20 Questions

Sue Wilson – Steering the Ship at WQMX

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20 Questions is our opportunity to talk with various people in the country music industry. Everyone from musicians and singers to concert promoters and radio executives.

This month we talk to Sue Wilson, who is the Vice President of Operations for Rubber City Radio Group and the 94.9FM WQMX Program Director.

Featured photo: Tim Daugherty, Eric Church and Sue Wilson.
  1. Where were you born and raised?

“I grew up in Akron—went to St Vincent grade school and St Vincent St Mary High school (I love to say that now that LeBron made my school famous ).”

  1. When did you decide that radio was the career path you would follow?

“I went to Kent State and I thought I wanted to be a nurse…but there was soooo much science and math I knew I wouldn’t make it through those courses. I was majoring in English and Journalism and I saw a sign looking for help with the on campus radio station (now called Black Squirrel radio) and I joined the team. I thought “wow, this is so much fun, I wonder if I can make a living at this?” I then added Communications to my course of study and got my first radio job right out of college.”

  1. What was your first job in radio?

“Right out of college I worked at WCPZ in Sandusky, OH.”

  1. What stations have you worked at and in what capacity?

“I have been fortunate to not have to move all around the country chasing radio jobs. I’ve spent all of my career in this area, 20 years in Cleveland radio and the last 11 in Akron. After my Sandusky job, I worked at WKDD for a couple years in the early 80’s, as on air personality and in the call out research department. I then I moved to Cleveland to be the Music and Research Director for 106.5 (now the Lake) but it was WLTF then. I landed my first programming job in 1987 at 102.1 WDOK and was there programming the AC “Soft Rock” format for 12 years. From there, I did 2 years of commercial voice over work and radio consulting with McVay Media before a company called Salem Communications called me. They wanted to launch a new Christian music station in Cleveland and they hired me to put the team together and launch 95.5 The Fish. I programmed the Fish for 5 years and oversaw Salem’s other 3 stations as the Director of Programming. I got a call that WQMX was looking for a program director in 2006 and I’ve been here now for 11 years.”

  1. What was the draw to country music that first attracted you to the format?

“When I worked at WKDD, our sister station was the heritage country station WSLR. I met my husband, Phil Cordle there. Phil worked for Whistler and I for WKDD. He also played in a country rock band so I guess you can say he “schooled” me on country then, in my mid 20’s. Phil was a great air talent and a great musician. I married him and we had 2 wonderful girls. We lost Phil to cancer in 2002. Which sucked. He never was around to see me program a country station, but he is the one who turned me on to country music. But I truly love all kinds of music.”

  1. You currently are the VP of Operations and Program Director at WQMX. What are your daily duties?

“No day is the same, but the responsibility of the program director is pretty much everything (outside of commercials) that comes out of the speakers. The finished on-air product. I am responsible for programming and scheduling the music daily, making final decisions (with the help of my team, research, chart info and more) on what songs we play on the station and what rotation to play them in. I am responsible for the writing and creating of the on-air positioning and imaging and the overall content and brand of the station on the air, online and in person. I oversee and direct the air talent. That sounds like a lot and I don’t do it alone. I have an incredible team of talent. The air talent from mornings to overnights, the promotions team (Jody Wheatley is my right hand person) and really everyone here works their butt off to make our station the machine that it is. I have people who love the Akron area, love country music, love being part of the community and love our listeners. I think it shows.”

“I also oversee the overall strategy and help where I can our 3 other stations WAKR, WONE and The Wave in Cleveland. We have program directors for those stations and I assist them as needed and represent our company as a whole.”

  1. Is there a part of your job that gives you the most satisfaction and any part you wish you could change?

“Because we have a microphone, and lots of listeners, we have great responsibility. It is wonderful that we get to use that for the good. The local ownership (which is rare these days to work for a local owner not a huge corporation) really cares about giving back. I love that we (as a company not just one station but all of our stations) use our airwaves to raise money for a lot of charities and just try to do good. Specifically, the country format allows us to do that because the artists and labels are generous with their time and talent and that allows us to do shows and events for a cause. Every job has pressures. You can’t please everyone…and while most days I love what I do, there are those days that you get complaints, or people send nasty emails or post mean stuff on social media and those days are hard. Managing people is great and sometimes not so great. With responsibility come challenges in every job.“

  1. What is your take on where country music is at and how it has changed over the last 6-7 years?

“If you are a fan of country and have been a listener for many, many years—(and with my tenure, I’ve seen many stages of country) we have certainly seen an evolution to country becoming a more mainstream format. I believe FGL’s “Cruise” ushered in the start of what became known as “Bro Country” and while many hard core traditional fans complained about it, it brought many new fans to the format. Country has always had phases of pop mixed in, but in the last 8 to 10 years, we’ve seen pop, the bro thing with hip-hop influences, and a new kind of country rock (Eric Church, Jason Aldean), and now a new traditional sound (Jon Pardi, Midland) mix with the traditional staple sounds (Dierks or Josh Turner, Chris Young, Tim, Toby) I hear a lot from all camps…complaints of “that’s not country”, but the fact is, it is! Music is artistry and artistry is subjective. What the guys from Brothers Osborne call country may be different from Toby Keith’s country or Tim McGraw’s or Sam Hunt’s country….but, all of those artists had influences in roots music and came up with their own take on it. Every generation in every format has gone through that. People complain about rock music when the Hall of Fame nominees get announced and I hear “that’s not rock” but music evolves. I love that country is so diverse and you can hear all kinds of styles from Justin Moore to Sam Hunt to Eric Church to Kelsea to Jon Pardi –all in one hour on one station! One thing I don’t like? The lack of female artists.”

  1. What are some of the biggest differences between a country radio station as opposed to other genres?

“I have said many times, my goal is to make WQMX a great radio station, not just a great country radio station. Having said that we do work to play the best music that our audience loves, and that music happens to be country. So that is the biggest difference. But we also, as a format, do our best to be the resource for all things country with regard to putting our listeners as close to the artists as possible. If we get to meet ‘em…we want our listeners to meet ‘em also. But over and above the country music and country content—this format connects in a way others don’t. It’s more down to earth. We (the artists and the staff here) are all just people with all kinds of interests. So when you listen to WQMX you’re going to get your favorite country songs, but you’ll also hear about what is going on in your community. We’ll keep you informed, entertained and connected about what’s going on in general…we know you care about your kids, your finances, your relationships. You love your sports teams, your favorite restaurants and bar hangs. You care about all kinds of stuff beyond music. Music gets you here but the whole content package keeps you here. We and also other country stations seem to be able to better become a part of the fabric of life and the community—over and above the music. Unlike other stations or formats, I believe we are more than the music.”

  1. There aren’t a lot of female PD’s in radio, though the field is growing. Do you think it is harder for a woman in the broadcasting industry?

“Without getting on a soapbox –the simple answer is “YES” it is harder for women to get into top roles at radio stations. But this is also true of record labels, and pretty much most major corporations in the US. We’ve come a long way, but we have a lot further to go. There are very few female country programmers, and program directors in general. My first programming job was at WDOK in Cleveland. It was a female-targeted station, and when I interviewed for the job I said (and this was 30 years ago) “I don’t mean to sound like a flaming feminist, but why do so many men sit around and make decisions about what women hear on the radio? If you target women, it sure makes sense to get a woman’s input.” Thankfully, they agreed and hired me! But still—all these years later, few women do not hold CEO positions at radio companies or at record labels, and the percentage of female PD’s, while better, is still far below male PD’s. I hope that continues to improve.”

  1. When you first came to WQMX you were on in the mornings. Do you miss being behind the microphone?

“Yes, I do. But I don’t miss getting up so early! When I first got to WQMX Scott Wynn was on with Shannon Alexander. She left to stay home with her kids and I joined the morning show. Wynn and Wilson in the Morning was on 8 years and I had a blast. 3 years ago, I was promoted to VP and given additional responsibilities for the other stations, so we promoted Sarah Kay and wow….she is fabulous. She and Scott together have a great show—and she brought a new energy and youth to it. She is fun and funny –as is Scott! Then Ryan joined the team in news and we have a great team now. But yeah, I kind of miss being on the air.”

  1. WQMX won the ACM’s Station of the Year for Medium Market in 2015, and is nominated again this year. What are the emotions that come to mind after being recognized by your peers in that way?

“It is wonderful. It is awesome. This team works so hard and it is great to be recognized for that. It is definitely a team award. Even if we don’t win it again it is great to be nominated but I’m not gonna lie—winning would be very cool!”

  1. You get to hear a lot of new music. What are some of your favorite new artists or up-and-comers in the genre at this time?

Gosh, so many—and all styles. I love Luke Combs. Devin Dawson has a cool, unique sound and style and the whole CD is great. Drake White is not brand new but he is so under-rated. He needs to be a star. I’d like to see more women on the air nationwide…we play talented female newcomers on WQMX and I wish more stations would. We can’t break ‘em all in Akron alone! I don’t have an answer for why this format is so male based when pop stations have no issues playing women. I love Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce, Lindsay Ell, Maren Morris. I think Brett Young’s debut has been big…lots of great songs.”

  1. What other types of music do you like to listen to?

“I love acoustic music. I’m a fan of the singer-songwriter style, which is what I get to see a lot of in this format. But the stuff I loved, the music of my era—I often say if released now…would be country. Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, The Eagles, CSN&Y, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Van Morrison and of course, the Beatles. “

  1. Do you have an all-time favorite artist, or a few you could name?

“I would say the Beatles and Jackson Browne if I had to name 2. “

  1. I’m sure you get to see many shows every year, but are there any that were your favorites last year (and why)?

“I don’t know specifically whether it was last year—but some of my favorite concert experiences are smaller ones. I loved when Eric Church played the WQMX concert room…along with early rising star concerts from Thomas Rhett or Sam Hunt or even Luke Bryan. I love our Tangier shows and Chicks with Picks. Small venues and intimate acoustic shows. I think the best country concerts in the last couple of years for me have been Eric Church and Garth Brooks. And oh by the way—I love Taylor Swift. Her shows are incredible.”

  1. Any shows that you are looking forward to attending this year?

“Taylor (Swift), Kenny (Chesney). I am glad Kenny is at Blossom rather than a stadium show.”

  1. Being a voice over professional, you get to produce a lot of commercials and spots for radio and TV. Are there any that people may be familiar with, but not realize it was you?

“The one national spot I have done that is playing nationwide is for America’s Best Value Inn’s and other hotel chains owned by that corporation. But I’m not sure they are on the air anywhere right now, they usually start up in the summer. I voice some spots running on cable TV now also…and I am the voice of a hospital system in Chicago.”

  1. You also volunteer your time to a number of various causes in the area. What are some that are nearest to your heart?

“I serve on the board of directors for the American Red Cross and Pay it Forward For Pets. I love animals and being a voice for those without one (the elderly, children and animals) is important to me.”

  1. Through your career do you have a favorite moment or moments, either on-air or off, that you will never forget?

“I got to see the Cross Roads taping of Vince Gill and Sting in New York City in the intimate Ed Sullivan Theatre. I love Vince…and that was amazing. And last month, a surprise performance of Garth Brooks (full band) on the stage of a teeny bar on lower Broadway next to Tootsies called Layla’s. He played for almost 2 hours taking requests from a crowd of about 150. That was special.”

Sue Wilson (center) with Big & Rich and part of her WQMX team.

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1 Comment

  1. Gerard

    March 12, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    A very interesting interview. Great job Cleveland Country Magazine!

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