Charese Fruge Talks To Michelle Lewis

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on November 10, 2020

She’s had her content featured on E! News, US Weekly, People and RadarOnline, both online and on television. Michelle Lewis has spent the last 8 years of her career as an award-winning Morning Show Host and Music Director for FM 100, WMC in Memphis. She was born and raised in Queens, New York and attended college at Syracuse University where she got her start in radio at Z89. In 2009 she interned on “The Elvis Duran Morning Show,” then returned to Syracuse radio to perfect her on aircraft at SU’s Z89 and dabbling in both on air and promotions with iHeart Radio there. Eventually she moved to West Palm Beach Florida to be the Music Director/APD/Morning Show Producer/On-Air Personality/Social Media Strategist at 97.9 WRMF, the job that led her to her current role now.

Like most in the industry, Michelle always knew she wanted to be in radio. “I was the kid who got in trouble for constantly talking in class and somehow managed to make a career out of it! I used to record radio shows at home on cassette tapes and have my little sister ‘call in’ as a winner and her prize would be a free song,” she says. “Unfortunately, I was also constantly bullied as a child, but listening to my favorite morning show growing up was my safe place. They made me laugh and feel welcomed when I needed them, and when I listened, I knew they would never judge me. I can remember being dropped off at school and not wanting to get out of the car until they finished a break. That show helped me get through a lot of tough times and I realized that I wanted to be that person one day and hopefully do that for someone else. I’ve just always felt a special connection with music and the sounds coming from the speakers. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

Michelle’s favorite part of the radio business is being able to share her life for a living. “Being able to be myself, share my experiences (both the high times and the extremely low times), and having listeners reach out to share how they can relate is beyond rewarding for me,” she says. “Knowing that I can have an impact on someone’s day and make them feel better or like they aren’t alone isn’t something I take lightly. It’s a great responsibility (not to get all Spider-Man/Peter Parker on you ha-ha). If I can help make one person’s day a bit better, then my job is complete. Knowing that I can make a difference is my favorite part of the business. Helping to create the sound of a radio station, being exposed to new music, attending concerts, planning and going to events, and meeting artists is all amazing and I love it, but it’s all gravy compared to that.”

“I consider my biggest accomplishment in my career overall just to be able to be on the air and talk for a living,” says Lewis. ‘I’ve had a listener come up to me crying and telling me that I got her through some really bad times in her life and she thanked me for it. I will always remember that moment. I consider that to be a pretty big accomplishment. It’s more than just ratings and getting awards. Moments like that remind me why I love what I do for a living,” she adds. “Yes, winning the Reelworld Rising Star Award at Morning Show Bootcamp and having my content featured on E! News, Us Weekly, People and RadarOnline both in print and on television have been pretty awesome. I even went viral on social media for holding a sloth, but I would say that’s possibly an accomplishment for the sloth ha-ha! However, knowing that I can be a person that people can rely on to make their day better, that’s my biggest accomplishment in my overall career for me.”

One of the most exciting things about the business side of radio for Michelle involves her passion for music. “Some of the most exciting things I have experienced are watching artists that no one knows (but I know are awesome) just explode overnight!” Says Lewis. “I think back to a few years ago in particular, where Capitol Music Group invited me to fly out to PA to see an artist named Sam Smith perform after hearing the song, ‘Stay With Me,’ and being blown away. I went and saw Sam Smith perform live in a small room in the back of a bar on a random night. They were walking around the bar, just meeting people, talking, and casually hanging out. We took a photo and I thought, ‘they are going to be HUGE.’ I think it was literally a week later that someone canceled on SNL, Sam Smith filled the spot, and ‘Stay With Me’ skyrocketed to the top of the charts. The rest is history!” She says. “Sam Smith was everywhere after that. I just love seeing the growth and the journey. The before and after moments. Those moments are pretty special, and I will cherish them forever.”

It’s not always fun and games in the radio business. The environment changes so frequently and quickly. In fact, that is one of the biggest challenges in the industry, according to Michelle, the constant need to be able to grow and evolve. “You have to keep up with the times and roll with it, or you’ll be left behind,” she says. “So much more is expected of you now. I can’t just plan/do a show and schedule some music logs and be done. The job is 24/7. It’s also constantly being visible on social media, talking to music reps, keeping up with new music and artists, coming up with sales ideas and helping the sales team in any way I can, and (hopefully one day again) doing public appearances. Now it’s been all about thinking of how to make these public appearances virtual… virtual artist showcases, fundraising virtually, emceeing virtually, etc.! There’s been a lot of Zoom calls, but I’m lucky and happy to be a part of it all! You just have to find a balance… that’s part of the job.”

Another big challenge in the radio business, is the lack of female programmers. Michelle is one of few who have conquered the on-air part as well as the Programming side of things. She has a passion for both. I asked Michelle what her thoughts were on why there are so few female programmers in the business. “There are multiple reasons,” she says. “First off, there really aren’t a lot of open Programming opportunities right now. Many people in programming, mostly men, have also been in these positions for a long time. So, it makes it hard to break in. Especially now with COVID, there’s even less opportunity. So, I feel many women simply get discouraged by that and don’t see it as a big possibility,” she says. “When I first started in this industry, I didn’t see any female programmers. So, I never really thought about it myself until I got further into the business and realized my passion for Programming. That’s when I started to ask questions and found myself researching and trying to FIND women programmers that were doing what I wanted to do. It took a bit, which told me something immediately,” she says. “It’s no secret that radio is a male-dominated industry. It took me finding and meeting other women who are amazing Program Directors to think, ‘Wow, what I love and what I want to do IS possible.’ Shout-out to Leigh McNabb and Nikki Nite by the way, who are amazingly strong, confident, and talented female programmers in this industry that are kicking butt and have been great mentors to me. They’ve taught me so much, and I am beyond thankful to them!”

As for her advice for women who want to pursue programming, Michelle says, “Don’t be afraid to chase that dream. Let people know what you want and work hard for it. Put in the work! Constantly try to learn something new and push yourself each day. Ask a lot of questions. I know it can be scary and even intimidating, but I wish I had asked a LOT more questions early on in my career. Reach out to women you see doing what you want to do someday and talk to them. Introduce yourself. Don’t let the fear-monster hold you back!”

“Honestly, I think we need more mentoring going on in the radio industry,” says Lewis. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without my mentors (both men and women – you know who you are and THANK YOU), and I consider it an honor and a privilege to pass on what they have taught me. For anyone who wants to reach out, please do so. I myself am still learning and trying to grow every single day, and I couldn’t do that without having great mentors to reach out to and get advice from. I believe that if we don’t keep learning from each other and helping one another grow, the radio industry won’t be able to evolve with the times and survive.”

In addition to her responsibilities as a Music Director and Morning Show host, Michelle’s passion for two of her favorite causes occupies a lot of her time. “I’m a big advocate for rescuing animals. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved animals and was always the little girl asking her parents to pull off to the side of the road if I saw a dog with no collar walking down the street,” she says. “I’m very passionate about helping animal shelters and am very involved with the Humane Society of Memphis & Shelby County. I emcee their walks, runs, and fundraising events as much as I can. I’m all about helping animals find their forever homes. ADOPT, DON’T SHOP! My dog and two cats are all rescue babies.” Says Lewis, “I also emcee Memphis’ Go Red for Women Survivor Fashion Show every year for the American Heart Association and the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 5K. I’ve lost too many family members to cancer and heart disease, so I’m very passionate about these causes. I can’t wait till we can be back out doing these events in person again.”

In the little bit of spare time she has, Michelle still finds time for fun. In addition to being a Foodie and a big fan of international travel, Michelle and her husband Marc have recently become obsessed with “The Great British Bakeoff.” “We just discovered it thanks to quarantine even though it’s been on for years and we LOVE IT,” she says. “Especially since we can’t travel abroad right now, and we went to London a year ago and are missing it like crazy… we’ve been hooked! Everyone is so nice and funny, and all we want to do is watch people bake cute pastries and learn new techniques and recipes to utilize in our own kitchen! We just learned about Jaffa cakes and made them this weekend! We literally were up making them till midnight on Saturday! You can check them out on my Instagram!”

Despite her busy schedule, Michelle still manages to find balance in her life. The things that are most important to her? “My family, friends, pets, and music,” she says. “I am extremely fortunate to have a great support system. My husband keeps me levelheaded; my sister thankfully lives close by and she’s my best friend. Long talks with my circle of friends keep me sane, snuggles with my pets bring me joy, and music is always there for me to put me in a good mood when I need it.”

So, what do we have to look forward to from Michelle? “It’s amazing how COVID-19 and quarantine has pushed me to be more creative and go outside of my comfort zone,” says Lewis. “I just bought a ring light (I know, so fancy, I feel like Mariah Carey), and really started to try new things. Heck, I even made my very first music video parody! I didn’t even know about TikTok until quarantine started. Now I find myself wanting to do fun videos daily and constantly thinking about creative ways to capture people’s attention. It’s just been really fun to have a new challenge to come up with even more creative content for my brand and FM100. So be on the lookout for that!” she adds. “It’s been really fun to come up with creative ideas for listeners to have virtual experiences with artists as well. Digital is the future, and I’m constantly learning more about the digital space every single day. I also hope to continue my growth in radio on the programming side. I’d love to be a Program Director or Brand Manager in the future.”

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