By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 21, 2010 at 8:07 AM

For my money, I'll accept only a few excuses for being wide awake at 4 a.m. They include feeding a newborn baby, driving to the airport to head out on vacation, or once in a blue moon, wrapping up a crazy night out on the town.

Being at work is not one of them.

But that's just the way it for the producers and the people in front of the microphones on Milwaukee's top-rated FM morning shows. At 96.5 WKLH, home of the long-running and still immensely popular Dave and Carole Morning Show, producer Marcus Allen was already at his desk when I pulled into the Milwaukee Radio Group offices last Thursday at 4 a.m.

Host Dave Luczak showed up two minutes later, and his co-host, Carole Caine, was in studio by 4:15. All three were energetic and focused and not even overly caffeinated.

Their pre-dusk demeanor is something that takes most of my co-workers until at least 9 a.m. to achieve.

I, meanwhile, was having a hard time even focusing my eyes as I drank my first cup of coffee. I went to bed the night before at 8:30 p.m., but didn't fall asleep until after 10. Then -- and I was warned that this would happen -- my eyes popped open nearly every hour, fearing I'd sleep through my 3:30 a.m. alarm. I didn't want to miss this most unusual of OnMilwaukee.com shift switches.

And I didn't, though even after a brisk shower, I had a hard time pulling it together and finding my clothes (another rookie mistake, not laying them out the night before). Fortunately, the Marquette Interchange was absolutely empty on my commute, and I made it to the West Side on time, barely touching the brakes during the trip.

I found that the hour between 4 and 5 a.m. is the busiest for the show, as Allen rapidly compiles show topics for Luczak and Caine. He visits dozens of Web sites, both subscription-based show prep services and sites anyone can visit, like Fark.com, the Drudge Report and the New York Post.

"We have to cover all of our bases with Hollywood gossip, with sports news and weird stories," says Allen, who has produced the show since 2002. "At this time in morning, it's all about speed, so I'm just skimming headlines. If the headline jumps out and has potential to be funny, that's what I'm looking for."

The trio speaks a little, but the conversations aren't small talk. They quickly bark out ideas, run their printers ragged and highlight bits for the four-hour show.

What most listeners don't realize is how free-form their morning show really is. On this Thursday morning, Allen had a few guests relatively set in stone: Jason Wilde would talk Packers at 6:40 a.m. I, as their resident "Milwaukee expert" would do a segment a little after 7 a.m., and Gino Salomone would chat about Hollywood stuff after 8 a.m.

Other than that, they planned scheduled news breaks, traffic reports, a segment on weird news around 6 a.m., as well as bits on listener mail, classic rock news and "Hollywood Trash."

The rest would be wide open, an organic show that develops throughout the morning. Given how completely seamless it sounds to the listener, the blank slate in front of me seemed nothing short of daunting.

I know, because Marcus Allen made me do his job on this morning.

By 4:30 a.m., Allen and I had compiled a stack of reading material for Luczak that was literally inches thick. "Of this, Dave will only use about a quarter of it," says Allen. "But it's better to have more to weed out than to be scrambling."

The producer's office and recording studio are just a few feet away, but my job was running the papers back and forth, taking requests from Luczak if he needed anything. The show would start in 30 minutes, ready or not.

"You want to be timely, so the stuff you do the day before, it's already old news," says Allen.

At 4:41 a.m., WISN-TV meteorologist Sally Severson called in via an ISDN line to provide the day's weather broadcasts. Allen and I let her do her thing without even stopping the tape, while we pulled the day's sponsor mentions from a binder in the studio and handed them to Luczak to read at predetermined times.

Back in Allen's studio, he quickly began chopping up Severson's reports -- editing them and uploading them to the "system," as he calls it; they would begin playing in roughly 28 minutes.

Finally, the show open, queued up in the computer, sprung to life at 5 a.m.

At 5:10 a.m. I was well into my third cup of coffee when Luczak summoned me to gather and find sound for his now hand-picked nuggets from that thick pile of potential show material. WKLH's clip services provide audio files of all sorts of material that an FM morning show might need, from yesterday's "Oprah," to "The Tonight Show" to "American Idol" to "The Daily Show."

Allen methodically but quickly gathered and indexed the clips, transcribing the final few words of each audio bite, so Luczak would know when to start talking again. This part was cool to watch; each morning, Allen loads the clips onto a touch-screen monitor that, via the network, is the same as what Luczak sees while working the board. When he wants to call up a sound bite, he just taps the screen and moves on.

This process took a good half hour of busy work, but it also provided Luczak, Caine and Kevin Brandt -- who had just rolled into the studio for two hours of sidekick work -- with enough fodder to riff off for the rest of the show.

At 6 a.m., Allen instructed me to begin recording the show for posterity, podcasting and archive purposes. The whole show was saved digitally through Allen's PC, but also as a backup on DAT (digital audio tape) and Mini Disc.

With the first hour of the show complete, Allen and I could take a deep breath and actually listen to the team in action, answering questions via instant messenger, posting on the WKLH Facebook page and taking the occasional listener call.

At 6:35 a.m., Luczak threw me into the fire by making me field the show's first contest of the morning: a pair of Rush tickets for their upcoming Summerfest show. He offered the tickets to the 96th caller, and as the phone lines lit up, I answered each one, "KLH caller one, KLH caller two, KLH caller three ..." and so on for about five minutes.

An appreciative fan named Roger won the tickets and I gathered his information, simultaneously letting Luczak know and watching the phone lines finally go dim. At 6:45 a.m., I called Wilde at his home in Green Bay, and "warmed him up," per Marcus' direction.

At 7:10 a.m., I jumped to the other side of the office for my weekly on-air appearance, discussing (of course) the OnMilwaukee.com Shift Switch series.

From my perspective, it was one of my best shows in months, and not just because I had already been awake for almost four hours. Usually, when I speed over to the studio and hop on the air, there's little sense of continuity for me. I'm just off the air, then I'm on, and then it's over. But this time, I could follow the vibe from the show's first two hours, and our chemistry was great. We took calls and read e-mails and did almost a 45-minute segment.

At 8 a.m., I drank my fifth cup of coffee and fielded calls for a contest to give away tickets to see Jackson Browne. At 8:15 a.m., someone called into discuss the meteoroid that streaked across the sky the night before. Mostly, I just listened.

At 8:42 a.m., I witnessed one of those elements of the show that listeners could only appreciate in person. Luczak, practically in between sentences on the air, came over the intercom and barked out a quick request: "Find me the story on Fox Sports about the Marine who helped a guy who was choking at a baseball game."

We had no idea what he was talking about but tracked down the story, nonetheless. Within two minutes, Marcus printed it out and told me to run it into the studio. I silently handed it to Luczak, and not five seconds later, he began telling the story as if he'd seen it in happen, himself. No stutters, no breaks in the action. It was poetry in motion.

During every shift switch, I love watching people excel at their job -- no matter what it is -- and Luczak, Caine, Brandt and Allen are no exception. I smiled watching the pros bring it all together.

At 8:50 a.m., I fielded calls for one more contest, this time for Admirals tickets. The rest of the morning slowed to a crawl.

Near the end of the shift, the pace felt like it was on cruise control (at least on our side of the action), and Allen began the laborious task of editing down segments. One of those was my piece, which, taking out commercials, ran about 22 minutes long. Allen deftly compressed it to eight minutes, trimming the fat and the un-funny stuff. You can hear the edited segment by clicking here; you'd have to listen very carefully to notice that it wasn't done in one take.

After the show ended, Luczak and Allen huddled in their office to briefly discuss the next day's lineup, but really, much of the action happens before the show. The trio would work until about noon, mostly on the administrative side of the show, but Allen dismissed me around 11 a.m. so I could finish the rest of my workday, which admittedly, was just about done. A three-hour nap beckoned, and it wasn't enough.

Honestly, it took me a full day to recover from the adjusted shift. I simply don't understand how morning show teams can recover for normal weekends then be so "on" so early Monday morning. Even as my day wore on, I never felt really awake. All that coffee only made me shaky.

Allen says he'll drink a little coffee at work, but mostly he's chugging soda and smoking cigarettes. There are no lunch (or breakfast) breaks. This morning, for example, he brought an apple, but I didn't see him eat it.

Before this job, Allen was a DJ and backup producer across the hall at the station former known at Lazer 103. He says he actually likes these hours, pointing out that the grocery stores are nice and empty after noon.

Allen says he prefers getting to work even a little earlier than the hosts, actually.

"When I get here, I've got to start up the computers," he says. "I want to give Carole a chunk of stuff to guide off of right off the bat, and then start on Dave's stuff."

Amazingly, Allen doesn't sound exhausted as he's giving this interview at about 4:10 a.m. It's just a way of life, and he says he's very comfortable being behind the scenes, rarely letting listeners hear his voice.

Indeed, radio producer is a mostly anonymous job, and Allen isn't even his real last name. But for a show that has sat near or at the top of the rating for so many years, it's an important one. And when it's going smoothly -- like I witnessed on this early Thursday morning -- listeners never even know he's there.

Which is exactly how Allen likes it.

Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.