10 Questions with ... Becca Walls
September 18, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
After a stellar 16-year career at Cumulus WKDF (NASG FM)/Nashville, Walls joined Big Machine Radio in June, overseeing content delivery to radio, and hosting the Big Machine Radio channel, heard via iHeartRadio.com. Prior to her Nashville move and the long stint at WKDF, Walls co-hosted the nationally syndicated "After Midnite" show with Blair Garner, beginning with its its 1993 inception. The two had previously worked together at iHeartMedia Top 40 KIIS/Los Angeles. During her time hosting middays at WKDF, Walls took on numerous side-hustles, anchoring short form syndicated shows and co-hosting morning shows in other markets, while still based in Nashville. She's a regular at Nashville industry events and has carved out a well-earned reputation for credibility, fairness, strong interviewing skills and an unceasing passion for Country music artists and songs.
1. Becca thanks for the time! Let me start with your newly minted title at Big Machine - Mgr./Content and host of Big Machine Radio. There are probably a thousand things you do, but what is your basic, day-to-day function over there?
I host a show every weekday 9a-2p (CT) on Big Machine Radio. I pretty much oversee all of the show prep that we send out - all of the albums. Any kind of audio content from the artists - I basically do that, so it's show prep and any kind of interviews with our artists for use by the label. I also pretty much am their built-in host, so if they have an event at the Big Machine store or like when we went to New York [for the Florida Georgia Line album launch], or soon, I'm going to go fly to Texas to host some stuff for Martina McBride; so I've become sort of "the host."
And you are putting together that incredibly comprehensive show-prep sheet that comes out every week. There's a lot there.
I've actually been doing that a long time, but now that I'm in there, we're able to improve the quality. We've certainly improved the layout of the website, which is more accessible than it's ever been - more searchable and more user friendly. And now that I kind of know where all of the audio is hidden, I'm able to up the quality of what we're sending out, so that certainly is helping a lot. Also, being able to bring my perspective as a radio person and help explain some of the method to the madness. When we've got brand new artists that don't have a song on the charts that maybe people aren't familiar - getting them to understand why it really is sort of wasting our resources to send out audio. Really what we should be sending is information for people to kind of get acquainted with the artist. Then once people care about the artists and they're on the charts, and they want to have audio pieces, then we can send out the audio, as opposed to burning through a whole interview before they've even broken into the Top 40
2. Before this move, you spent 16 years at WKDF - but you also had numerous side hustles that - I'm guessing - prepared you very well for this role.
I think everything I did prior to this enabled me to understand a lot of different angles from the syndication aspect. For instance, if I am helping to build a radio special, or right now, I'm in the middle of constructing a Sarah Cannon PSA, I understand what needs to be involved. I also am able to interview all of the participants. It definitely helps me from a syndicated perspective - I know what I would want to service to my radio outlets in terms of audio and convincing them that we can't send out phone-quality audio bytes - because radio stations are not going to want to use those. So I'm able to bring my experience from the perspective of a local DJ, and that of a syndicated person. I can give them all those different looks at what we're doing and how we can perhaps increase the value or increase the quality of what we're doing, and maybe why things need to be done differently. Just bringing that perspective that maybe they don't have because I've done so many roles. I've done affiliate relations, I've done national correspondence for syndicated radio, I've done local radio, I've had a couple of stints in mornings, and so I'm able to bring all of that to apply it to what I'm doing now. I'm making sure that what we're sending out and what we're doing is the right thing. I also think it's tempting to just throw a bunch of stuff out there, but you want to make sure people getting stuff from Big Machine know that it's quality, that they know it's going to be valuable information, and that it's going to get used. It becomes a valuable resource as opposed to just something else that is filling your inbox or cluttering your day.
3. The roster at BMLG is pretty big and the catalog you have at your disposal is too - so in terms of content, both brand new and ongoing - you're kind of like a mosquito in a nudist colony - hardly knowing where to start, right?
For me, one of the biggest challenges is just finding the time to do everything that I want to do. There are so many things we can do and so many exciting features and pieces to put together for Big Machine Radio. There are so many promotions and specials highlighting our songwriters and just all these different things! Sometimes they're all tremendous ideas, but there's just not enough time in the day to execute it all. Sometimes you have to get through what you need to do, and then you can sort of focus on the fun projects - and just finding ways to even go beyond the Big Machine artists and incorporating other artists. Especially if you're listening to Big Machine Radio - like yes, absolutely, it's Big Machine centric - but today I played a sound bite from Cole Swindell, who just happened to talk and say wonderful things about The Cadillac Three. Or if I'm talking to Cam and she's talking about being on tour with Tucker Beathard. I just try to find ways to incorporate - there are so many opportunities and it's just a matter of getting your brain around all of it.
4. That's clever. It makes it still a wide-ranging piece of content - not perceived as self-serving. Because if you're working exclusively for Big Machine, people can automatically think, oh ... she's pimping another Big Machine artist.
Yesterday I was at a Cole Swindell triple #1 party, and my question to him was very specific. I said, "You're out on the Florida Georgia Line tour. I've spoken to Jaren of The Cadillac Three who tells me you two are often up the latest and going to bed last. Would you say you have FOMO - fear of missing out?" And his answer was, "Maybe I do. Absolutely, but you know Jaren, he is such a great guy! And I love those guys from The Cadillac Three, and I think their album is fantastic, and they let me hear it before they even put it out! And I think if you asked anybody in Nashville, they're the favorite band in Nashville, and I just think The Cadillac Three is amazing." Without even intending to, I got this amazing answer out of Cole Swindell in a round table. I don't think that I stepped on anybody's toes; I didn't offend anybody; I didn't ask any question that was obviously self-serving; and yet I was able to get this great piece of content that I was able to get on today. I've also packaged in a little sweeper that we're able to put on the air to say, "Hey, Cole Swindell is out on tour right now with Florida Georgia Line and The Cadillac Three, and it turns out he's making some really good friends!" Put that together and it's like, "Keep it here for more on Big Machine Radio." You can use all those pieces. I'm also very aware that when I came over here, I did have to talk to a couple of the labels and say, "Hey, I know I'm working for Big Machine, but I also still am working for Envision and still am servicing soundbites from every artist." It was interesting even talking to someone at UMG. They said, "Becca, we know you, we know your reputation, and we know you will respect the process." I'm certainly not going to show up at somebody else's event and say, "Jason Aldean, good album! But you know who has a better album? Those Florida Georgia Line boys."" I know my lane, and I think that because I've been at this for 18 years, my reputation thankfully has preceded me. People aren't concerned I'm going to show up wearing BMLG swag everywhere I go and try to undermine them by talking about my artists, and I think it's been very beneficial for that. From the Big Machine perspective, they just are realizing that by my doing all of this, there's that chance where I'll get those gems like I got from Cole. We have writers that we want to spotlight on Big Machine Music, so I was able to do an interview with Laura Veltz who happens to have four cuts on Maren Morris' album. If I have a piece of audio of Maren talking about one of her songs; now I can piece it back together and say, here's Maren talking about it. Here's Laura talking about it, and it's available on Maren's new album. And yet it serves our purpose of highlighting our writer.
5. I'm looking at your career, Becca - it's so varied and interesting, covering many different platforms. You started on a nationally syndicated radio show (After MidNite), did local radio with plenty of short form syndicated side jobs - and now, you're clearly in the digital space. At the end of the day, isn't it all just radio?
Well, and you know what? I think it's just sort of evolving and being where new opportunities exist so you're not just stagnating in one place. That was part of the reason why it was so necessary for me - when I was at 'KDF - to have other things going, because to just do middays - when I knew I was capable of bringing so many different things at the table - I couldn't do it. When you have 18 years of credibility, reputation, experience, access to all of this, and you know what you're able to do and what you can provide and you just can't do anything with it - at some point it becomes very frustrating. Even in this job - it's kind of funny. People will say to me, "Well, how do you feel now that you're not in radio?" I say, well I get to do a show every day from 9a to 2p. I treat it exactly as I treated my midday show on 'KDF. It's a challenge for me and it's fun. If you listen to my show on any given day, you're still going to hear everything you would have heard on local radio. If it's a hot topic, I'm talking about it. If it's Country news, I'm covering it. Even if it's not related to our artists, I find - like we said - ways to weave it in. Today, I talked about the Ryan Lochte thing - of him getting attacked - and the video Cole Swindell posted of him and the little girl singing backstage at "Miss America." Just all of these different things that are going on in the world. I mentioned the fact that today is National Fortune Cookie Day and those things I would have put on my show anyway - I talked about Nelly not paying his taxes. So just whatever it is - if people are talking about it, I want to talk about it, too. I talked about the fact that Jason Aldean was on "The Tonight Show" and then, "Oh here's a guy that's on tour with him right now - Thomas Rhett!"
6. This move here at Big Machine Radio kind of reunites you with Dave Kelly. Am I correct - he originally hired you at WKDF?
No, actually the person that hired me at WKDF was Wes McShay. Dave was at WSIX. So I knew him from the time that I moved to town, and he was always very kind and helpful to me, and then he became my boss. We went our separate ways, and now here we are again. I think that Dave knew that Big Machine Radio had amazing potential for growth. For me, I've always had a respect for him and I've always trusted him, because even when we weren't working together, we were still going to dinner, still hanging out, still very much friends. So I think both just knowing that we have a passion for radio on different sides - he has a passion for programming; I have a passion for on-air. Together we can communicate and speak this language pertaining to Big Machine Radio and we both sort of get it. We know that we both are excited about it and that we believe in the product. I think that helps a lot.
7. Your resume also includes working alongside Blair Garner, who was recently inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame - what did those years on After MidNite teach you about personality radio? It appears to have prepared you well, as you went from a sidekick role to a very successfully run as a solo personality.
I always learned that what you say has to be compelling. I always learned that you need to put your head space as a listener. Even the little things. Blair taught me even if a song is fading out, don't just chop it out at the end. Picture yourself as the person in the car singing along and then all of a sudden here comes this annoying DJ that interrupted you. He said make sure you're feeling what the listener is feeling. Probably one of the biggest skills that he ever gave me was interviewing. He was one of the best - and still is, when it came to preparing. Never insult somebody by not preparing. Always make sure you do your homework and your research. Also, you know I started with him at KISS FM when he came from WPLJ and then started doing overnights at KISS FM and then eventually did afternoons. So being there with him just from a terrestrial radio perspective I was able to learn. Like, never say something on the radio that you wouldn't say in real life. If I don't use the term, "Goodies," then on the air I won't say, "Your chance to win some goodies coming up." Speak to people the way you would in real life. If someone says, "Hey what's the temperature outside?" You don't say to your friends, "Well currently it is 54." You would say, "Oh, it's 54." He taught me all those little things. And another big one too, was nobody turns on the radio to hear your problems. My job, no matter what's going on is to go in there and be a fun, entertaining source. People aren't turning on the radio to hear me mope and complain and whine. They're turning on the radio to be entertained and to hear their friend. Also, I think Blair was very good about teaching me to be kind and compassionate to everyone who called, because you just don't know who is on the other end of the phone. I was able to witness so many people who would call and saw the way that he impacted their life. So yeah, he taught me a lot!
8. Speaking of personality - a lot of people think that's a missing link in the digital, streaming world - that Pandora and Spotify, etc. can provide a music experience radio can't - yet the personality listeners like - especially Country fans - is not available. Is this the goal for Big Machine Radio?
Well ,I treat it as any other radio experience. I mean, I literally wake up every day, I prep my show, I search the net, and I try to figure out what are the hot topics of the day. What is trending? My goal is that if you're going to talk about it - and it's pop culture based or a big news story - that I will have talked about it on my show. Maybe at some point I will be your source, and you'll be like "What I heard on Big Machine Radio, they said blah blah blah..." And that was even my goal when I was on WKDF. Tomorrow I've already thought about how I'm going to talk about the "50 Shades of Gray" trailer, because that came out today and that's huge and that's what a lot of people are talking about. What's popping up all over the internet? Olive Garden is getting ready to do their unlimited pasta pass again, so that's something that I'm going to talk about. There's a story trending now about a guy who bought a girl a drink at a bar and then two weeks later texted her and said he wanted his money back because their relationship didn't go anywhere. Those are the kind of things! There's a story that just showed up in "US Weekly" that says Ke$ha and Taylor Swift might be recording a song together. Anything I can find - I'm always getting newsletters and I'm listening to television. I was watching "Big Brother" the other night and as a Head of Household guest, one of the guys got a basket of his favorite things and one of them happened to be a Taylor Swift 1989 CD, and he said, "Man I just want to be a part of her squad." So of course, I made a note and wrote that down. I really do continue to live my life as sort of a sponge and make sure I'm always paying attention and taking notes and seeing what's happening in the world so that I can be a source of information and entertainment as well as making sure we give you plenty of great music, so it's sort of a well-rounded listening experience as opposed to an endless jukebox.
9. You have vast experience interviewing artists - can you give us one or two tips on how to get them off their prepared narrative and ask them a question which peels back a layer on who they really are and what they really think?
The biggest thing is preparation. That means going beyond the talk points, which a lot of times are not that helpful. If you're only going to use the talk points, chances are you are going to do the exact same interview that everyone before you has done. For me, a huge great source is social media. I go on their Twitter and their Instagram. It is amazing that you will see artists eyes light up when you say, "Hey! So I saw you were reading this book! Tell me about that!" because it's not necessarily that they wanted to talk about that book, but it lights up in their head that you actually went and looked into something. It means that you valued my time and you cared enough to not just be lazy. I can't tell you I hear so many interviews when people are like, "So what are you up to these days? So how is the tour? ...Oh the tour was over three months ago." The little bit of preparation and the fact that you show that you value their time and appreciate being able to sit down and talk with them - it's huge! And so for me even if I'm talking about an album - I respect the fact that if I'm interviewing an artist, I've been given that 15 minutes because they want to promote what they're doing; so my first few questions may be about the music, but I may start at a different angle. So with Justin [Moore], he had the song "You Look Like I Need A Drink." I said, "Well, I've got to ask you, with a song like that, what's your hangover cure? What's your favorite cocktail? What's your favorite drink?" Those, they're not the most unique questions in the world, but rather than saying, "So, tell me about your new single," it shows that maybe I looked at the lyrics or maybe I looked at what the song is about. I do that a lot. Like a lot of times I'll look at a song. I'll look at what it's about and I'll find a line in there. I was talking to Tucker Beathard, and I said, "Hey there's a line in your song 'Rock On' that said, 'I thought about taking you back, but I don't know about all dolled up like that.' So are you against girls that are wearing a lot of makeup?" and he laughed. It got him to talking about that he hates fake things. He likes authentic things. It's just finding a different way to cover the same topic that everyone else is going to cover and not doing the lame, "So tell me about your song. Tell me about your album."
10. You mentioned it earlier - the world 'respect.' It is insulting for artists to come in and know that that person hasn't done their prep.
I can tell you the biggest lesson when I learned that - and I learned that at After MidNite. Lorrie Morgan came in. She had on sunglasses, a jacket, and an attitude. She did not want to be there and did not want to speak with us. As the interview went on, the glasses came off, the jacket came off, and the attitude went away. She later admitted, "So many times I've gone to a radio station where they don't take the time. They don't care. I've had program directors make me sit in a lobby and wait because they wanted me to feel like they were doing me a favor by having me there. Or they bring you in the studio and then they say, 'So what brings you to town?'" She said it gets so frustrating. I think I've witnessed - I found out, we went to dinner with Ricky Skaggs one time after he had been interviewed in LA. The DJ said, "So you play guitar. Do you play anything else?" Hearing those kinds of stories from the artists' perspective taught me that I will do everything and anything possible not to embarrass myself, never to let the artist know that I did not prepare. I will always take that time. To me it's valuable. I want to be able to talk to them. I want them to respect me. To have people actually tell you when you're done, "that was a great interview," or, "I was excited when I knew I was getting to talk to you," or, "I always love talking to you." That makes me feel good. Maybe in some ways it's self-serving. I want to know that they like talking to me and that I'm going to ask good questions. Even in round robins, my peers a lot will say, "Thank god you're here because you always ask good questions." Or if they say, "Do you have one more question anyone?" and I raise my hand, nobody is groaning. They know whatever question I ask, I'm going to get a good answer. That feels good to me. Maybe for me it's an ego thing - that I want to be known as someone who does good interviews, somebody that the artists like to talk to, and somebody that the publicist is comfortable leaving the room with - and not worrying that I'm going to try and all of a sudden go "Inquirer" on them or TMZ.
Do you ever sleep?
Haha! I usually sleep from 12:30-5:30. I pretty much don't, but it helps when you love what you do. If I was doing a miserable job, it'd probably be a bad thing. But it's fun!