Johnson makes deep grooves in Milwaukee radio, schools and families
Barry Johnson, the host of WMSE's "The Boogie Bang" which airs every Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., started DJing at the station in 1981 when he was a student at the Milwaukee School Of Engineering (MSOE).
"I started out doing the news on the weekends and waiting for a show to open up," says Johnson, who graduated from MSOE in 1986 with a degree in industrial management.
Eventually, he got a shot with a show during which he aired new R&B and hip hop every Tuesday morning from 8 to 10 a.m. He later switched to an early Monday morning slot from midnight to 3 a.m. and when the DJ after him, who was a MSOE professor, stopped doing his 3-6 a.m. show, Johnson picked up his shift, too.
Johnson later hosted a Tuesday night reggae show and, finally, the Saturday time slot he still masters today.
The Boogie Bang focuses on old school hip-hop, rap, R&B and soul from Milwaukee and beyond.
"Boogie Bang has always been a live show that supports Wisconsin artists. It doesn't matter if it's hip-hop, gospel, jazz, soul, comedy," says Johnson, who plays music mostly from his laptop but will also play records.
These days, one show a week is plenty of air time for Johnson, who is a full-time IT manager, has full custody of his two daughters (he also has a grown 23-year-old daughter) and serves as a volunteer coach for volleyball and girls basketball at Wedgewood Park International School as well as on the school governance councils at Starms and Vincent High School. He is also very active in his church.
"A school principal once told me, 'you're spread so thin we're gonna start to see through you,'" says Johnson. "But it's all good. I want to help people as much as I can. My dad was like that. I saw him doing a lot for other people and that's a part of his life I took on in my own."
Originally from Chicago's West Side, Johnson moved to Milwaukee to attend MSOE. He later purchased a home in the Sherman Park neighborhood and held his first professional job for almost 20 years. He has been in his current job in IT management for 11 years.
Johnson says he has stayed in Brew City, mostly, because of Milwaukee Public Schools' educational opportunities for his middle daughter who has Down Syndrome along with other medical needs. He also appreciates the myriad of services at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.
"My children are my mission," says Johnson. "I am heavily involved with them – and with many MPS children. It's the right thing to do. These kids didn't ask to be brought into the world. It's our responsiblity to teach them and show them the right way."
Like all WMSE DJs, Johnson is a volunteer. He takes his role seriously and sees himself as more than a person pressing buttons, rather as someone who can expose Milwaukee / Midwest talent that otherwise wouldn't make it onto the airwaves such as Essential, Aja Kamillion, Iberia and more.
"I ain't in this for the money," says Johnson. "There are a lot of Milwaukee artists that should be getting played. Period."
During The Boogie Bang, at 1 p.m., DJ Craig McNeal presents the Miltown Thang which specifically showcases the talents of Wisconsin artists.
McNeal – who is a member of the prestigeous coalition Core DJs Worldwide – started on the show with Johnson about five years ago. He works as a professional DJ but says, these days, he has to travel around the state for most of his gigs – Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, Osh Kosh, Madison.
"Violence has plagued our city so much DJs can't make money here anymore," he says. "So, I travel."
On air, Johnson and McNeil have a natural, often hilarious rapport. During our recent visit on the show, they asked the audience the name of the doorman on the TV show "The Jeffersons" (it was Ralph, played by the late Ned Wertimer) and then blasted the theme song.
They quibble and they laugh between songs, but they will also send out messages of empathy. During our visit they took a few minutes to pay tribute to a young woman who was killed on a motorcycle earlier in the week and provide information about funeral services.
"We are a resource to the community," says Johnson.
Johnson says he's never wanted to DJ at a commercial radio station because he likes the freedom to choose the music he airs – or to let the listeners' choose. If a listener calls in with a request that Johnson does not have, he will have it by the next week.
"I'm open to whatever people want to hear," he says. "I want to give them the music they want to hear but haven't heard in God knows how long."
Although he was a drummer in his high school marching band (shout out to Lane Tech College Prep!) and later the lead singer of an R&B band, Johnson is perfectly satisified getting his music fix through playing other peoples' music.
"But the drummer in me is always pounding along (with the music) on the table or playing air instruments," he says.
On the air or off, Johnson lives by the mantra he tells his own children as well as the kids he coaches and mentors through MPS.
"You have the opportunity to leave a positive mark," he says. "So do it. Leave a positive mark."
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