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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Milwaukee radio: a retrospective


Despite our inability to pronounce all the letters in our fair city's name, Milwaukeeans have generally been considered good communicators. Radio in Milwaukee has produced some innovation, some great history and a number of people who have gone on to national prominence.

We noticed in the "Are You Old School?" comments on Milwaukee history, people mentioned radio stations, some going back 30-40 years or more. We thought it would be nice to expand on some of Milwaukee radio history and even provide some audio clips from previous eras. So get those knobs a-tunin', and we'll walk down Memory Lane...

The first radio station in Milwaukee was called WAAK, and began broadcasting "from high atop" Gimbels (now the Ivory Tusk Building) in 1921. All radio back then was on the AM band, and there were no formats. Programming was an eclectic blend of mostly news, talk and various kinds of music. Kind of like WMSE is today.

Tracing The History of Stations Still With Us

WTMJ, still the city's most listened-to station, also began in the 1920s. On the 1020 AM frequency, the station started broadcasting in 1927 and switched to 620 AM a year later. Call letters often stand for things... in this case, The Milwaukee Journal. The format was "full service" for most of its lifetime, which meant a mixture of news, music and talk shows. WTMJ has also carried the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers games for most of the teams' histories. The station's format now is officially news/talk. You usually just hear music on WTMJ when it's being discussed on Jonathan Green's "Green House" afternoon show and during Bill "Big Unit" Michaels' show on nights and weekends ... and that's usually Rush and AC/DC. 'TMJ is also host to Charlie Sykes and new late night talker Mark Reardon.

WEMP began at 1340 AM and now is at 1250. The station, which is owned by Entercom, programs a Christian radio format now, but has broadcast oldies, sports, country and news since its inception in the mid-1930s. WEMP was the station everyone tuned into to hear Earl Gillespie broadcast those Braves games from County Stadium during their heyday in the '50s.

WRIT The original WRIT was one of Milwaukee's premier Top 40 stations in the 1960s. When WEMP switched frequencies, the 1340 AM dial position became WRIT and the station took off with a rock 'n' roll format. The original WRIT-AM went from Top 40 to all news in 1972 and then experienced a series of changes before the call letters went away. The original 1340 AM station broadcast from the same building on McKinley Avenue in Milwaukee that WKLH-FM, WLZR-FM, WJMR-FM and WJYI-AM (the current occupant of the 1340 frequency) use today. The WRIT call letters were resurrected in 2000 when the oldies station at 95.7 FM flipped from WZTR.

WKTI began as WTMJ-FM, then became a pop/rock station in 1974 with the current call letters. The station was to be called I-94, so call letters had to be chosen to reflect the "I." As Jack Lee and Jonathan Green both recall, in a meeting of managers it was determined that the station would be W_ _ I ... but they were having trouble filling in the middle two letters. Jack Lee, who at the time was the manager responsible for the FM, wanted the call letters WWWI. If you try saying that fast five times, you can understand why the DJs didn't like it. Finally, one of the sales managers had a wife named Katie ... as in, "KT"... as in "WKTI"... and that's how the call letters were determined.

Calling itself "nonstop stereo rock," it was automated until 1981, when everything went live. In 1982, Bob Reitman and Gene Mueller teamed up for the morning show, and they've been there ever since, still hanging at or near the top of the ratings. Although recent departures of longtime staffers Danny Clayton and Leonard Peace have broken the trend, WKTI has a remarkable record of staff longevity. Lips LaBelle, who does afternoons, has been at the station for 18 years.

WMYX began as WEMP-FM in the 1960s, but simply re-broadcast WEMP-AM until 1971, when it flipped to WNUW Stereo FM. It was a soft Top 40, a rock station called "X-Rock 99," a beautiful music station, and most famously, starting on Halloween 1978, it went Disco 99 and played nonstop disco music. Jack Lee was the program director at the time and recalled how their Disco 99 booth at Summerfest would get mauled and trashed by the rising tide of anti-disco crowds. The station lasted as disco for less than 10 months; it became just WNUW again before finally changing to "The Mix" with the WMYX call letters in 1981. It was the first station in the country to use the "Mix" handle; now there's one in every city. Today, the Mix (as well as Kiss FM) is programmed by Brian Kelly, who used to handle the music at WZUU when it was Z-95.

WOKY is legendary in Milwaukee. It began in 1950 and served as the city's premier Top 40 station during most of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the "Mighty 92" showcased such personalities as Bob Barry, Michael Lee Scott, Jim Brown, Bob Collins and many others. You can hear some great clips of the station at its most hyper, with Michael Lee Scott broadcasting at night, at the end of this article.

A great assortment of WOKY and Bob Barry paraphernalia can be seen in a booth at the "Solid Gold" McDonald's on S. 76th St. just north of Edgerton. This includes promotional materials and pictures from when The Beatles played the Arena in 1964 and other events throughout WOKY's Top 40 heyday.

WLUM, despite numerous format changes, has maintained its call letters since 1982. It flipped to WLUM (which stands for "We Love U Milwaukee") when it was purchased by former Packers great Willie Davis. Davis is still part of the station ownership, and he has seen it change from "Love Stereo" (soft R&B) in the early '80s, to WLUM The Hot FM (R&B Hits) a few years later, Hot 102 (Dance Top 40) in '88, New Rock 102 One (Alternative Rock) in '94, to Rock 102 One (Rock) in 1997. Today it wrestles with Lazer 103 for the young male rock audience.

WLZR blew onto the scene in 1986. Lazer 103 entered the rock arena and battled heavily with WQFM for years, before QFM went light jazz in 1996. The morning show of Bob & Brian has dominated Milwaukee radio pretty much from the start, and today they share their building on McKinley Ave. with sister stations WKLH, WJMR, WFMR and WJYI. Lazer 103 evolved out of former country station WBCS, which in turn emerged from a WFWO, "For Women Only," which was a female-targeted soft rock station in the middle 1970s. Prior to that, they were WRIT-FM, simulcasting WRIT-AM, which at the time was still Top 40.

WMIL at 106.1 FM emerged in 1983 as the sister station of WOKY. It's been a leading country station since then. The owners snagged the call letters realizing they could combine the two stations to create MIL-WOKY...cute, huh? Prior to being WMIL, the station was a low-power country station in Waukesha called WAUK-FM...which simulcast WAUK-AM.

WFMR, now at 106.9 FM, has been with us since 1956. It began at 96.5 FM, moved to 98.3 FM, where it resided for years, and flipped to 106.9 earlier this year. It's been Milwaukee's major -- and often sole -- source of classical music during this time. WFMR is also a finalist for the 2001 Marconi Award for Classical Station of the Year. It once operated out of the same house in Menomonee Falls that WZMF used, but today its studios are on McKinley Avenue with sister stations WKLH, WLZR, WJMR and WJYI.

WISN, another long-running AM station in town, consists now primarily of talk radio, although some of the best music on Milwaukee radio can be heard on Mark Belling's show during the bumper music. WISN (whose call letters are obviously meant to be short for "Wisconsin") played music throughout the 1970s and most of the '80s. Throughout much of the '70s, they carried Badger football along with WTMJ; they also snagged the Brewers for two years but WTMJ grabbed them back.

WMCS at AM 1290 has been around for a long time. The terrific R&B-formatted sister station of Willie Davis-owned WLUM-FM was called WMVP for years ("MVP" recalling Davis' playing days on Lombardi's Packers) before a Chicago station bought the call letters in the mid-'90s. Before it was WMVP, the station was called Solid Gold Wheels (WLZZ). Prior to that they were WZUU-AM. They switched to the call letters WMCS to stand for Milwaukee's Community Station, and the station is very active in the community.

WMSE at 91.7 FM begin in 1981 as MSOE's college station and remains eclectic and interesting to this day. May it never change!

Some Stations That Are No Longer With Us... how they flipped

WZUU -- 95.7 FM. Home of Larry "the Legend" Johnson and a number of air personalities who have moved on to Los Angeles, New York and national prominence in the industry. Several people still going strong in Milwaukee radio were at WZUU, including Jonathan Green, who now does afternoons on WTMJ, and Brian Kelly, who programs WMYX and Kiss FM.

The station was just called WZUU (FM 96, since this was before digital tuners were popular) throughout the 70s. They adopted the "Z95" moniker in 1984 while keeping the call letters. Not until late in 1986, in conjunction with an ownership change, did it move to a gentler adult contemporary format. It became WBGK for several years before morphing into WZTR, "Star 95." It moved to an oldies format in 1990 and kept the WZTR call letters until January 1, 2000, when current owners Clear Channel decided to resurrect the now-defunct WRIT call letters.

WEZW. If you wanted soft music, this was the station for many years -- from the '70s through 1995. It's now 103.7 Kiss FM (WXSS). When the station signed on in the 1960s, its call letters were WTOS for its FCC city of license, Wauwatosa -- get it?

WRKR -- 100.7 FM. Based in Racine, this station dominated the south side for years. Originally called WRAC, it flipped to WRKR around 1970. Throughout the '70s and part of the '80s, WRKR was known as "The Rocker" and "Hit Radio 100.7", among other things. In the mid-1980s, when Milwaukee had four or five pop music stations, they turned softer, added an R&B flavor, and for less than a year were called "Heartbeat 101" (WHBT-FM). In 1987, amid the "new age" music rage, it became WBZN, Breezin' 100.7. It flipped to an urban contemporary format in 1991 and remains V100 (WKKV-FM). They are also owned by Clear Channel.

WZMF -- 98.3 FM. Original home of Bob Reitman, "Downstairs" Dan Hansen, Mark Kruger and more, WZMF was arguably the first station in Milwaukee where second-hand smoke would regularly give you a buzz and the munchies. Debuting in 1968, WZMF began as a pop station in 1968, broadcasting from what was basically a house in Menomonee Falls. It soon began to evolve into a more experimental format. The station was initially a pop format but morphed into more of an FM alternative station.

When they signed off to go classical on March 23, 1979, their final song was Jimi Hendrix' "The Star Spangled Banner." The station was sold and went through a number of changes until finally settling on a classical format with the call letters WFMR-FM. The station stayed classical for years and can now be found at 106.9 FM; a frequency swap with WJMR-FM means that 98.3 is now R&B Oldies, known as "Jammin' 98.3."

WLPX -- 97.3 FM. Turn on 97.3 FM today, and you get so much Celine Dion it almost violates the terms of the Geneva Convention. You could turn it on in 1975, light up, crack a beer, and rock out for weeks on end. Terry Jeffords, who died at age 64 last year, worked at several stations but was best-known for WLPX promotions he arranged. Those included a taxi with two front ends, skydivers who dropped into County Stadium during Brewers games and flying an ultralight plane billed as the WLPX Flying Machine over Summerfest. WLPX, which called itself "Wisconsin's Best Rock" for a long time, battled with QFM for top station honors until it flipped to Top 40 in 1984 with the call letters WBTT, calling itself "B-97." It wasn't long before it switched its current Light 97 format.

WMGF -- 96.5 FM. Remember Girard & Luczak? Before hooking up with Carole Caine on their phenomenally successful, 15-years-and-counting run on WKLH, Dave Luczak woke people up on Magic 96.5 for a couple of years. Prior to that, the 96.5 frequency was classical, the home of WFMR-FM, now located at 106.9 after being at 98.3 for 16 years.

WQFM -- 93.3 FM. (1973-1996) When I was a kid, I thought the letter "Q" in the alphabet meant "rock 'n' roll." Current Lazer jocks Marilyn Mee and Craig Kilpatrick both cut their teeth at QFM for a long time. Home to more than 30 morning shows in its 23-year history... Bob Reitman was on the air for 222 hours and 22 minutes, spinning rock 'n' roll records for WQFM-FM in a trailer at State Fair in 1976. Reitman was listed in Guinness books for 1978 and 1979 before somebody broke his record and then the continuous broadcasting category was eliminated as too dangerous.

WPNT -- 106.9 FM. ("The Point", 1997-1999.) The Point burst onto the local radio scene in 1997 at a time when Sheryl Crow, Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, and Matchbox 20 were considered somewhat alternative. An instant hit, The Point had three program directors, three morning shows, and two different studio locations in three years, but it managed to garner a loyal audience. The author of this article worked as a DJ for The Point and people still ask why it changed and if it will ever come back. The station's weak signal (6,000 watts compared to most stations' 50,000 watts), the changing music scene, and competition hastened the change in April 1999 to Jammin' Oldies, which can now be heard at 98.3 FM. Prior to becoming WPNT, which is now Classical WFMR at 106.9, was a short-lived smooth jazz station called WFMI prior to August 1997. To further the confusion, the Point's original call letters were WXPT, which is now a station called The Point in Minneapolis.

Other semi-interesting facts:

  • When Lazer 103 debuted, they also duplicated their signal on 1340 AM. When they had to choose, they wisely chose to keep the FM signal.
  • WKLH, 96.5 FM, is credited nationwide with being the first "Classic Rock" station in the country.
  • WMYX was the first station in the nation to use the "Mix" handle, which is now in pretty much every city in the U.S.
  • When WPNT-FM (106.9 The Point) began its two-year run in 1997, they were broadcasting from the same small house in Menomonee Falls that the old WZMF used in 1969.
  • Gordon Hinkley is the only Milwaukee radio personality in the national Radio Hall of Fame.
  • WTMJ won the Marconi Award in 2000 as the News/Talk/Sports Station of the Year. But if you listen to Brewers or Bucks games on the station, you still hear about the 2000 award at the top of almost every hour.

A few clips, courtesy of ReelRadio.Com, are available of Milwaukee radio from 1971-'73. Clips include WOKY, WRKR and WRIT and play in a Real Media stream. You can hear it by clicking here.

Thanks to Jonathan Green, Brian Kelly, and Jack Lee for additional information. Also thanks to Al & Mike Pikula of Cellar Music Productions in Franklin for contribution of bumper stickers and music charts.

Talkbacks

rreitman | Sept. 18, 2009 at 9:17 p.m. (report)

Anyone have OC White airchecks? rreitman@wi.rr.com

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Pangborn21 | June 18, 2008 at 1:50 a.m. (report)

Oh Roger you old cuss, no you're not. HA HA HA. How have you been?

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Pangborn21 | June 18, 2008 at 1:46 a.m. (report)

WAWA - home to Dr. Bop - and remember O.C. White? Two great voicesthat would be doing urban radio and hip hop if they were still with us. Two great men.

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Brian Stevens | May 10, 2007 at 6:08 p.m. (report)

Great job on the history. However, another set of calls you forgot were WAMG which was when the station was "Magic 103.7." WEZW flipped to Magic in March of 1995, but it wasn't until sometime that summer whe the new call letters took effect. Later, they stayed through their "Rythum and Romance" days. The calls didn't change until Kiss FM came on board in the summer of 1998. Also, don't forget that the WEZW calls supported both a Beautiful Music Format, and later, a Soft AC Format. I think that the early "Magic" days, when Dan and Jane temporarily moved form WMYX over there was an extention of that format. When Dan and Jane went back to WMYX, Glen Hanson and Carrie Whendt did mornings until Rhtyum and Romance when Greg Valentine took over the morning show. I hope that helps.

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doby | Jan. 3, 2007 at 11:29 a.m. (report)

How is it possible to review the histoy of milwaukee radio without mentioning station WAWA, or for that matter Dr. Bop, the icon of radio DJ's of his time? ? ? His airchecks are priceless and hopefully not lost forever.

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