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My history with WTMJ goes a long way back, and I’ve always had respect and affection for the station. But they have now lost me for good after 8:30 a.m. because they are going to offer absolutely nothing that might lure me to stick around.
I’m talking, of course, about the departure of Charlie Sykes from the 8:30-noon slot on the station.
As announced today, he is being replaced by Jeff Wagner, who has bored the daylights out of people in the afternoons for years. Wagner's previous 12-3 p.m. position will now be filled by John Jagler, an ultra-conservative state representative from Watertown who quit the station six years ago after he was reduced from morning co-host to news reader. WTMJ's Erik Bilstad will join Jagler.
I had the very first radio talk show in Milwaukee in 1972 when I did "Nighttalk" at WISN. Then I took over the afternoon slot at WTMJ. Steve Wexler, then the program director, asked me to take the job in order to get G. Gordon Liddy off the air. I did it for about seven months while they looked for a permanent host. They found a couple, Jim and Andy, who bombed spectacularly.
About two decades ago, WTMJ carved out an identity in the city. Steve Smith, who was then the chairman of The Journal Company, announced at a stockholder meeting that the station was going to "hitch its star" to Sykes and the conservative agenda he advanced. This was a time when AM stations around the country were trying to climb on board the Rush Limbaugh mega-train.
And Sykes did a great job. His ratings were wonderful. His impact in the state was profound. He developed a national profile, and he gave the station a clear cut identity.
When Jim and Andy got dumped, Wagner, a former candidate for Attorney General who got badly beaten by Jim Doyle in 1990, got the job. He has always had this kind of unseemly joy in being a radio "star." He is pompous and acts as if he has a corner on wisdom.
While Sykes was an opinion leader, Wagner rarely has anything unique to say. About the only time he seems to raise any interest is when he devotes segments to movies, as he is an avowed film buff.
It's important to note that the afternoon slot from noon until 3 p.m., Wagner's former domain, is a dead time in radio. The two drive times are critical and then comes the morning slot. Wagner could keep his job regardless of ratings because nobody in radio really cares all that much about that time slot, at least compared to the other parts of the day. But now given a prime radio time, his bland tone and lukewarm takes won't pass muster.
Jagler, who is being called interim host, was a co-host in mornings with Gene Mueller for a dozen years. As local stations began the move away from personality driven drive time slots, Mueller survived with his mixture of humor, humanity and humility. Jagler was told he was going to read the news, and he said goodbye.
So he worked for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and then ran for his own seat. Among the bills he’s worked hard to pass was one allowing motorcycles to use LED lights.
There is no law against having a political office holder have a radio show. When he becomes a candidate then the station will be required to give equal time to an opposing candidate. If Jagler is a success, however, he’ll probably forsake any reelection campaign.
Here’s the problem with this whole thing.
WTMJ had a chance here to carve out a space on the radio dial where they could appeal to the biggest audience possible. Liberals listened to Sykes because he was so smart and had such a good sense of humor. No liberals have any reason to listen to either Wagner or Jagler.
The station could have started over with a new lineup, a middle-of-the road lineup, and given all kinds of people a reason to listen in. Hell, they could have re-started "Ask Your Neighbor" and gotten better ratings than they will get with Wagner.
They have lost a real heavyweight in Sykes – and have now responded by putting lightweights behind the microphone.
WTMJ was the first radio station in Milwaukee. They have always been the biggest and frequently the best.
With this new lineup, those days are clearly going to be over.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.