10 Questions with ... Steve Black
August 13, 2013
1) What was your first job in radio? Early influences?
I fell in love with radio as a little kid and grew up listening to Jeff Holbrook and Tim Siegrist at WWCK/Flint's Best Rock. I was also a huge fan of the syndicated show Metal Shop with Charlie Kendall. My first job in radio was in production and as a board op for the satellite delivered Z-Rock format on WDLZ-A in Flint.
2) What led you to a career in radio? Was there a defining moment that made you realize "this is it"?
I worked as a volunteer at a local cable access station in Flint. There was a grumpy old man there that had a political talk show. Nobody on the staff wanted to work his show, but I thought the cantankerous old bugger was kind of funny; besides, what was he gonna do -- fire me? I was a volunteer, I worked for free. One afternoon when he was being especially cranky, I started to chuckle. He asked me, "How much do they pay you to put up with me?" I told him "nothing," I was there to learn. He then asked what I thought about radio and I told him it was always a dream of mine. Ted Johnson pulled out his business card and said "I'm the GM at Z-Rock, come by the radio station tomorrow and I'll show you around."
The next day I walked in and asked for Mr. Johnson and told them he was expecting me. He welcomed me into his office and said "What do you think of my radio station?" I told him the truth, "I love Z-Rock" and he said, "Good because you work here now. Can you start tomorrow?" I was stunned; I thought I was just there for a tour. He answered my surprised look by telling me, "Anyone who is willing to put up with me for free deserves to be paid ... and I want you on my team."
3) How long have you been at WRIF and what makes this station so unique?
I've been at the Riff for 10 years. It truly is one of the world's great Rock stations. Here we are in 2013 with NO voicetracking or jock-less dayparts at all! Doing things the right way, and encouraging station loyalty by creating personal connections with our listeners has been the mission since long before I got to WRIF, and is still the focus of our leader Mark Pennington.
4) Besides your weekend duties at WRIF, you are the host/producer of "The Chop Shop Guitar Show" and "The Chop Shop Classic." Tell us about the origination of these shows and how long have they been in syndication.
That is a big part of my book. My first wife Sabrina had a difficult battle with cancer and eventually got bad enough that I had to create a way to work from home to care for her.
I was looking for a programming hole to fill, and realized that guitar really is what makes a band a "rock" band. The guitar and music instrument industry is a multi-hundred-million-dollar-a-year industry and it had been completely ignored by radio for my entire lifetime.
I decided a show based on guitar players and guitars would be perfect, but it had to be able to work across the board, it could not just be for guitar players and musicians. I decided to simply include all guitar players; literally anyone who has crafted a song on the instrument would be welcome.
That would also provide me with a way to sustain the show for years to come, because I wouldn't be locked into a certain type or sound of music, as styles changed, I would include them from the angle of what they were doing on guitar. It has turned out to be perhaps the most inclusive idea in the history of syndicated Rock radio. We are in our 10th season now and it sounds better each year.
5) You're also the Executive Producer of "Classic Rock Live" and "The Core" with fellow WRIF jock Meltdown. Tell us about the origination of these syndicated shows as well.
With Classic Rock Live it was just fixing a broken concept. There have always been live and concert-themed shows in syndication; but they all played entire shows of at least large blocks of one artist. Most of those shows also aired live music of questionable quality.
We fixed that by creating a fantasy type concert. With Classic Rock Live, every song is from a different artist, just like a normal playlist, but we use only live recordings. I'm super-picky about the quality, so it has to sound great to make the show.
The other advantage is we can play the biggest songs from the biggest artists. Listeners don't have to wait three songs to get to the "big one" ... and we hired Pierre Robert from WMMR in Philly -- and who loves or has seem more live shows than him?
With The Core, the concept is super simple, '90s-based rock presented in a way that enhances the positives of the era. The shift in rock was dramatic in the '90s from overproduced, polished, pre-packaged glam rock to dirty, raw and emotional music produced almost to the point of indifference. That dramatic shift made the people who grew up on it very different consumers than the previous generations. Also, if you were 15 when Green Day released Dookie in 1994, then you are 34 now (2013) and if you were a senior in high school when Nirvana released Nevermind, then you're 39 now. That is a great age for reflecting back on your earlier life.
6) You're obviously involved with new Active Rock at WRIF and with Classic Rock on your syndicated shows. What's your take on current Active Rock music as opposed to Classic Rock from back in the day?
People will always be more connected emotionally to the music that shaped their formative years. However, discovering new music is what led to that connection. I'm thrilled when I uncover a new band like I did with Volbeat about four years ago, and now that they have caught on, it feels so amazing to have been part of that. I just discovered a new band from Texas called Not In the Face; I'm always looking for something fresh, something that I love so I can share it with all my friends who listen to my shows. I also never tire of listening to the Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd-type music from my single digit years and the Savatage & King's X type bands of my late teens/early 20s.
7) Congrats on releasing your autobiography "From Black To Light" on August 1st. How did this book come about and where is the book available?
For now it is on sale at www.chopshopradio.com and www.wrif.com. I'm still debating whether or not to release it through Amazon, as I don't love their rules and restrictions, or the large cut of the profits they get. But I will probably do that for the Christmas season.
As for the how; I had often dreamed of writing a book, but it took a promise to my dying wife and several years before I found the courage to force the action. It is in fact the only promise left on my list to Sabrina to be fulfilled. She didn't necessarily ask for a book about her life, she just asked for some of her writing, her journal or parts of her diary to be published. A doctor made the suggestion that I stop trying to write her story and simply write mine. He said writing my own biography would be good therapy, and when I got to the chapters of my life where Sabrina would always live, I could use some of her writings. Even with the brilliant suggestion, I delayed getting started. I knew that any good biography had to be honest, and it's a bit intimidating to tell the world openly who you are and how you got there. Again the doctor suggested, take it one step at a time. He said "Write one page a day for three hundred days and you'll be done." So that is basically what I've done.
8) Care to share any cool stories from the book?
Here is a short moment from Chapter V: Workin' Hard, Playin' Hard - One of the New Year's Eve shows, 1998 if I remember correctly, Ted Nugent was playing at Joe Louis Arena with Alice Cooper as the opening act. I had an all-access pass and as I was wondering the hallways underneath the Joe, I heard someone calling out, "Hey Asshole." I turned around and the insults continued "Yeah, you. Who the hell do you think you are wearing a Buffalo Sabres jersey in our home arena?" It was about that time that I realized it was one of my great childhood heroes, Alice Cooper, confronting me. I said "Alice, hey man, it's me Steve Black, Ted's co-host from the morning show." Alice didn't blink as he put his finger in my chest "Get that F#$!ing jersey off, now! This is the home of the Red Wings." I finally realized he wasn't joking, so I tried to explain "Alice, I'm a huge Red Wings fan, I also happen to collect hockey jerseys and this is the new one I got for Christmas, I didn't think it would offend anyone." Alice lifted up my backstage pass and said "I don't care, who you are or what you collect, get the jersey off now, or I'll take your pass and have you tossed out on your ass."
Ten years later when I interviewed Alice in 2008, I asked him if he recalled the incident and he proudly said;
AC: "I was just sticking up for my city."
SB: "You were throwing down with me man."
AC: "That's right; I mean why would you wear a Buffalo jersey at JLA?"
SB: (Laughing at the whole silly thing) "I was so proud of you for that, sticking up for Detroit like that, even if my hero was shouting at me."
AC: "Well, you know Steve it's funny, I've lived in Phoenix for 50 years now, since I was 10 years old, and when people ask where I'm from I say Detroit. That really is the hometown for me. I'm still a dyed-in-the-wool Tigers, Lions, Wolverines, you know Pistons, Red Wings guy. To me that was like, well, in my family if you weren't that, you were out of luck. When I was 10 I was more concerned with playing centerfield for the Tigers than I was ever being on stage."
9) Do you use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to promote your syndicated radio shows, and now your new book?
Yes indeed. Mainly I've been using Facebook as I already had a large built-in following of people who have an interest in what I do. I'm not as involved in Twitter, but having friends like Zakk Wylde tweet about the book has obviously helped.
10) What are your three favorite artists of all time and why?
My first love of music was listening to how the recordings were created. And a need to understand what instruments created the sounds. I have the ability to hear colors that most people can't see. By the age of 10, I could listen to any piece of music and tell you every instrument on the recording from shakers to cellos, from French horns to stand-up bass. A couple of years later I could tell you who was singing every part of a song, I could separate all the layers in my ears, I learned to name a guitarist just by his tone and by age 15 I could tell all the major producers just by the overall sound of a record. So, with that in mind I would say Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa and Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
If you had one Rock star you could hang out with, who would that be and why?
I have been so blessed to hang out with so many. I sat at a campfire with Ted Nugent, Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. I've been in the recording studio with Paul O'Neill and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I love spending time with Corey Taylor, Steve Vai, Chris Henderson from 3 Doors Down and Myles Kennedy. But I've never had the chance to meet Jimmy Page or Brian May. So I guess my wish would be one of them, probably Dr. May or is it Professor May?
You're stuck on a deserted island and you only have five CDs with you. What are they?
This is the hardest question to answer! I crave music and would cry like a baby with only five CDs. But I'll play along and say:
- Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare" as it is the album that I discovered the concept of sound on sound recording. It absolutely changed my life.
- Savatage "The Wake of Magellan" because there is so much going on musically and vocally and you can hear every tiny little frequency. It is one of the best mixed albums I've ever encountered.
- Queen "News of the World" I have always felt connected to the music on this album, especially the song "Spread Your Wings". I've gone back to this several times when I was down and these songs always help lift me up.
- Dream Theater "Images and Words" - This was the CD that opened my ears to the concept that chaos can be harnessed and delivered in a very powerful way. It would also sound fresh as it was never overplayed on the radio.
- Led Zeppelin "Physical Graffiti" - It has so many different styles of music woven into it yet it all still sounds like Led Zeppelin - how do they do that?