Bill Wax Gets Serious about Sirius

Bill Wax at the Blues Music Awards (Photo by Dusty at http://www.DustyBlues.com)

Bill Wax at the Blues Music Awards (Photo by Dusty at http://www.DustyBlues.com)

Bill Wax laughed so hard, I thought he was going to break the receiver on my phone. I was comparing his influence on blues artists’ careers as program director of SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s B. B. King Bluesville channel 70 to Ed Sullivan’s influence on the success of artists like Elvis Presley and Johnny Mathis back in the 1950s on CBS TV. At the time, more than 40 million people watched that show every Sunday night. Bill Wax had three million listeners a week on SiriusXM, but within the microcosm of the blues world, his programming of new blues artists had the single most significant impact on those artists’ careers of anything that happened to them. In late June Bill left SiriusXM, and the extent of the impact of that departure is yet to be felt, but it will be significant.

Don Wilcock: I’ve had numerous discussions with Bill over the last decade about the impact he had on the whole blues overview. Gradually, it dawned on him the positive impact he was having on the genre, but even now he diminishes his role.

Bill Wax: Working with SiriusXM and doing B. B. King’s Bluesville all of a sudden there were three million listeners a week, and you had enough people listening at once that if they got excited about something or heard something they liked, all of a sudden you had enough people that could all go to a website or order someone’s CD, and that artists hopefully – and they did – see an increase in sales, an increase in popularity, and an increase in people showing up at the shows, and let ’em know that they had heard their music or heard about the show based on what we were doing.

I always believed that if we resonated with the artist, and we were able to make a difference for them, then it would work for everyone else involved whether it was record companies, the fans, the audience, everybody else would gain from it because if the artists were happy, and the artists were successful, the rest of us got what we loved which was more and new blues music.

How does it feel to be a week and a half away from a job that’s as taxing as what you were doing?

Well, let’s say I’ve had an opportunity to read books, relax, spend time with my wife, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to catch up with myself, and that’s what I plan to do for a little while, and while I do that I will marinate on various other things and figure out what’s next .

Is it a relief?

I don’t know if relief is the right word. There are things I miss about what I was doing, but I just needed to do less of it. I just couldn’t continue at the pace I was working at, and since there was an opportunity to do that, I’m retired, and I don’t know if relief is exactly the word because it wasn’t like I felt bad about what I was doing, and I needed to be taken out of it. I just needed some time to do less.

Why?

Well, I had a health issue. I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia called CML, and luckily it is a form that is able to be controlled by taking a pill as opposed to having chemotherapy or bone marrow transplants or any of those kind of extreme things to cure it. Luckily, I just take a pill, but with that pill comes certain side effects that just impact how much I can work and how many hours and how long I could work on a weekly basis and daily basis.

I don’t think the average person has any idea how much work it took to program your channel, and when I listen to other channels on Sirius/XM and compare it to what you were doing on a minute-by-minute basis, hour by hour, day be day, month by month, and when I see what’s happening now in the week and a half you’ve been off the air, it’s pretty dramatic. You and I have had a lot of conversation about this. My understanding is that you went way above and beyond the requirements of the job. Is that accurate?

Well, honestly, all of us who started at XM were absolutely above and beyond excited about the opportunity that it presented no matter what channel it was, but for me it was a lot of work. I didn’t have a staff. I’m not saying that’s unusual. A lot of the stations didn’t have staffs.

I had two people who voice tracked for me, Tony Colter and Pat St. John, and they do and did a great job, but basically the channel was my responsibility from top to bottom whether that was keeping up listening to new music and adding new music on a weekly basis, writing new production, doing interviews with all the artists, putting together the playlist 24 hours a day, seven days a week and doing most of the specials, whatever it took to keep the station on the air.

I would get to work around seven in the morning, and I’d leave six at night. So, we’re talking about approximately 11 hours an day, five days a week and usually going in either on a Saturday or a Sunday for about five hours to do the work to prepare for the following week, whatever else needed to be done.

Was there ever a job description?

Well, there was a general job description. I don’t know that it ever got that specific in terms of we all had responsibilities. We were totally responsible to produce so many pieces of production a month and do evaluations of our hosts each month and some things like that, but by and large – and I appreciated that – we were given a great deal of freedom for many years to approach it however was best for each of us individually to approach it. In other words, it wasn’t one size fits all.

One of the things you did over and above the call of duty were The B. B. King interviews.

Well, for me that was the highlight of anything I’ve ever done on radio. The opportunity to work with him, his generosity both in terms of his time and himself being so willing to be so open and really answer and talk about almost anything I would ask him was quite amazing especially when we’re talking about a man of his station and yet being so open and enthusiastic about what was going on and what we were doing.

Because of that we got some great interviews. We got fabulous information from somebody who is arguably the most important blues artist that’s ever come down in the blues world, and for me that was incredibly exciting, thrilling and rewarding. I’ve been doing radio for about 33 years, and I would say that program in my mind is the highlight of anything I did in radio.

You went out to Las Vegas and spent a lot of time with him, right?

That’s where we recorded. About every month, month and a half for about six different times I would fly to Las Vegas with an assistant producer who would do the recording and help out with things, and we would spend about five or six hours each day, two days in a row sitting at B. B. King’s table interviewing him and putting together the shows, figuring out what the playlist was going to be, which artists he wanted to use for that playlist, what songs he wanted to play, but we never sat there and listened to those songs.

B.B. King was able to recall and comment on all that music and all those songs from the top of his head because that’s how immersed and how much he knew and knows about the music.

I know you did a lot of touring artist interviews, and I specifically remember Johnny Winter and Gregg Allman. What were some of your favorites?

Well, there are a few things. We did an interview recently with the whole Robert Cray Band talking about what it’s like being in a band and how decisions got made and how they functioned as a band on the road and in the studio. That was really fascinating to me and really interesting, and I really appreciated how all the musicians were willing to participate and be as open about all that. So that’s one that stands out.

There were a lot of interviews over the years. Holy cow! Probably 2 or 300 different interviews that I did with artists over the years, and I’d be hard pressed to say one that I was absolutely disappointed in ’cause I didn’t think the artist was very forthcoming or was really interested in being there or anything like that.

Do you feel that your “Forefathers of the Blues” fulfilled a need that wasn’t met anywhere else in the blues community in terms of helping a basically – well, it’s not a young demographic, but it’s young by blues standards – to understand the heritage?

The idea of once an hour, making sure we played the earliest materials and the earliest players and also not just play the song and not do anything around it, but that we always introduced those tunes and always talked about those artists to see them in some kind of context, plus the sound quality of those tunes were recorded in times when we just didn’t have the kind of quality we have today and a lot of that the only versions we have left are from the scratchy old 78s. We don’t even have the masters.

So being concerned with the sound and also that it was a difficult listen en masse. The idea of breaking it up and having our hosts present big pieces of information before we went in to play those tunes I felt were really important. I also have to say more than once driving down the road and listening to the station while I was in my car and all of a sudden a Blind Willie Johnson tune comes up, I got a kick out of the idea that his guy’s music was being played all over the United States at once and getting beamed out into space at the same time.

This is an itinerant musician who used to stand on Texas street corners and played for nickels and dimes. It really pleased me and made me happy to know that if I could just bring some of those guys back just for a moment so that they could see A) that they weren’t forgotten and B) how far a reach their music had accomplished just tickled me no end.

So in the last decade you have come to the realization that I presented to you back in 2003 or whenever it was that you were very important to the genre. Do you finally get it?

Well, yes, I do. I’m not sure I realized it when we first started. I didn’t realize that this was going to grow to an audience of over three million listeners a week. I just didn’t see that impact. This was just a brand new technology. We didn’t know if it was really going to work or how well it going to work or how many people were going to listen to it, but there’s no question that we found a way to develop a community of blues fans all over this country and all over Canada, and they sort of banded together so when an artist, whether it was a brand new artists or an established artist, put out a new recording or we played a new artist, the idea of their music being able to be heard in a much more coordinated and to a much more mass audience was absolutely fascinating and exciting and I felt like, yeah, we’ve made a difference. We made a difference for the artist, and we’re making a difference for the music.

Now, the other part of that that was fascinating that I didn’t realize at all was the whole royalties and the kind of money that was getting paid and was going to be paid out for airplay. I never, never considered that at all until a year or two into it when all of a sudden Sound Exchange got in touch with us, and I realized there was real money being paid, not the old, “We have a formula and blues guys got a $5 check from ASCAP for airplay across the country” because we could actually count how often something got played or because it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week we were able to pay real royalties to artists, and that was something that never even occurred to me that was very exciting when it was all said and done.

I’m going to ask you to be prescient for a moment because you seem to have been ahead of the curve on how you handled that opportunity. What do you see technology doing in the future, and is satellite radio going to be as archaic as AM in another 10 years?

That’s a good question. I mean, I think being able to deliver the internet everywhere at once in cars all over is going to be a real challenge to satellite radio and radio in general. The question is, is it going to be so splintered that no single source has the reach and power to make a real difference, or is someone doing great shows or putting up a channel of all blues music on the internet that’s really well done going to find a large enough audience to make that difference?

And I think that’s one of the things that happened at SiriusXM so remarkable is that we were the first time you could aggregate all these various small blues audiences in town to town, and once you added them all together you got to a term that’s thrown around these days a tipping point that made a real difference.

Do you have any concept of what you’d like to do next?

You know, I don’t, really. I have snippets of ideas, but it’s really too new right now, and I honestly am trying not to get too far ahead of myself. I know I will want to be involved with some new things, but first I just need to sort of catch up with myself and let myself sort of marinate for a while and figure out what it is I can do that’ll help out the music and artists from this step forward.

I’m concerned. I’m hoping, but I don’t know that Bluesville will continue to showcase a lot of new music and new artists. They may not, and the problem for everyone else that does it and there are lots of programmers that do it, but we’re back to this totally splintered little audience. So, so and so in Philly has three new artists that they’re playing, and then someone else in Austin, Texas, has three difference new artists that they’re playing.

You don’t really get to the point where there’s enough airplay of people to really get their music out there, and that worries me because that’s the key to the future for the artists and the music to hear it, people to respond to it, and people to support it. Are there things I can do that will continue to drive that part of the mission on a larger basis?

There’s a little part of me that loves doing a radio show and probably would do a radio show on a weekly basis on a non-commercial channel or whatever, but it won’t have the same impact. We won’t be able to make the same kind of difference we did, and so I kinda would like to think is there a way to continue to make that difference for the artist and to think about it on a more mass media stage as opposed to just narrowcast to a small group of people.

You introduced me to the blog of Lefsetz, and one of the things that he said that sticks in my mind is that – and it may not have even been he – but somebody out there said that whatever is the hot thing in technology now, wait five minutes, and its gonna be something completely different, and that’s why I asked that question about satellite radio.

I don’t see a single path, and I think the question becomes the Spotify and Pandora where you can put in an artist you like and it builds a little station around what it thinks your interests are that you can listen to.

So that’s, I think, one of the ways of going. The problem with that is it’s driven by a computer, and so it doesn’t have a personal touch or the idea like a person or whether there’s a program director or a music director that really loves a certain kind of music and starts to find places where that music is showing up where you might not expect it, and so they pull those in, and they broaden the whole perspective.

When I was in General Electric back in the ’70s everybody was scared that robots were going to take over humans and even the most sophisticated functions, and that didn’t happen because there is something unique about the human mind and creativity and the music that makes it unique, and I’m not sure that any technology is going to replace that, and I think that’s kind of what you’re saying Spotify is doing. Do you think we’re ever going to get to the point where you and I aren’t going to have an influence on the gateway for artists toward good music versus bad?

Ooh, I think we’re already there in lot of ways. That doesn’t mean that we still don’t, and if people still want to look for us, you put up your own little blog, and you do your own thing, and people that know your work and respect will go ahead and look for that, but lots of people are very happy with the Pandora or Spotify and going forward, SiriusXM before I left we all got together and we’ve all been working something they’re pushing right now, My FXM which is to music of various stations without jocks and without any talk with little sliders.

You want more rockin’ blues? You move the slider to more rockin’ blues, and what comes on your computer is mostly rockin’ blues format. You want more older blues players, you move it to that way, and you’ll get more older blues players and less contemporary music. I may have populated it with songs and everything, but the individual doing the listening is going to tailor it to their own interests, and I think that is the direction that a lot of things are going which is why Sirius XM is working on that, too, as opposed to delivering radio stations. That’s their idea of trying to compete with the upcoming Pandoras and Spotifys and whatever Apple is going to do which of course is the huge gorilla in the room with their music service.

Why is that the gorilla in the room?

Well, because they control so much music and have so many people and have such a reputation of being cutting edge and where people want to go to find what’s new and what’s great and hottest about technology plus the iPhone, the iPad, their music library. People are buying millions of individual tunes off that, and they’re the leader of all this. Everyone else is scrambling just to catch up to them.

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About Don Wilcock

Don Wilcock started writing about blues for the Army Reporter in Vietnam before there were any American blues magazines. He's edited five different blues magazines and interviewed 4000 artists. He's vowed to be the last blues journalist standing.