Transcript: Season 4, Episode 2

Howard “D” Simpson


Georgette Pierre:

What does it mean to make it big? Well, it depends on who you ask. And we did. Welcome to Making It Big in 30 Minutes, a podcast for, by, and about the Emerson community. You're about to meet an Emersonian who's making it. Making a living, making a difference and sometimes, making it up as they go. I'm your host and alum, Georgette Pierre. If you like what you hear, subscribe and share with your friends. And meet me and other Emersonians over on Emerge, the only digital platform exclusive to the Emerson community. Go to emerge.emerson.edu for more.

From teenage fan to station general manager, Howard D. Simpson now leads WERS Boston. His history with the station and Emerson College fueled his commitment to teaching future leaders of the media industry the power behind the microphone. His journey navigating radio during some tumultuous times for the black community, knowing that the power of his voice could change the world, felt purposeful. I first met D in 2007 when I started at Emerson and he became one of my greatest mentors since. Not only will his journey inspire you, it might even make you tear up a little bit. I know we almost did. I give you D Simpson on making it as a general manager in radio.

For some of us, especially for me, D has been a mentor to us working at WERS 88.9 FM in Boston. But for D and I, this is a little bit more personal because D shaped a lot of my viewpoints. You shaped a lot of my viewpoints on how I was just kind of blazing through, the world is mine, not really considering a lot of things. And so, we'll get into all of that. But I am so grateful, D, that we get this moment together in a different way. Now you see me on the other side interviewing you. You are now the general manager at ERS. And when I was there for grad school from 2007 to 2009, you were the operations manager. But just thinking about it from a radio station standpoint, what does it even mean to be a general manager at a radio station?

Howard "D" Simpson:

It was actually surprising to me, the similarities between operations manager and general manager. With both, you're really taking care of the entirety of the operation. All of the people. And making sure they've got the tools to perform the jobs that you've got for them. But when it comes to the GM, you also have a much bigger stake in making sure that it's sustainable, that it is a success. And even though we're on the non-com side, it's all about making sure that the opportunity I had as an undergrad, the opportunity that you had when you were a student at Emerson, we can maintain that. We do well enough that we can continue to offer it for future generations. And so that's a responsibility I take very seriously.

Georgette Pierre:

I've noticed that ERS has been moving away from just being branded as just Emerson College's radio station. What did that expansion or just that intentionality mean? ERS looks like a professional radio station/ actually, even more professional than some of the radio stations I've been into that are based in New York.

Howard "D" Simpson:

Well, thank you.

Georgette Pierre:

So, yeah.

Howard "D" Simpson:

That's a compliment. Yeah. I mean, we've always looked at it as, we are a radio station that happens to be on the campus of a college. As opposed to a college radio station.

Georgette Pierre:

Got it.

Howard "D" Simpson:

It's not a sandbox where you just go and fool around. There's some intention behind all of it to get you prepared. And to be in media is so unbelievably competitive. It would be a disservice to any of the students at the college if we just let them fool around and not teach them the game. And you can't hate the player, but you can hate the game. I'll make sure that you know the game and some tricks to be able to do well in it.

Georgette Pierre:

You absolutely did that. I can't wait to get to that piece because I think that is the perfect way of saying that, right? I wasn't stubborn. I was stubborn, actually. I wasn't arrogant. But I just felt like I was able to edit and run my show with my hands closed. And I was editing interviews in between talk breaks. And if anyone knows, talk breaks are not that long. Right? But in between songs, at least. You may have like five to 10 minutes to get some stuff done, thrown in there, keep it moving. And so, yeah. I didn't understand the game until I actually stepped foot in the commercial radio station years later, D. And then I was like, "Oh, no, no. There's a business side to this that people don't often understand."

Howard "D" Simpson:

Yeah.

Georgette Pierre:

Right. And I was like, "Oh-"

Howard "D" Simpson:

And those are the things that we need students to understand that. Because it can be such a culture shock.

Georgette Pierre:

Yes.

Howard "D" Simpson:

That all of a sudden, you leave what feels like Never, Neverland when you're at the station. And you understand how all of the equipment works. And maybe you even have a hand in creating your own playlist. And say what you want to say on the air. But then to go out in the industry and find out that it's completely not like that.

Georgette Pierre:

At all.

Howard "D" Simpson:

It would change your career.

Georgette Pierre:

At all.

Howard "D" Simpson:

It would change the path that you wanted to be on. And that trajectory that you want to go in.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah. Yeah.

Howard "D" Simpson:

So another reason why it's important to make sure that there is that teaching model. And as you know, we've got a three tier mission to train future leaders of the media industry, to deliver a viable product, air product, for the market, and reflect the quality of the institution. So with all of that in mind, we try to do right by you.

Georgette Pierre:

What surprises you most about the work you're doing now, D?

Howard "D" Simpson:

All of it really has been a surprise. Just going back to the beginning of the pandemic. And the uncertainty of what happens. At the time, I had taken on some additional shifts for our R&B and Soul program, the Secret Spot. But it got to a point where the day was just so long and burning the candle at both ends. And so I wondered, "Is there a way that I could actually do this from home?" And so, little did I know, the experiments that I was doing, I was the test subject that proved that, yeah. We actually can broadcast from home.

So we made the pivot as quickly as we could when we thought that we were going to have to leave campus. And so I'm glad that we knew it worked. I'm glad that we had worked through all of the equipment issues, the microphones, all of that. And then the world just continued to evolve. And you have the George Floyd situation. And Jack Casey, my mentor, former general manager of the station, came to me and was like, "I want to align us with the message that black lives do matter. But we're a music station. We don't editorialize. So how can we make that statement?"

So I came up with the concept of Shadows of a Dream. Our first true-to-form podcast that chronicled the whole struggle from slavery up to current day and ended asking the question for people of color, where do we go from here? I was happy. I know the students learned a lot about the history of the country and the city along the way. But Jack wanted more. And then he actually gave me the keys to create our first-ever 24/7 urban on our HD2 frequency. And so, that was a huge surprise. To just have a blank check to create a vision that was very singular. Wanting it to be part of mass media, but at the same time, pointed. So you give me an hour, I will uplift you. You give me an hour, I will have you bobbing your head. You give me an hour, and you will hear Boston's black experience. Building off of the original black experience, which was one of the original urban shows that the station had.

And so, if all of that wasn't surprising enough for me, then to be told by Jack that he was ready to call it a day. He was ready to move on and do some other things. I think we all learned our mortality during COVID.

Georgette Pierre:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And so, it's like, "Well, what does that mean? I don't get it." And lo and behold, I'm tapped as interim GM. That was a surprise. Didn't see that coming during a pandemic. How do you come out ahead? How do you come out creating things when the world all around you at times felt like it was in shambles? And so, I recognized the blessing for what it was. I was supposedly going to be interim GM for a period of 12 months, a year. To prove myself and what I could bring to the position. Was I right to bring the leadership to the station?

And six months in, that's when I had a conversation with my boss. I was actually in the process of moving from one office to the other one. And so he asked me, he was like, "Well, what are you doing?" I'm like, "Oh, well. I'm moving from my office." And he pointed in the room that we were in, like the GM office. And he's like, "This is your office." And I'm like, "Yeah, but I have two of them." And he's like, "No, this is your office. I would like you to be the permanent GM." Huge surprise.

Georgette Pierre:

Wow.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And just everything about it has been miraculous. And again, I appreciate and I recognize the blessing. All of this happening from really humble beginnings in the city of Boston. So, anything that happens now is like icing on the cake. Sitting down with the sales team, figuring out our strategy for some of the specialty events that we want to be a part of that mesh programming with the community like 617 days, which is coming up in June. Just so much of that. To actually be one of the architects really, really intently hands-on, it's surprising for me, a lot of fun. It's all very rewarding. I feel like I've arrived. I'm at a new place. It's a new journey now. And there's always something to learn.

Georgette Pierre:

What did it look like to have urban radio during urban radio? Because, I mean, you know the term. People are looking to evolve that. But what did it look like during those rebellious times to fast forward now? Cause, we also, people don't know, WERS had rockers and-

Howard "D" Simpson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Reggae.

Georgette Pierre:

WERS at 88.9. So we had a hip hop and reggae show that was no longer around that got reprogrammed or removed years ago.

Howard "D" Simpson:

We consolidated the format.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah.

Howard "D" Simpson:

It was in our best interest to figure out a way to come up with that one format that filled a void in the market and still had enough appeal that we could get a huge cross-section of the student population to want to be involved in it. And so, that's how we settled on AAA. And then we came up with some fringe elements, which were rockers and 88.9 At Night. We had on the R&BB and Soul program, the Secret Spot, on the weekend.

As we continue to take a look and explore and do research and testing on the format and the market at large, it showed that there was a connection between our main format, the AAA, and the R&B and Soul. And that set up the way that things finally panned out, where we no longer have 88.9 At Night and rockers, but we now have the Secret Spot on seven days a week. So.

Georgette Pierre:

What does AAA mean for those that don't know the format or the abbreviation? As far as [crosstalk 00:12:47].

Howard "D" Simpson:

Sure. Adult album alternative. And it's different, no matter ... Wherever you are, if you find there's a AAA station, it could be different. There are some that may play more reggae. There are some that may play more Prince. But it's a huge cross-section of music. And so, it has a little something for everybody. And I think that's what's always attracted the students to be involved. And then, of course, maintaining some of the traditional block elements, like the Broadway show tunes and the acapella programming on the weekend. We really do offer something for everybody. You can jump on board and you don't have to know anything. Just come in and be open-minded and we'll teach you.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah. I think, as a black community, we're always trying to carve out our space, knowing that we are the culture. Yet, we're still proving ourselves. So it feels ... I know there was this whole thing that was going on for people that went to Emerson and worked or were connected to rockers and 88.9 At Night, so to hear that the HD2 channel was the Boston's black experience, it almost feels like, this is actually ... You don't know or see or have the foresight to understand, but having a channel where it's 24/7, I think, almost feels like-

Howard "D" Simpson:

And that it's authentic.

Georgette Pierre:

More rewarding. Yeah.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And that was one of the questions I asked. I needed clarity. And you know me to just be real and be transparent with it. And sometimes it's a surprise to me what'll come out of my mouth. But I mean it. So you'll always know where you stand. And I asked Jack, "Now, do you want a [inaudible 00:14:30], like a current hit, rhythmic, urban? Or a legitimate urban? That you're going to feel some funk vibes in that music. You're going to hear some gospel splashes in that music. You're going to hear some steel drums in the background in some of that music. Do I really have the wherewithal? You're telling me I can go to town with this."
And he meant it. And it was a lot of work building the library. But so much of it we had already had in house over the years of 88.9 At Night. And it was adding the newer elements so that we could attract that younger generation. That's where I really had to roll up my sleeves. For me, hip hop used to be the it. I used to love her, as Common would say.

Georgette Pierre:

Common's my jam.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And then when ... Okay. But when Biggie and Tupac died, the circumstances, it just said to me, "There's something wrong with these young men not being here over an image." And so, then I kind of grew out of the music. But there were other artists that pulled me back in. You had Lauren Hill. You had the Roots. You had those folks who were woke. And actually believed in a model that I believe. Each one, teach one. And they used the power behind the microphone to do that.

So there was always some connection, but the game has changed. And the music has changed. And so I had to reacquaint myself with all of it. And there was one day just sitting down, listening to all this music where the vibe hit me. And I'm like, "Oh, I feel this. Okay." I see how the kids of today, even though some of the messages, once you get to be my age, those messages you've heard before. But the vibe and the way it's presented is different. And I was feeling it. And so now I'm pulled right back in. I'm just not as young anymore, but I'm feeling it. So ...

Georgette Pierre:

Yes, D. Because we charge our crystals in a full moon. Okay? I just want you to understand. Okay? That's what we are. [inaudible 00:16:44].

Howard "D" Simpson:

Okay.

Georgette Pierre:

Getting a little bit more personal, D, as I was kind of referencing or alluding to earlier.

Howard "D" Simpson:

Sure.

Georgette Pierre:

So, we had some interesting conversations. And literally, I know you were shaping me for some things that I did not even know. What did you see in me? And the rest of us kinfolk trying to navigate the radio landscape.

Howard "D" Simpson:

I saw lots of potential. I saw confidence. I saw me when I was younger.

Georgette Pierre:

Mm.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And I wanted to be the mentor that I wished I'd had, that could relate to me in terms of being a black person, a young person of color wanting to go out into this competitive industry. You were incredible. You were. On the air, always dynamic. That's who you are.

Georgette Pierre:

Did you have a mentor coming up that ... How you were with us?

Howard "D" Simpson:

Yeah. Well, not on that level. But my very first mentor that pushed me in the direction of the industry was Fran Berger.

Georgette Pierre:

Okay.

Howard "D" Simpson:

Fran was incredible. She was the general manager of the station during my undergraduate years. And she actually gave me the opportunity to be the student program director. We had a whole management team that was just made up of the students. You remember how we did, right? And so I got the opportunity to do that. And it was a full four-credit course where it was hands-on learning with her navigating the way. And at that point in time, I was going through my rebellious, young, black man, angry black man days at so much that had been going on in the world. This was the time when the verdict had come out during the Rodney King trial. These were volatile times. But, I guess, when are they not?

But Fran saw something in me. And she took good care of me. I struggled just making it through those undergrad years. And I had a very thick sweater. I had a hat. But there was a point in time, I did not have a jacket or a coat to wear during the cold winter weather. And on one occasion, it was American Heritage dictionary had sent the latest edition. And in it was a varsity jacket. And Fran knew that I didn't have a jacket. She could tell. Anyone could. I thought I was fooling everybody. But she knew I didn't. And she said, "Hey, can I see you for a minute in my office?" And I go in her office. And she was like, "Do you think this can fit you?" And I look at the jacket and because it was a varsity jacket, the initials were kind of like my name. My initials HAS, but this is American Heritage dictionary. But I call myself D so it was similar to my initials.

And she was like, "I think this got your name on it." And it just, that was an incredible moment. That changed a lot for me in terms of how you look at everything. Because the lesson that she taught me was that all of anything is never true. And here was this Jewish woman taking this interest in me as a young black man. When I didn't have a job. I had done a lot of telemarketing. People always told me, "Well, you have a great voice. You can do telemarketing." And so I was doing telemarketing. That dried up the further I got into college. I couldn't commit that kind of time to raising funds for the Sierra Club or whatever. And this was my junior year. And I needed money. And that's when she said to me, "Have you thought about working in the industry? You spend a lot of time here at the station. What if you were trying to apply that in the industry?"
And that's when the epiphany happened. Like, "Wait, I can do that? I can work in radio?" And she connected me to a gentleman by the name of Listo Fisher, an incredible news anchor. Storied History here in the city. And I ended up beginning work in the industry my junior year on a part-time basis. And then transitioned to a full-time position in the industry immediately after graduation. And so, Fran was that person that made it happen for me, helped me to believe in myself. Helped me to-

Georgette Pierre:

So important.

Howard "D" Simpson:

It is. It really is. And I think that's one of the things that you do get from Emerson, is finding ... It's less about finding your voice. It's more creating your voice. And so I love the experience. But in terms of having someone that could really meet me on that level of, "Well, as a young black man, you may want to consider this. Here's what's up with the world." I didn't really have that. I just had to make my way. And so by the time I came across students like you and everyone that was with that particular squad, I knew I had to be that mentor that I didn't have.

Georgette Pierre:

So important. I love that. I love that. What would you say to your Emerson self? If you could go back in time.

Howard "D" Simpson:

To my Emerson self?

Georgette Pierre:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Howard "D" Simpson:

If I could go back in time, you going to make me cry now.

Georgette Pierre:

Hmm.

Howard "D" Simpson:

Because, again, when you don't have the acceptance of your own people and they tell you as a young black man that, "You must think you're white. Why are you trying to be the radio? There's not a career in that." I heard so many things from people who weren't in college, who were younger than me, and actually could not communicate half as effectively as I could. But it hurt.

And it was during those times that, at particular instances, there was just a song. Whatever that song was, and I'm going to try not to cry here. Whatever that song was that the station had hit me too, that I could go in the backroom in the music library. We had a little turntable set up in the corner away from everyone and everything. Literally in the back of the room. And I would tell myself, "It's okay to listen to that song and cry." That's what I would tell myself. "It's okay."

Georgette Pierre:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). My eyes are getting watery, too. D, this is not where I thought we were going to go today, but it's good.

Howard "D" Simpson:

You started it.

Georgette Pierre:

I did. I did. I did. You said something about Emerson. What Emerson did for a lot of us is help us create our voice. And so, as a student in grads, we're known for speaking up, voicing our opinions freely, and advocating for something bigger than ourselves. What was that one thing you were absolutely loud about? How often were you loud about it and whom did you feel the need to share it with?

Howard "D" Simpson:

Well, you've got your voice and there's the power to that. The power to the microphone. Learn how to use it. It's a great power and it does come with great responsibility. But there's even more strength in numbers. So when the verdict came out in the Rodney King trial, it wasn't long before I was one of those megaphones out on the street in front of the station. We were on Beacon Street at the time. And we organized a lot of the students of color from Emerson right in the middle of the street. We were soon joined by students from Boston University. And we met. And we all got together and we marched. And we said up and down the street, "No justice, no peace." And we walked from that point, Beacon Street in the Back Bay, to Northeastern University on Huntington Ave. And from there, met with the Northeastern students. And then we marched to Grove Hall in Roxbury. And all the time, we were saying, "No justice, no peace, no justice, no peace." We were all outraged that somehow a jury was convinced to not believe what they saw in front of their eyes.

That message was probably the loudest message I've ever been able to help to give. When we got to Grove Hall, that's when we realized, we were being tagged by news teams. And we were on the news. We were on the local national affiliates. They were carrying this march. And it was Senator Ted Kennedy. He showed up where we ended at. And Grove Hall, at that point in time, it was still showing a lot of the pains of the riots that had happened when Dr. King had passed. And there's a whole documentary you have to check out about how James Brown saved Boston when Dr. King was assassinated in the concert he gave in Boston Garden. But there was still a lot of the remnants of that. Abandoned buildings. And not a lot of commercial outlets for the community.
But here, all of a sudden, is Ted Kennedy. This renowned Senator. And he wanted to speak to us. He wanted to take to a microphone. And we had one. And amongst our group, we wanted to console and talk. We weren't going to do anything to destroy the community, but we had to make it clear, no justice, no peace. We'll continue to demonstrate like this and give our peaceful message. And unfortunately, we sent Ted Kennedy home. We told him that we didn't want his help. We didn't ask him to come. He did not march. This is for us. We'd like to be responsible for who we are.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And so I'd have to say that had to be the loudest message that I've ever given. Police brutality.

Georgette Pierre:

I love that. It's huge. Because it affects people that look just like you. So.

Howard "D" Simpson:

Exactly.

Georgette Pierre:

And also you're raising a young black boy in this society, in this generation. And so-

Howard "D" Simpson:

And it can be scary.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah.

Howard "D" Simpson:

When do people stop looking at him as, "Oh ..." You get it all the time. "Oh, your son is so cute. He's so cute." At what point does he start looking like a threat?

Georgette Pierre:

Okay, okay.

Howard "D" Simpson:

He's taller than his age and he looks more mature. And my birthday went by. It's one of the stories that I've shared with the students just to be transparent and candid. It's all about each one, teach one. And we grow and we learn from each other. But I have a different viewpoint. And that's the point of diversity. You can't assume that everyone knows your story. Or that your story is everyone else's.

Georgette Pierre:

Right.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And so, for me, it was a really big deal to have a 50th birthday. Because I thought about when I grew up and I was told, life expectancy for a young black man, beginning in your teens, you're lucky if you make it to 30. If you make it to 30, then there's a chance you'll go on and you'll live a longer life. Your mortality, you'll be around longer. And oh, how that has changed when a young child playing with a toy gun at the age of 12 is shot dead. So that's the fear that I have. If my son is not doing the right thing, is he playing with a toy gun? And the wrong place at the wrong time. Am I the parent that's grieving?

And so, it's to teach him the right ways to conduct yourself. Always be able to communicate effectively. The lessons to learn about driving while black. There's so much of that that I have to go through with him. And I wish we were in a different place than we are. But the good news is that when you get that Emerson education and you take that and you apply it in the media, you do have the ability to help create change. And change takes time. So you have to be patient. But trust your gifts and go with it. And change the story that the newsroom normally would give and make it the one that you know makes the most sense. Really represent.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah. Okay. Represent, represent. Okay.

Howard "D" Simpson:

That's right. What up.

Georgette Pierre:

You'll be surprised that I be really into my hip hop. But ...

Howard "D" Simpson:

Yes, you are.

Georgette Pierre:

[crosstalk 00:30:15]. Oh, snap. Brother man, black man. There aren't too many of us that are in management-level positions or executive-level positions, especially when it comes to certain parts of this industry. What do you want your legacy to be as D Simpson and as the general manager of ERS?

Howard "D" Simpson:

As far as I know, I don't think that the station has ever had a black general manager. So I don't know if that makes me black history, but I know I'm a first.

Georgette Pierre:

Hey, we'll take it.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And I don't want to be a last. Yeah. You take it. But you don't want there to be a last.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah.

Howard "D" Simpson:

You want to make sure that, for me, I want to do well enough that that next brother, that next sister, has the opportunity to come in and do the same kind of thing that I can do it. It's about passion. And if it's where your heart is and you truly have the qualifications, it doesn't matter what your ethnicity is. The color of your skin doesn't matter. It's about the skill and the passion. So I think that's what I want my legacy to be. In terms of being the general manager. That I won't be the only black general manager at the station.

Overall, I guess my legacy as a person, as a black man, that's such a good question. Because there's so many things that jump in my head. That I would want to make sure is the message that people would remember. I guess it's ... I don't know. This is going to sound strange. But it's funny how things turn out. Let that be your motto. It's so funny how things turn out. Because you have to let them play out. And so often we try to control things that we can't. And that's what gives us anxiety. And can get you uptight because you really wanted this particular job and it didn't happen. And you may end up getting that job, but maybe not with that company. So just keep thinking to yourself, "It's funny how things turn out." And just moving your journey forward.

Georgette Pierre:

What's one thing that you'd like to do next and why haven't you tried it yet?

Howard "D" Simpson:

Well, I wanted to go skydiving.

Georgette Pierre:

Okay.

Howard "D" Simpson:

And we were going to go. There was a crew of us, straight up. Straight up. At Emerson. There was a crew of us that we were going to do it and then COVID hit. And then we never got everybody back together again, because we're only halfway back together again now. But I've wanted to do that. Just to free fall. And just be one with that feeling.

Georgette Pierre:

Free falling.

Howard "D" Simpson:

Yes. Just let it go.

Georgette Pierre:

But that says a lot about kind of where you are. It seems, maybe emotionally and mentally. Just let it go. Let's just ... Last question.

Howard "D" Simpson:

Yes.

Georgette Pierre:

What does it mean for you to make it and how will D know when he gets there?

Howard "D" Simpson:

To make it means that you can look back over your shoulder and not only can you measure your growth as a person, as a professional, as a human, but looking back at that road, it's dotted with a whole community that has either been there with you, for you, helping you, or you've been there for, with, and helped them. And that's when you know that you've made it. Because you're never alone. And so often, I think, a lot of us believe, somehow we are different. And we are. We are individuals. But most of us all want the same things. And when you realize that common thread between all of us and you can be peace with that, then you understand what it means to build community.

And it's not until you're able to do that effectively that you will succeed. And that you will make it. You'll never make it on your own. You can't do and be all things. But with the right support group, the right structure, and also the people who you help. You can't say that you're going to give back once you finally make it. Once you reach the top of the mountain and you reach the throne. No, no, no. Along the way, as you're climbing that mountain, throw a rope down so somebody else can be pulled up with you. That's when you know that you've made it.

Georgette Pierre:

Yeah. D-

Howard "D" Simpson:

Yes.

Georgette Pierre:

Such a pleasure.

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