Stephen Williams wanted to be a composer. He had played the piano and trombone since he was a child and went to the University of New Hampshire on a full scholarship to study music theory, but an audition to attend a conservatory changed his mind.
“I had to play an entire Beethoven sonata, a Brahms interlude and a couple of other pieces from memory, which is no small feat,” the 40-year-old Williams says. “After my performance, the evaluators were complimentary and applauding, and I walked out of there thinking, ‘I nailed this thing.’
“Then the next guy goes in there and plays the most complicated, fiendishly difficult piece that I’ve ever heard by heart to perfection, and I hear even more thunderous applause. And he comes out beating himself up because he missed a note I didn’t even perceive. I realized then that there were a lot of people more talented and dedicated than I was willing to be.”
Williams gave up studying music and turned instead to communications. Williams’ musical background still comes in handy, however. As the general manager of WMUK 102.1 FM, Williams oversees a 65-year-old public radio station that plays a wide repertoire of music, from classical to jazz to acoustic, in addition to offering news and public affairs programming.
How did you end up where you are today?
In college, when I realized I wasn’t cut out for the music industry, I spent a year as an undecided major, took some rhetoric courses and, thanks to a very influential professor, became a communications major. I was interested in broadcasting, particularly international development and broadcasting for something like the BBC or Voice of America.
I figured I needed to see the world before I could talk to it, so I joined the Peace Corps. I lived in French-speaking northern Cameroon (in Africa) as an English teacher at a school that encompassed grades 6–12. When I came back, I bounced around Washington, D.C., for a while and applied for a position at WESM, a public radio station on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I was hired there as a news director, which really wasn’t an accurate title because there wasn’t anyone to direct. I was a news director of one.
When my boss there moved on, I became the station’s interim manager and learned a lot of things very quickly. It was a very intense time. I became the station’s general manager, and I helped WESM grow more efficient and develop a major strategic plan. When the station was much stronger, I was ready to move on and the job at WMUK came up. Normally the first job you apply for is not the one you get, but I applied thinking it would be good practice even if I wasn’t going to get the job. But, lo and behold, they called me and kept calling me back.
When they flew me out here, I thought it was a perfect situation for me. I know the challenges this station is facing — I dealt with them at my last station — and I believe I know what to do.
What challenges does WMUK face?
One is the economy. Our membership has not grown as much as we’d like it to. There is more competition for us today because there’s digital media, podcasts, satellite radio, the internet, and other public radio stations in our region. People have options. They don’t have to solely rely on WMUK for their info needs.
Another problem is figuring out whether our programming is serving our audience in the best way possible. We are looking at trying to answer the question of “What is WMUK here to do?”
We are in the process of undergoing a strategic planning process, and that will be a real big undertaking. I don’t know what the future holds, but I believe there are a lot of opportunities for this station to grow and thrive.
Do you think the public has a good understanding of what public radio is?
I think a certain demographic of listeners do, but I think there are a lot of people for whom education about it is still necessary. The thinking sometimes is that as a university-licensed station, you don’t have to think about revenues as much. That’s not the case. Western Michigan University supports us to a very large degree, but 45 percent of our budget still has to be generated by us. Most of it comes from member support and through business underwriting.
What do you like to do in your off time?
I love going to the movies. I love science fiction, westerns, action, comedy, but my favorite are historical epics like Ben Hur and Spartacus.
What do you miss about Maryland?
I miss the roads (he laughs). I was driving to see family in Ohio recently, and as soon as I crossed into Indiana I was like, “Wow, it’s so smooth.”
What do people say when you tell them what you do?
They say, “I can tell you are a radio guy by your voice.” I still cringe when I hear my own voice, though. In my head I sound like Sean Connery, but when I listen to my recorded voice I think I sound like Mickey Mouse.
Who has had the most influence on your life?
My parents. My father was a self-employed barber in Washington, D.C., for 50 years. He dropped out of school when he was rather young, but he always had a thirst for knowledge, as did my mother. They both had a deep interest in the world and to understand why things were the way they are.
My mom instilled in me a love for music and an expectation not to be like everyone else. To rise above and to understand if you’re going to do a thing, know why you’re doing it.
My dad used to say, “Whatever you set your hand to do, do it with excellence.” That has always stayed with me and is one of the things that drives me forward here.