By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Aug 21, 2007 at 5:32 AM

Eric Von hosts one of Milwaukee's most popular talk shows on 1290 WMCS-AM. He’s a change agent and a community connector who offers a fine perspective on Milwaukee issues.  He’s a non-native, who has in less than 17 years moved here, away and back.

As deputy campaign director, he helped Mayor Barrett achieve his office.  But, today he is out of the political game choosing to focus on the policies and ideas of the community each and every day from 2 to 6 p.m. on WMCS.

We sat down with Von, a 20-year veteran of media, recently and got some very interesting thoughts on Milwaukee, its people (including grades of key politicians) and its policies. 

OMC: Let’s begin with an icebreaker.  You’re invited to a party and you’re asked to bring a dish to pass. What do you bring and why?

Erin Von: Probably something pasta related. I kind of fancy myself a cheap cook. I fix a lot of pasta and shrimp dishes so probably something along those lines.

OMC: Give us, please, the three-minute Eric Von story?

EV: I came here in ’91 from (Washington) D.C., where I was born and raised. Worked in radio for a number of years doing music, doing news, did some talk radio. Kind of got the bug and looked for some opportunities in talk radio.

It just so happened that one of the guys that worked with me in DC used to work for Mr. Davis (Willie Davis, former Green Bay Packer and owner of the Milwaukee Radio Alliance) who owns this station.  He suggested that I get in touch with either Mr. Davis or somebody in his operation because he thought he had heard that they were looking to do some talk at one of his stations. So, I contacted the program director, sent him a tape and a résumé.  They invited me out for an interview, and the rest is history. I’ve been here since then doing at first the morning show for 10 years -- it was the only talk show on the station for 10 years.

OMC: You left for a while, though?

EV: I left in 2001, moved to Phoenix, and stayed in contact with Mr. Davis while I was away. Then we agreed to finally give a shot to something that I had been suggesting for a long time -- a full talk format. We agreed on that and I came back, I did afternoons and that was new ‘cause we hadn’t had anything like that in the afternoons before.

OMC: Did you do radio in Phoenix?

EV: I was the public information officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

OMC: Huh?

EV: Yep, a new field, new life. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish so I was the odd man out down there with all these guys and women who really lived that life. They love hunting and fishing and when they heard that I didn’t shoot animals and I don’t throw fishhooks in the water, they thought there was something wrong with me.

OMC: How did the job come about, and why did you move?

EV: Well, the move came about because I was really just tired of Milwaukee, tired in the sense that, you know, when you do this kind of broadcasting, you’re dealing with issues almost every day. And I think by nature I look for some change (to come about), I look for improvement to come out of these kinds of things and I really wasn’t seeing a whole lot of movement. And, I got tired talking about the same things day in and day out and not seeing the kind of advancement that you’d like to see. I’m not talking about personally, but I mean in the community, and it begins to weigh on you. So, I just started looking for someplace else. I was also tired of the weather. It’s pretty cold here.

OMC: What did you know about Milwaukee when you moved from D.C.?

EV: Not much at all, and I didn’t watch “Laverne and Shirley” so I really knew less than most people. I really didn’t know anything about Milwaukee. 

OMC: You talked a bit about the community issues driving you away.  Now you are back.  Do you feel like there’s been some good change?

EV: I think there’s been considerable change in the city. In fact, I think I was probably a little more fatigued and frustrated than the actual environment not being what I thought it was. It was probably more internal.

There have been a number of advancements and a lot of things that we haven’t improved on. I think, in the last couple of years we’ve seen some regression in some things that had at one point advanced. So that, again, is frustrating.

Now, I’m a little more up for the challenge. I see our (the station’s) role and my role really as a host of the show as that of a catalyst for a lot of the things that can happen in this community, particularly for African Americans, to improve their quality of life.

OMC: Talk a little bit about the media landscape and your thoughts on the current state of Milwaukee media?

EV: Well, I think it’s changed. A huge change in Milwaukee media has been right here at this radio station with the 2004 change to a 24-hour talk station. It’s the first African American station of its kind in the city and really one of very few around the country that do this on a full-time basis. So that’s one major step, I think, in the right direction.

For too long African Americans have been considered to be only concerned about music and, I’ve always believed that people -- black people -- wanted news and information just like everybody else. They just had to feel like the source was there that could provide them with the news and information that they could rely on and trust.

Certainly, technology has made a huge difference.  What you ( do is different and big.  There’s the bloggers, the Web sites. The pace at which we can get information has made our job more challenging. People don’t have to wait for the 6 p.m. news and they almost have an expectation that you get information to them almost the minute it happens.

I always find it interesting -- I’m on the air from 2 to 6 p.m. and I’ll be focusing on one subject when I’ll get a call from somebody in the audience who’ll say well, this and that happened and why aren’t you talking about it? They’re watching CNN, the Web or they’re catching these stories live and they expect me as a talk show host to be discussing those matters just as rapidly.

Because of the Internet, everyday people have access to news that all of us who’ve been in this business used to only have had access to.

OMC: How do you prepare for your show?

EV: A lot of reading and a lot of talking to people. I’m still in the habit of waking up early in the morning. I don’t get up as early as I used to, but I still get up earlier than most people because I’m just accustomed to being up.

But the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is go to the computer and I start looking for what happened overnight. I read probably five or six news services. I used to read four or five newspapers in hardcopy; fortunately, we don’t have to do that anymore.

And then when I see things that I think will be of interest to our listeners, I try to contact the principals that are involved in those stories.  Whether we’re talking local or national, I tend to get a positive response from people who want to talk about whatever the issue is. So I always have the opportunity to have a guest on who is central to whatever the issue is.

OMC: You had a role in Mayor Barrett’s campaign, correct?

EV: I was deputy campaign director.

OMC: What did you learn from it?  What did you like and dislike?

EV: I learned from that that I don’t want to have anything else to do with politics and to a degree, I learned some of that even in this business -- that people want you around when they need you.  I think it’s the same thing with politics. You’re the politician who can help them, whatever the issue might be that day. After that, you’re like the plague, you know, and if you can’t help ‘em, they don’t want to have anything to do with you. And that’s not the way I believe in building friendships and relationships.  Friendships and relationships are important to me and I don’t know that you really develop those in that environment.

I ran into Tom a few weeks ago and he said to me that he’s probably made more enemies in the three years that he’s been mayor than he did in (the) years he was in Washington. 

It’s not a friendly environment and maybe it’s not supposed to be, but that’s not what I live for. So I made up my mind, leaving the campaign, that I didn’t really want to have anything to do with that. I came back here because this is what I enjoy doing.

In campaigns, you meet a lot of important people, you meet a lot of people who know how to get things done, but you also realize that they are so focused on that that they don’t have a lot of time for anything else.

OMC: What grade would you give the mayor’s current tenure? 

EV: I don’t live in the city (Von resides in the village of Brown Deer), so it’s kind of difficult.  I do, though, work in the city and I talk about the city all the time. I talk to people probably more than most people in this business. I talk to people who are affected by the things that City Hall does and doesn’t do.

And my own personal assessment based on what my expectations would have been at the time and of the role of mayor I’d have to give him a D.

Unfortunately, I think he’s surrounded himself with some people who are not very helpful to him. They’ve been unresponsive. That’s what I hear a lot from people who call me.

I haven’t had anything to do with his administration from the day he took office, but because of the relationship we developed during the campaign, people assume that I still have this contact with him. So I get calls from people all the time asking ‘me can you talk to the mayor about this? Will you tell the mayor this?’ And the first thing I tell ‘em is I don’t talk to the mayor except when you hear him on the radio.

On a few occasions I’ve tried to provide some insight to him, I’ve tried to advise him and I don’t know that it’s been heeded, but I’m not sure he’s heeding anybody’s advice. I’m not sure exactly what he’s listening to.

OMC: Please grade Sheriff Clarke.

EV: I think if David Clarke could be honest with himself and stop saying -- and it seems to be the Republican way now -- ‘I’m not a politician.’  He is a politician and he needs to accept that and stop playing this game. I’m not sure what the game is being played for.
I think as far as law enforcement goes -- and I’ve told him this -- if he would just stop all the other stuff and just be the sheriff I think he could be the best sheriff this county has known, next to my father-in-law (Richard E. Artison).

But certainly in terms of law enforcement and his expectations, his demands on his department, I think he’s right on.

I think he says some things and he does some things because even though he’s denying being a politician, he understands that he’s a politician somewhere in there. He says some things that are certainly politically motivated, but don’t serve him well.

He says he doesn’t really want to be the mayor. He says he wants to be the sheriff, he loves his job. Then be the sheriff and just be the sheriff, do the things in and within the department that need to be done.  (If he did this) I think he would be revered in this community. But because he has these fits of ego, you know, he says things and does things that rub people the wrong way. As sheriff I’d give him a B.

OMC: County Executive, Scott Walker?

EV: Now he is a politician, and he knows it and he doesn’t deny it. As far as Scott Walker’s concerned, he’s just so hard to track. He’s been in this station and he can woo you and swoon you better than any politician I’ve ever had to interview or sit across the table from. I can’t tell what he’s doing. I don’t know what he’s doing. I know that county is not in good shape. I don’t know that he’s to blame for it because he’s so elusive.

I think he has to accept the blame for it because he’s the man at the top, but I think he’s caught up in being a Republican politician who’s trying to find -- or follow the path that conservative Republicans must follow if that’s what they’re gonna be viewed as. So philosophically and even in terms of the day-to-day function of government I disagree with his positions. I don’t see anything he’s done from cutting bus routes to cutting programs, or at least attempting to … he’s at war with Lee Holloway and the more liberal members of the County Board all the time, as well as others in the community.

I tend to agree with the other side, because I see the kinds of problems that come out of the policies that he’s advancing and the things that he stands behind. So those are the people I talk to every day, people who complain about that stuff.

OMC: If you had a magic wand for the area and you could change three things, what would they be?

EV: I don’t play that game very well, because the problems are huge.  You start with families and you try to make families stronger so the kids go to school, but then you look at the kids and you must look back at the parents in those homes.

You need to do what you can to put families on the right track and that’s an inclusive project.

I’d provide jobs for people because I think this rising crime we see -- or we’re seeing is a result of people being out of work. Granted, people don’t have, in many cases, the skill sets necessary to go to work in some of the jobs that are available out here. 

In this society we shouldn’t have the numbers of people out of work in a concentrated area like we have without somebody coming up with a plan. There is something that anyone can do to provide for their family, to provide for themselves, even if they’re single, and we shouldn’t have all these idle hands around town. So, that’s my one thing.

OMC: What is your definition of success?

EV: That’s probably hard for me because I don’t feel like I’ve been a success or that I’ve made it to a successful place yet.  I’m hoping it’s a place where when you wake up every day, you feel pretty good about where you are and what you’re doing, what you’ve done.  So that if that’s your last day, you’re not feeling like -- and other people aren’t feeling like -- you left some work undone.

A lot of people define success by how much money you have in the bank. Well, if that was me, I’d have to just quit right now. I’d have to consider myself a total failure. I really believe it’s a matter of looking back at your day, your week, your month, your year and saying, you know, how many of the things that I said I was gonna do did I accomplish? How many of the things that I accomplished really made somebody else’s life a little better? I think that’s how you measure it.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.