We had the good fortune of connecting with Fred Willis and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Fred, have you ever found yourself in a spot where you had to decide whether to give up or keep going? How did you make the choice?
August 12, 2020 somewhere close to midnight my world came crashing down! Everything I had built over the last five years was gone in an instant! I was in my room preparing for bed when I got an email notification on my phone which read, “your station has been deleted as you requested.” I grabbed my phone and after reading the message, I knew I wouldn’t be going to bed any time soon. In fact, the first two hours of my thirty-eighth birthday (August 13th) were spent communicating with customer service in England about how my internet radio station (SP Radio JAMZ) got deleted. I was lost…I was frozen. Because I began my station before the CRB ruling of 2016, I relayed my station to another stream host to cover royalty fees. That served as my backup in the interim, but it wasn’t sufficient. I tried another stream host and still didn’t feel satisfied. After a few days, I paused and pondered the future of my station. I said to myself, “this is the perfect time to quit.” It was the definitely time to pivot to something else…anything else! I thought about it then took time to pray about it. After praying about it, I remembered why I got into it and though I knew it would be a hard climb, I knew it was something I would have to do (cue Miley Cyrus, “The Climb”).
Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it’s not part of your story! I took the time I was off-air to re-brand and give the station a new look and sound! This was a blessing in disguise and the timing was perfect to implement changes I hadn’t taken the time to make earlier. This pandemic is forcing so many businesses to close because they can’t serve their customers, can’t afford rent, or simply can’t afford company overhead. Additionally, so many entrepreneurs have been robbed of their resolve, but remember your why. Like me, giving “up” may give you another chance to create a sustainable model so in that instance, do it. I was off-air and under the radar for about a week, but I emerged stronger than I was before. In this season of life, we will be challenged to find a new, better or sustainable way to do what we do. Embrace that and give it a chance before you choose to quit.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am now a freelance journalist, broadcaster, Digital Radio Curator, musician and author (I have published three books, to date). However, I’m mostly known by my writing as a freelance journalist. Have you ever met a person who always chooses the hardest thing to do…every single time? For some reason, that seems to be me. Looking back on how my journey began, it seems as though each phase has been marked by taking challenging tasks,topics or genres and making them palatable. I have good reason, though. In 2003-2005, I had a front row seat to the inception of a stellar career for one of my favorite recording artists. This artist was in the process of rebuilding their career and I was able to see her literally start from the bottom building what now boasts a GRAMMY, Stellar, Dove and Billboard award winning career. Not to mention their television shows, movies and books. Back then though, they were unsure if this could still happen and I got to see the somewhat ugly side of their journey. I learned that relationships are crucial to growth and success in the entertainment industry but not as much as an indomitable spirit. I watched as they and their family suffered betrayal from those they had previously shared national and international platforms with. I watched as they made life-changing decisions to doff their previous notoriety and instead position themselves as an arising independent artist with a budding audience. They weren’t immune to the struggle, either…their music wasn’t initially welcomed on radio and those who could did what they could to try and stifle their efforts. Fortunately for them, they survived every attempt to block what was destined for them. When I began writing in 2011, I knew there were others like them and sought to create a platform to help even the playing field. However, this was easier written than done! Since I began writing and later broadcasting, I have always set out to shine a light on artists and creatives deserving of big time media coverage. The hard part is creating this big time media machine I aspire to own. I haven’t achieved that either, but I’m on my way to it. As one of my brilliant colleagues Kymberlee Norsworthy introduced me, I’m locally based, but nationally known. I was so humbled by that, I nervously laughed it off. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she was right. Kymberlee has been a great inspiration and even though I haven’t known her long, she has afforded me opportunities to write for and with her. Our coverage of Aretha Franklin’s death and funeral was a most inductive collaboration and I aspire to do more work with Kymberlee in the future, she’s great!
I have been blessed to establish relationships within the entertainment industry and journalism field that are helping me realize my dream of becoming a media proprietor in this ever evolving digital age. People want juicy stories and they want them now! They don’t care about good lighting and HD video resolution, as much as they do content or hot gossip (tea)! Swapping salacious storytelling with salubrious storytelling has always presented a challenge for me. Each story I craft begins with the task of telling a good story in such a way that’s compelling to readers, regardless of the topic. That’s what I’ve been able to accomplish over the years as a journalist and broadcaster, healthy stories, in-depth storytelling and an overall concern for the good of the reader and subject of the article or interview. Creating media coverage for unknown creatives can most times be a thankless job, but the work can be its own reward. There’s nothing like getting to know an artist before they blow up or publishing a think piece that becomes central to difficult but necessary conversations. I’m also very thankful for each opportunity to have my work published outside of my own company. I don’t take those opportunities for granted. Because of my approach, it is sometimes hard to break through to the niche audience drawn to it. There were times I felt as if this audience no longer exists or has never existed; but time after time, they show me that the work I do is essential and even appreciated. As I mentioned before about giving up, remind yourself of and revisit your “why”. Ask yourself why you’re doing a thing and don’t be afraid to ask yourself what you want out of it! Perhaps you’re unfulfilled because you have yet to realize that you will never get out of it what what you think you’re putting into it. In other words, don’t be afraid to appraise your effort! You can’t sow one crop and expect to harvest another. I have also learned that life as well as this venture will tell us when there’s a demand for growth. When it’s time to grow and learn something new, don’t delay it! Even if it’s something that requires continued education or even a return to college, do it, especially when what matters to you depends on it. Because my life’s purpose has a deadline, I’m working so that my byline is the context for someone’s headline! In journalism, it’s often frowned upon when you become the news you’re covering. But considering the work I do, I hope to inspire someone to do their best, follow the lead of their life’s purpose and do their part to make the world better than they found it.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
As a musician, foodie and tourist, I know exactly what to do! We’re going to hear some live music first things first and we’ll probably do more of that than anything else! If they choose Dallas, we’re going to wherever Gino Igleheart has something going on. There’s always something going on in Deep Ellum so pencil in an evening on Elm…it’s a must! SCAT Jazz Lounge has somewhat made up for the blunder of killing the Caravan of Dreams, so we’ll go there to see who’s playing. I even like the new look of the Fort Worth Opera, so that would even be an option. One thing about the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex to note is that there is always something going on, somewhere. We are not devoid of artistic expression and outlets, not even during a pandemic! We have no shortage of great live music here, so I would feel totally comfortable playing that portion of their trip “by ear.”
Food…! Whenever I visit a city, I always like to go to the places I’ve seen on television. In case we don’t make it to any of those, I have many friends who love to frequent Pappadeux when they come here, so that’s high up on the list. Madea’s or Stormie Monday’s can handle our soul food fix for lunch or dinner and you’d need time for a short nap, afterward (hello, food coma). We would also go to Whataburger (it’s got to be an A-frame store) and Braum’s for some ice cream (you must do this when you come)! Speaking of musts, we’d fill up at Buc-ee’s and do some shopping there, too! Chicago is another food destination and we’ve got our own flavors here like Gino’s East in Arlington or the Chicken Coop in Plano. You absolutely must try some Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican fare from one of the many family chains or single restaurants (we’re going to Fort Worth’s north side for that). Want to know what Texas tastes like? Let’s go to Luby’s and get some of their fish while we still can. We’ll also need to stop by the Black Eyed Pea in the Highlands, or Cotton Patch for what I think is the best chicken fried steak, anywhere (the cream gravy is perfect).
We’re going to Red Claws to get some seafood and Ronnie’s is my go-to for Catfish. They added a location in Fort Worth and I’m willing to drive crosstown to get some, anytime. They’ll need some fried chicken so we’re either going to Henderson’s or Rudy’s, but Lisa’s right here in Fort Worth will suffice! Barbecue/BBQ has to be done right and my list for done right BBQ is extremely short! We’re staying in Fort Worth for either Jube’s Smokehouse or Smokeaholic’s BBQ. These restaurants don’t require reservations, but determination! Get there as early if you can because if you wait too long, it’ll be gone! I love my city and there’s a lot to take in like the Water or Botanical Gardens. The Fort Worth Zoo (#1 in the country) would be a sightseeing stop and an all day adventure. Speaking of sightseeing, you have to visit the grassy knoll and take in downtown Dallas while you’re here. The Reunion Tower is also a place I would love to take my out of town friends. It’s a really cool experience that gives you a chance to see just how expansive the metroplex is. The season is over but the AAC is a great place to be. Klyde Warren park seems to always have something goin on so we would try and catch whatever they had going on that week. Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding areas has so much to offer a visitor that you would really need about a week to even get the full gist of what’s here.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
First, I honor God for my life. My Christian faith is a huge part of who I am. Giving up is always an option…we never really tell the truth about it! You could always quit. You may not like the result and the people depending on you will be disappointed but, sure you can! That’s not an endorsement of quitting, but an acknowledgment of facts. Knowing this, I’m always glad to have had the support of fellow industry professionals who know the value of my work and have over the years encouraged me to continue the work I started. In 2014, when I said I was done with it all, Kenny Troy (Indie Music Network) and Benita Bellamy Kelley (The Bellamy Group) encouraged me on Facebook and I have never forgotten that. I hadn’t even realized it, but Benita let me know that I was making an impact, even when I felt like nobody noticed. Benita is one of my favorite people in the industry and Kenny even called me to both scold and encourage me. We had serious talks about the work, how to better myself, and he told me the hard truth about entrepreneurship in this industry. I knew it would be difficult, but Kenny let me know I was on the right path. There have been many others but I was at my lowest in 2014 when I publicly announced that my station was going dark. I have a few close friends that check on me and I do the same for them. We vent and kick around ideas to make sure that we are always in a good position with our ventures.
Denisha Delane has been a real mentor since we met about five years ago. From the beginning, she told me what to do with my websites, how to get work as a freelance journalist and even how to get my pictures noticed. We don’t talk as much as we used to, but she remains a constant inspiration to me. Contemporaries like Denisha embody the spirit of the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I have to also mention Sherilyn Bennett of the Camden Lane Creative Agency who has magnetized herself to me. It’s a divine connection and I thank God for her, she has been a blessing to everything I do. Antwon James of the A.D. James Corporation is younger than me, but operates more like a big brother who will occasionally ask me why I’m not moving at full speed. He stays ahead of the game and is always willing to bring me along and catch ahold of the trends in our industries. He took my first station artwork and transformed it into the logo seen and known internationally. My lovely wife Rhonda isn’t only a great wife and woman, but a tremendous support system! She’s my sounding board and inspiration to keep going when times get hard. My mother supports what I do and still beams with pride when I tell her about who’s coming on the show, the latest article I’ve written, which outlet it was published in or which one of my songs I’ve finally finished. I don’t know what I would do without her support, nor do I want to. Lastly, somewhere around the age of twelve, I was given a mantra to memorize by my then pastor, Dr. J. B. Horton. It says, “if a task is once begun, never leave it ’til it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” I have applied that to every aspect of my life, especially in business. So when I talk about not giving up, I’m reminded to re-visit the task and make sure that I’m doing it as well as possible, regardless of how hard life or business becomes!