In a city that never sleeps and often described as the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, a radio Operations Manager has to keep his/her ears to the streets in order to thrive in America’s number one radio market. If you know New York, then you definitely know WBLS and WLIB. These radio stations are to the urban community in NY what the Statue of Liberty is to Ellis Island. The man, myth, and legend pulling the strings behind both iconic stations is none other than Skip Dillard.
He is the quintessential connoisseur of New York, the urban community, and beyond. With his focus on the pulse of the community, he understands how to keep radio relevant, powerful, and a truly impactful medium. We had the honor of chopping it up with Skip about his renaissance man persona, inspirations, his new career endeavors, and the magic behind WBLS and WLIB.
RADIO FACTS: Quite often we do one job in the industry and legacies are rare. Some people want to be a great DJ or a great programmer, etc. and others want to leave a lifelong legacy by being of service to others. You have always been a different kind of a programmer – you play the piano, you’re a great photographer, you travel and you post very interesting tweets garnering you, by programming standards, a pretty big following. What motivates you Skip?
SKIP DILLARD: My parents and grandparents came up from very humble beginnings yet their continuous effort to educate themselves and others has always served as a guide for me. If I learned anything from my them it’s that “you’re always a student,” and I was encouraged to be good at many things and knowledgeable about others.
Who has inspired you coming up in the industry?
I enjoyed, like many others in radio, stations with great presentations (music, talent, imaging). Frankie Crocker, Candy Shannon, Scott Shannon, Donnie Simpson, Rick Dees, Bo Griffin, Carol Ford, Mr. Magic, Red Alert, Sunny Joe White, Gerry Bledsoe, Howard Stern – these were all talents I listened to either in their markets or on cassettes from friends. From high school onwards these and others helped shape my interest in radio.
Did you have mentors?
Many. Tony Gray, Jerry Boulding, Jim Snowden, Brian Douglas, Steve Hegwood, Sam Weaver, Steve Crumbley, Ron Atkins, Brian Wallace, Verna Green and others were there early on to help discipline my thinking and actions.
Do you mentor anyone?
I try my best. I pray I’m making a positive impact on people I interact with.
You always seem so “cool” and laid back. I’ve never heard you speak ill of anyone (or vice versa) and I’ve never seen any kind of ego come from your direction. Have you always been like this or did you have to learn over the years?
Nothing came easy to me and I’ve always prayed to be humble and appreciative of all my struggles and victories. As in sports, temperament and attitude have as much to do with winning or losing as your talent.
How do you find ways to make time for your hobbies?
You take time. It’s what keeps you sane. I’ve worked with colleagues who are at the station 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and that’s never been a healthy way to work for me. I’m always working but in various environments. I’m often most productive during a change in my environment or while taking a break for a quick trip.
Tell us about your recent trip to Africa and your thoughts about how radio works there?
The continent is booming with vast development in construction, media, tech, entertainment, tourism, small business and education. Countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and many others are poised to reach far beyond their boundaries with great opportunities. It’s a great time for American tourism, content and business partnerships. My September trip to South Africa was my second time there in several years and I was amazed at the positive growth and changes in such a short time. Radio is still “King” in most countries and there’s more private ownership and content opportunities than in the past in most countries on the continent.
What makes the WBLS listener different from other stations that you have worked at?
WBLS listeners are extremely informed, knowledgeable and immersed in the culture of New York City. You have to stay on your toes every waking moment in order to serve them. Our staff from Emmis Management to our APD Cynthia Smith and our long-term NYC on-air crew work tirelessly to keep up with the fast pace of our listeners.
The sister station of BLS is WLIB with a Gospel format. With all the options that today’s listeners have in and out of radio, what do you think the fate of AM will be in the near future?
Digital! The cost of maintaining dual towers and lack of engineers that are coming into the industry trained to maintain these complicated facilities are just as much a challenge as sound quality. HD radio, streaming and emerging tech are in AM’s immediate and near future.
You recently had Janet Jackson participate in one of your big station events and you were involved with Spike Lee having a street named after him. What is it like to be in the presence of history being made like that?
That’s part of the magic of WBLS. The call letters and brand open doors and it’s up to us to take responsible advantage of the opportunities presented. A chance to honor the many luminaries that come our way in politics, entertainment and business is a blessing we don’t ever take for granted.
Super congrats on your recent post with the FCC. We talked about the process of getting involved via the NAB. Can you walk me through how you got on the board again?
The Advisory Committee for Diversity and Digital Empowerment was put in place by current FCC chairman Ajit Pai. The group in its first two-year generation wrote several plans based on ideas that were adopted by the FCC including guidance for diversity in the tech sector and partnerships with colleges to train students to work in the lucrative “5G” infrastructure sector.
I kept up with press on the group and when I saw [them] over the summer they were looking for new members [so] I didn’t hesitate to apply. A chance to see more people who look like me in positions of influence in media, telecommunications and tech has always been important to me. I’m so proud of this chance to play any part.
We posted the story a bit early in Radio Facts, and it was shared over 2000 times. What kind of response did you get from the industry?
I was overwhelmed and humbled by the responses and positive posts and calls from colleagues and friends.
What would you like for your industry legacy to be?
I would most want to see radio continue to be just as relevant, creative and exciting as I found it when I first opened the microphone at WOWI in Norfolk while a senior at Hampton University. I had experience with Hampton’s WHOV and NC A&T State University’s WNAA leading up to that time, but there was something pretty surreal [about] walking into a studio as the youngest on-air talent full of vets I so admired.