by Michael Leppert
WeeBeeTunes Travel Adventures is one of the most interesting and well-conceived products we have reviewed in recent issues. (Vol. 6, Issue 6) Upon my first few seconds of listening to this great geography CD, I was struck by how well-written the first song was . . . and the second and third, and so on for the entire disk! What a happy surprise! As a songwriter and player myself, I am keenly aware of how trite and baby-ish many "children’s" musical products are and nothing makes my ears perk up faster than a piece of work that is not in this category, but rather, uses excellent original music to carry the "educational" information and is pleasant for children of all ages – or even we adults who still like to daydream.
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking by phone with Chicago-based composer and songwriter Steve Wiebe, who along with his business partner, Howard Soriano, founded Girdwood Partners, LLC, to produce the WeeBeeTunes CD and video geography teaching products and make a dream come true in the process.
TL:Steve, is it true that you attended the University of Chicago? Was that to study music?
SW:No, I am a big Milton Friedman fan. I was an Economics Major with an eye toward Investment Banking.
TL:Can you tell us about your musical background and history?
SW:I have been writing music since 2nd grade. I was fascinated by the Beverly Hillbillies theme and commercial jingles – the Sears one, for example. I have been paid to make music since I was 9, when I would play Barry Manilow tunes and get to keep the tips I made. Then, at an early age, I got hired to play piano for fashion shows. At 15, I was playing piano for two girls who were auditioning at Great America, owned by Marriott. The director asked me if I could sing, so I sang and I made it through the auditions.
Then, I did commercials for Disney and I came to realize that I could actually earn money for creating music for a 30-second commercial.
My first jingle was written when I was just out of high school. I went to a local Chicago radio station and asked if they had anyone who needed music. I demoed an idea for one client they had, the client loved it and I asked to be paid $5 per play, at 30 plays a month and there I was, making $150 per month for one commercial! Then I did some other work, some of it free to gain exposure in the broad Chicago radio market, and so forth.
TL:You were pretty much a prodigy in that field! So, then you went to college to major in Economics?
SW:Yes, but after a short time, I realized I didn’t want to be a banker. So, I decided to open a jingle business instead. I got a job teaching classroom music part-time – which I loved – and wound up doing for 3 years total. I was writing and producing commercials all this time, as well. I would basically write songs with the kids! One of the school principals from those days, Pat Panozzo, is on the advisory board for WeeBeeTunes now!
TL:It seems that the seeds for WeeBeeTunes were sown there in your classroom as a teacher.
SW:Next, I wrote and recorded an album to raise money for the Coalition for the Homeless and the following year I did a Christmas album to raise money for Catholic schools. The last year I taught school I really wanted to and enjoyed it, but making commercials was taking up too much time to fit in teaching as well, so I went with the commercials.
TL:How did you come to do your current work – the geography products, WeeBeeTunes?
SW:Well, I went on a goal-setting retreat in Girdwood, Alaska (which is why we named our company Girdwood Partners) with a good friend and neighbor Howard Soriano, a business strategy consultant at the time. Howard was frustrated with the commonly-held view that few Americans seem to know anything about the world – the actual geography of the world. I was looking to extend my professional work into meaningful and rewarding areas – like getting kids and parents excited to go seek more information about our world.
It is really great to hear real stories about how a child will listen to our disks or videos and then go to the encyclopedia and look up more about one of the countries we sing about or they ask mom to buy a globe. One of my favorite stories is this: I recently received an e-mail from a lady in Washington, DC, saying that the only thing her 5-year-old child wanted for her birthday was a WeeBeeTunes birthday party. So, in her backyard, mom made a replica of the seven continents! That sort of thing is great!
TL:Your products are really high quality in both packaging and content. Do you have a large staff?
SW:No, it’s funny, a lot of people think that WeeBeeTunes is a big company; it is only Howard and I. Of course, we hire musicians and singers for the actual songs, but the company is just two guys. Our production costs are high, too. We use the very best pro singers – that is why the sound quality is so good.
TL:What is next for WeeBeeTunes?
SW:"Island Hopping" is the next WeeBeeTunes production – the Galapagos, Manhattan, islands of all sorts. This year we have been emphasizing the education aspect of what WeeBeeTunes is about. We have been meeting homeschool families, teachers, educational specialists, geography people and the favorable response to what we are doing is overwhelming. We have been bombarded!
TL:WeeBeeTunes received the 2003 GEM award for Geography Excellence in Media by the National Council for Geographic Education.
SW:Yes, winning the GEM award is special because it is awarded by people at the highest levels in the field of geography education in this country. The award recognizes media projects that "exhibit outstanding geographic content and teaching methods." Achieving that is very satisfying.
That concluded our enjoyable conversation with Mr. Wiebe. We look forward to the new releases from WeeBeeTunes, and please see their ad on p. 64. – Michael Leppert
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