10 Questions with ... Bill Hagy
April 19, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
After 50 years with the same company, Bristol Broadcasting Country WXBQ/Johnson City, TN PD Bill Hagy retired on April 1st, exactly 50 years to the day he started. Hagy wasn't the first PD for WXBQ but during his 37 years at the helm, the station has maintained a streak of 81 consecutive #1 ratings books and counting, with market shares often nearing a 30. He'll stay on in a consulting role and will actively participate in searching for his successor at WXBQ.
1. Bill thanks for taking the time for 10 Questions. Let's start by asking why was time to shut it down?
Well, I'm old! Fifty years is a long time, and I don't know - it wasn't an overnight decision, of course. I decided a year and a half ago or so that I'd like to have a little more 'me time' and kind of work to that end. I'm fortunate where I am and in the company, where I'm still going to be the consultant and heavily involved with the music one day a week. It all worked out to really suit me, and I'm really looking forward to it.
2. Am I correct in saying you're the first PD that 'XBQ ever had?
No, I wasn't the first PD. As a matter of fact, we've had three. The first Program Director we had for 'XBQ officially was Bill Kramer, and he worked a Classic Rock station for a career before he got here. The first two employees were Bill and Reggie Neal, my midday guy, who is still here from 1978. And then we had Jeff Whitehead, who was PD for a brief period from about 1982 or 1983 until the mid-80s. I was the official PD around the mid-80s, But my [corporate] position before that with the company began in the early 70s around 1972.
3. What was happening there when you launched, in terms of expectations for market share and ratings, and what did you think you could accomplish? We know it has gone on to be a complete monster, but at the time - when you first lit that candle - what were you thinking?
Well, we were aware of the East Tennessee connection. The fact that Country music is more than just a format or a music choice. It's part and parcel of just about everything in this part of the world. So we felt like it truly could at some point - it might take a minute - but it really should be a monster radio station. And we began with a syndicated service out of California. And we originally launched it as "Country Lovin.' WXBQ. And then, I guess honestly admitting, you put your toe in the water and say 'Let's see' before we go recruit a staff and the whole thing. So, it kind of overwhelmed us, and then we did a research project to determine mascot and position and perception in the market and changed from 'Country Lovin" to '24 Karat Country' with the rabbit mascot. We gave away a new Volkswagen Rabbit car. From that point, our share got to the low teens, and then it was busting open the door.
4. Thinking about the business today, it's really unusual when programmers and/or personalities marry the market anymore. And you obviously married the company. You've been in that market for a long time. At what point did you decide the company was for you, and then at what point did you decide that Bristol - that market - was where you wanted to stay?
I guess honestly it was more of an organic kind of thing. I was born and raised here, it's my home. I love the area, and it's a fortunate thing. It's fortunate that the company I'm with allowed me to grow and the company to grow. And it is that marriage thing.
5. During the time - forget about 50 years - but just talking about the time with 'XBQ, you've seen the format's popularity ebb and flow. Urban Cowboy, The Garth Era and now its current popularity. What are some of the memories and reflections of each that stand out for you in terms of what it has done for the format and how it has helped it grow?
Well, the music as we know, it does ebb and flow. Honestly, my first experience with the Country music format was when we launched our Country station in Paducah (Kentucky), WKYT. And the company bought an AM/FM in Paducah - little old Paducah - and the AM was a block program with an emphasis on Country or - I'd almost have to say Hillbilly. So we changed that to a Pop station, and we wanted to move the Country to the FM. I remember painting the control room walls purple for mood. This was 1972! And some of the first music we played was Tanya Tucker, who was a teenager at the time. "Delta Dawn," and "The Key's In The Mailbox," "Come On In," and all of those songs from that era. Within about half a dozen years, the radio station had become huge in the area. We were early outlaws with Outlaw Music from whoever we thought would fit that had a really loud guitar. It took on an identity of its own. We actually still run the Outlaw Hours. It has changed a lot over the years, the artists we play. Way back, we were playing Asleep at the Wheel and Lyle Lovett, and Waylon and Willie, and all of that cowboy stuff. Now it's like Brothers Osborne.
6. To that point, today's Country music has so many elements that are outside of the traditional bloodline. I mean, the infusion of hip-hop, a lot of rock has always been a part of it...do you think that long-term this is good for the format?
I do, absolutely. To me, it has always been the strength of the format - the variety aspect. The definition of variety is all these other elements that are on the edges and probably won't make it to the mainstream. The acceptability from the core fan of the format, they'll be a little bit interested and they'll decide yes or no. Sometimes it's no. But yes, all the outside forces are an important element that keep the music of the format kind of a mass appeal.
7. A lot of those elements have made Country more mass appeal. Particularly in the last five or so years, to the 18-34, to the younger fans. Obviously, we've seen some statistics recently from Nielsen that 18-34 numbers are back to what they were two years ago. They're still very good, but they've settled back to 2013 levels. I wonder, do you think the format can sustain growth among the 18-34, the younger fans, and what does it do for the 35-54 year old Country fan? There seems like more so than ever, a divide between what the 18-34 and the 35-54 the core fans, what they want and are looking for, particularly with the females, what they are looking for in a Country station.
Absolutely. And that's the $64,000 question. Applying logic to the dilemma, it seems obvious to me that you can't embrace all of the musical elements in a mix that is going to satisfy the big audience. So you have to be aware of where the older listener is and how much of this "that crap ain't Country" they can take. And then with the younger listener, who may only be a P2 of the Country format and a P1 of something else. I think that putting care in the mix can definitely keep the format afloat and growing and vital going down the road.
8. Over the years, you've met a lot of artists as they were starting out. The statute of limitations is running out here, so is there one or two in particular that you saw come through that you thought would never make it, but then ultimately they became a superstar? Not being critical of them. Maybe a better phrasing of this would be, is there somebody who surprised you when you saw them come through who maybe didn't stand out but then later you saw them and thought, "Wow! I guess they were all that!"
I guess there would be one or a couple, but I honestly can't think of who it would be! I mean, I've been here a long time and a lot of people have been through the conference room. Some who found more success than others, of course. This was one of Brad Paisley's first radio conference things, and I remember Jimmy Gilmer, who was his manager at the moment, who was an artist in the 50s, and I thought that was really cool. I thought Brad had an interesting point of view lyrically with just about everything. One of the songs he did, and I'm sure you're familiar with it, was "Me Neither." But, yeah. Kenny Chesney has been here. I feel like everybody has kind of been here at one point or another!
9. You know, I asked the same question of Coyote Calhoun in December. He mentioned Kenny Chesney. He said "I just didn't see it." I guess you never know.
I was a little bit prejudice with Kenny. Of course Les Acree was his biggest supporter in the world. And Les and I were buddies, and Les would give me a hard time saying, "Come on, now! You need to do this! You need to support this guy! Come on!" But, yeah, I was somewhat surprised when Kenny went the stadium route! I remember thinking that was really cool, but golly days, this stadium holds 190,000 people!
10. Final question for you and it's about the radio business. It's really evolved so much over the years, and I just wonder your thoughts on getting younger people interested in radio. There are so many other things available to them now with podcasting and new technology. I'm not talking about listeners, I'm talking about getting young people interested in the business. Where are the future Bill Hagy's coming from?
RJ, I think it's certainly day and night difference from the past decades. But I really believe that young people - male and female - that are in school and dabble in or think they might be interested in it or interested in journalism, they need to do some intern stuff. Honestly, over the past - I don't know, certainly dozen years or so - we have had several people who have been involved at ETSU [East Tennessee State University] in Johnson City. They have a journalism department, and we've had two people from the news department now, and my 8-12a guy, who is a local boy, was involved in journalism and said, "Wait a minute, this isn't for me." But he was interested in the business, and he's been with us now; he's really developed, and you can see the fire in his eyes. I think I'm like everybody else. You think you see the edge of the horizon, and you don't think it looks like we're going to fall in to a pit, but you really don't know. Change in the industry - radio and in music - is part of it. It's just a factor. And honestly, that is what, to me, has kept me so interested and feel like I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I haven't always understood, but I have a better understanding today than I did. I'm pretty optimistic!