paid $75,000 to do a show last year in one of my key markets and the request for the new festival was for seven figures. Last year $75,000, this year seven figures? Dude, are you serious? Yo, there are people that are multi-millionaires that have a tenth of the talent of a Gerald Levert who, unfortunately, will never see that kind of money.

Well, I mean, you can’t get mad at somebody for being savvy and understanding supply and demand. If people want it, what can you do?

Absolutely the times have just changed.

Thanks, Doc and Congrats again. Also, congratulations on the new addition (referring to Doc’s newborn son, Cole Wynter). So now you’ve got another 18 long years of hard work ahead of you (laughs),

That’s the homie right there.

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