What's it like being Gene Mueller's son? That question's been a constant throughout my life – one I'm always happy to answer and one that's had countless answers.
In my earliest childhood memories, I felt like I was the coolest kid on the planet. People in Milwaukee knew who my father was and stopped him in line at the grocery store to say, "Hey, where do I know your voice from." And considering Milwaukee was as big as I thought the world was, that meant he must've been one of the most famous people on the globe! There was the smug ecstasy of my first day on air – the class pride of Take Your Child To Work Day – that quickly evolved into an embarrassed humbling hearing my squeaky first-grade voice back on tape in front of all my classmates, the star of the school day's Show And Tell turned into the joke. An early lesson: The most horrifying sound in the world is hearing your own voice played back to you.
That wasn't the end of the humblings. Eventually I grew up and realized that the entire planet's not hanging on your father's words. Heck, not even the entire city or neighborhood is. People listen to different stations, different things, different music genres – and when I hit those awkward teenage years, I felt the same way. I wanted to listen to the popular music everyone else was – but would that make me a traitor to the family? When I finally got the nerve to ask if it was OK that I listened to KISS FM, my dad didn't hesitate: Of course it was. There was nothing he wanted more for me – and my sister Alyssa – to become my own person, with my own opinions, tastes and life outside of his shadow. Like any parent.
I grew up more, and it became time for me to do exactly that: become my own person. Considering I wanted to get in an adjacent industry, it was a tricky process – a privilege to have the benefit of his name, but also a pesky one to navigate. I think, and hope, I did. And in the process, as I grew and changed, my relationship with my dad grew and changed, my father becoming my friend, a confidante who could truly understood this weird communications industry and that I could learn from. Maybe he learned from me too, old generation and new swapping notes. (Though he has more Twitter followers than me, so maybe I've got more learning to do.)
So. That question I've stalled on. What's it feel like to be Gene Mueller's son? Over my 31-year journey with dad – just a fraction of his long and impressive career – I've felt proud, smug, embarrassed, ecstatic, uncomfortable and everything in between. But most of all, from childhood to now, I've felt profoundly blessed. Blessed to have a father to guide me as a man and a communicator. Blessed to have a father who accepted his platform with humbleness and did his best to pass that attitude onto me. And, most of all, blessed to get to have a father I'm so honored to share with so many listeners across the state over the years – listeners who've made it clear over the years, and especially now, how much of an impact he made on them.
Today marks Gene Mueller's final day on air, the culmination of an incredible career older than me. Some might be upset their big farewell comes on the same day as globe-shaking news, horrible weather and more taking up airtime. For my dad, I imagine this is exactly how he wants to go out; he never wanted to be the story. But while it's the start of a new era for him, I know nothing will change. He'll still be a great role model for me, on and off a platform. He'll still use his voice for good. And he'll still be my dad. I'll know him closer than most – and know that I'll still learn new things about him every day.
And hopefully you'll learn some new things about Gene in this conversation between father and son, talking about my dad's life behind the mic and behind the scenes.
Matt Mueller: So why now?
Gene Mueller: I’m 65. I’m healthy. Those are the two big things. The money works obviously; we can do it comfortably. Those aren’t real sexy answers, but it’s not like there was this great epiphany like (*makes heavenly choir sound effect*).
Matt: Did you have anything close to that?
Gene: Nah, just little realizations along the way. I got my knees back – that helped. I’ve seen friends die – too young and that didn’t get to retire through no fault of their own. Things happen. You’re not guaranteed tomorrow. So that gives you a sense of your own mortality. You go to bed at this age and maybe you don’t wake up – it happens. Not to be morbid, but it’s just real. So take the time that you have now and execute what you want to do.
And selfishly, it’s hard to complain – the job’s been so good to me, I was well-recompensed for what I did, I stole a check for 44 years doing something I love – but when you work third or second shift and you’re off the rest of the world’s clock like that, you miss a lot. You can’t stay up at night on a weeknight. You gotta leave the game in the sixth inning. You gotta go to bed at halftime.
Matt: Oh, I know (*laughs*)
Gene: (*laughs*) Yeah, you saw it. And there are people who give up so much more. But there are those little things, and later in life, you go through your phone and see a list of people that you haven’t seen in 20-30 years – not because you fell out or anything but because you only have a weekend to get all your social life in, and if you have a family and other obligations, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of time. Well, now I can do that.
Plus, just to sleep in and get my circadian rhythms back. It’s very, very unnatural to wake up at 1:30 in the morning. It’s not right.
Matt: How did you do it for so long?
Gene: You had to do it. Part of it is that, in radio, morning is still the big show. I was always lucky enough to be offered that opportunity, so I figured if somebody was going to trust me with that, I’m not going to bitch about it. (*laughs*) And it paid for a good living. Like any other job, you do what you’ve gotta do.
You’re going to find that, as you get older, you’ll do a lot of things that you didn’t think you could do because you’ve just gotta do it – be it doing a diaper that you didn’t think you could ever do without throwing up or hard labor. People go to work every day and bust their asses lifting heavy things and putting up with deplorable working conditions to support their families. I didn’t have to do any of that. The toughest part of my day came and went in a minute: when the alarm went off and I turned it off. That was as tough a sacrifice as I had to make.
The rest of the day? If you’re doing something you love, you’re really not working? The reason why that cliché lives on: It’s true. Sure, there’s deadlines and other things, but for the most part, man, it’s a front seat to history and you get to meet people and you get to do these incredible things and no two days are alike. If the worst part of my job was a strange schedule – and I can fix that and be comfortable and spend the rest of my life with friends and family I care about and see the world – I’m blessed.
Matt: Did the changing world of the media, and of how people respond and react to the media, have any impact on your decision?
Gene: Yeah. Change is inevitable in the industry. I’m glad I learned how to type in eighth grade. Now it’s just a given for everybody, but that was a very rare skill in a man back in the 1970s. There was that and adapting to digital and multiple platforms and the way people consume those. I don’t consider those problematic – there’s the old John Lennon line about “No problems, only solutions” that my old boss always lived by. You adapt and you learn to live and grow. An old dog can learn new tricks – and if you don’t want to, well, that’s on you.
On the other hand, more so now, I always lived in fear that I would say something that would get me fired. Johnny Fever on “WKRP” said booger and that cost him his career in L.A. More so today, people are so eager to pigeon-hole you politically, and they want to say, “Ah, see, gotcha: You’re a liberal!” or “Ah, see, gotcha: You’re a conservative!” I get those accusations each day from both sides.
I read an interview on Election Day with election commissioner Claire Woodall-Vogg – the most benign, X-and-O, how to vote interview you’d ever want to hear, nothing political except for at the very end when I asked her about voting integrity and what she says to those who doubt the system. She said listen to election officials, that they’ll tell you what’s going on, that we’ve had elections and they work, and that we have the court records to prove it. Well, I got an email from one guy saying “J’accuse!” – this is proof you’re an obvious liberal and I don’t know how you’re going to sleep in retirement and called me everything but a cur dog. But that’s the world we live in. I didn’t have to worry about myself or her saying anything wrong, but there’s just people who want to project what they think you are.
When you’re on the air for three-and-a-half hours a day in front of a live mic, there’s always that chance that you’re on that tightrope and you’re gonna take a wrong step and there won’t be a net there to catch you. That fear grew the older I got. I have a lot of equity in the market, and I didn’t want to do anything that would screw that up. As of this recording, I still have some chances to do that, so nothing is for sure. I may climb on the air and say booger! (*laughs*)
Matt: So across my life, you’ve had three very different modes of your radio career: the KTI days on the music and entertainment side, the TMJ days on the news side and the short Packers bit. Which of those was your favorite mode?
Gene: It’s like picking a favorite kid. I got to do things on all levels that I always wanted to do.
I always wanted to be a disc jockey; my heroes growing up were Larry Lujack in Chicago and Bob Barry here in Milwaukee at OKY. I just thought to be a disc jockey made you the coolest kid on the block, short of being in a band. And I had no musical talent or rhythm, so that wasn’t going to happen – but what’s the next best thing? Play records and be a smartass on the radio. I thought I was a good smartass, but I wasn’t a good disc jockey, and people who knew better were willing to tell me that.
At KTI, I had a chance to be with Bob Reitman and be his news guy. He was the guy who ran the show, and I was just the smartass sidekick – but I still got to do something I liked, which was news. So that was checking a lot of boxes there.
Then I’d walk by the TMJ studio on my way to the KTI closet that we worked out of when we first started back in ’82, and I’d look in there and see Gordon Hinkley and Jim Irwin and Frank Richardson, and think someday I could work my way into that. Because that’s the big stick, the state utility of communication. I never thought it would happen, but I also didn’t want to play the hits when I was 60 years old; that just didn’t appeal to me. Fate had it that Bob retired, an opportunity came up at TMJ and suddenly I’m on the morning show again, working with a guy like John Jagler who I’d become really good friends with in the newsroom off the air. And we got to execute that friendship and also our Wisconsin sensibilities together on the air. I had a blast with him.
He moved on and then suddenly the show was mine and had to go through some changes and morph and become what it is today. But I was always honored to be there. Every morning, I pull up to that place, I sit in that chair at 4:59 and I keep waiting for Gordon Hinkley to stick his head through the door and say, “Hey kid, get out of my chair; what are you doing?” But then suddenly it’s 5 a.m. and the top-of-the-hour sounder goes off – and it’s you. And that novelty’s never worn off. Holy crud, this kid from Sheboygan is on the radio in Milwaukee doing this show. It’s a tingle moment every day.
Then the Packers thing was just a fortuitous circumstance. They needed somebody to be a host, and my boss John Schweitzer asked if I wanted to give it a try. So I figured what the heck; you kids were still pretty young. But that was the reason why I only did it for a year: It was a lot of work.
Matt: I was going to ask about that …
Gene: Your mom was still working, and it was just a lot – I still had my regular full-time job too at KTI. It was great for a season to experience that, to be a part of that legendary legacy broadcast and work with Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren and to get paid to watch Packers football and interview all kinds of people. It was wonderful. But just the practicality of it after a year made its presence felt. It was a pretty obvious choice.
Matt: Sorry about that. (*laughs*)
Gene: Hey, Dennis Krause took it from where it was to new heights. That whole crew; they do a great job.
Matt: You talked about having courtside seats to history. What is the most memorable event or thing that you ever covered?
Gene: Dahmer was amazing. That happened on our watch in the morning. Channel 4 had one of their photogs listening to the police scanners and chase and see what was going on. John Drilling – his dad was an anchor at Channel 6 – was the guy who was on that night. When he came back after he saw what he saw, you heard bits and pieces about what they were finding, what was coming out, what they thought was going on – it was all just within hours of making the arrest, so it was still incubating. Then the true horror of it came through. Trying to convey it was just … we didn’t talk about things like that. How do you broach things like that? Then the trial happened and the graphic testimony came out – things that I don’t think we’ve heard since in a courtroom that awful. And hopefully we never experience it again.
The other one was 9/11. That happened on our watch too.
Matt: Nothing but light-hearted stuff you’re choosing. (*laughs*)
Gene: There was fun, there was fun! Obama’s inauguration was one. I got sick election night and I didn’t get to be there the day he won, but just the fact that an African American man had become President of the United States in our lifetime, fulfilling so many dreams, was just … wow. And then what was going to happen after – what was going to change? I don’t think anybody could’ve foreseen how the country would change for good and for bad in terms of how we processed that, but it was certainly a pivotal moment.
Watching Milwaukee change was another – in dibs and dabs, little pieces like from Henry Maier to John Norquist. You had a mayor who’d been on his watch for 28 years with a very set agenda obviously and some ego that made for good copy, then go to a guy like Norquist, a true urbanist who did things that really made the city different in a good way – less car-reliant, less freeway-reliant – then to Tom Barrett. To see the changes in the Common Council, to see African Americans become not exceptions on county boards and village boards, to see a county executive who’s Black, to see an acting mayor who’s Black – our second one – and is now running to become the first elected African American mayor.
To see those kinds of steps … the Milwaukee I came to in 1981 was a good place. The Milwaukee I’m in now is a better place – certainly with a lot of warts and moles, many very much the same from back then, but I think we’ve really progressed. I was always proud to be here, but even more so now – and hopefully we can kick some of those things over the hump with this next generation that’s younger, smarter, faster with bigger ideas and broader values.
Matt: You’re leaving TMJ during a time of really massive changes: new ownership, a new home, no longer the Packers. How do you feel, as kind of the face and the steward of the station in recent years, about where it’s going?
Gene: I think change is great. I’m encouraged by it. It’s a lot of change at once, and a part of this city – I’m guilty of it too – is reluctant to change, and that goes for its institutions. But I’m glad this company is embracing a change.
Radio City: I love it and, to me, it’s a shrine – that’s Channel 4, that’s John McCullough, that’s Bill Carlsen and Jonathan Green and all the great people who worked there. But it’s a different era. Those people are gone, and I’m going to be on that list of people who are gone. Now it’s time for that new generation to take over. Vinny (Vitrano) and Erik (Bilstad) and Bryan (Dee) will have the morning show, and they’ll do a great job with it. Scott Warras at night is killing it. We have great personalities throughout the day.
TMJ is a utility. You may not use it all the time, but when the air is silent in your neighborhood or you see a dark cloud in the sky, you’re not going to get what TMJ gives you off of a podcast or off of a streaming national service. TMJ is fiercely local – that’s the essence of what it is. It’s like an electrical outlet or water tap. It’s the communication utility. I know that the new ownership – they’re not that new anymore, but at my age, everything is new – gets that and understands that. And that’ll always make TMJ relevant.
And that building? When I walk through that building, to me, I hear the ghosts. To the younger people who work there, I can’t speak for them, but I can’t imagine it means anything to them because they have no attachment to it. They don’t know what it was like. And 3rd Street Market Hall is going to be a wonderful opportunity for the station to show its face, to be in the middle of Downtown Milwaukee, to see that renaissance. All these things that we have that we didn’t have when I got here, it’s amazing what’s happened – and to see TMJ become a part of that, I think, is refreshing and new and speaks to a new generation.
Matt: What was your favorite interview?
Gene: I think it would be Leslie Nielsen. Just because he was so nice and easy to be with and you forgot he was a Hollywood star because he was just one of the guys. He loved to laugh; he had this little fart machine that he’d squeeze off at inappropriate times. The joke never got old. He’d come back to town all the time, and he’d always hook up with us.
We’d go out to dinner and pull jokes on him. We gave him the world’s shortest parade one time, on Mitchell Street on the back of a Champion Chicken truck. (*laughs*) There was a giant chicken on top of this van, and he rode the chicken. The parade went one block long, with a marching band and people and all this shit – but he didn’t know it was only going to be one block long. So he gets off the plane, and we’re like, “Leslie, we’re gonna have a parade for you.” So he gets on top of this chicken truck that goes one block and that’s it. (*laughs*)
Matt: And he was fine with this?
Gene: He was great. He loved getting his balls busted.
Another time he told us that he was often mistaken for Peter Graves, the actor from “Mission Impossible” and the pilot from “Airplane.” So we pick him up from the airport and drive him to, like, Hawley and Wisconsin. There was a huge billboard there with the head of Peter Graves and the sign said, “Welcome to Milwaukee, Leslie Nielsen!” and we spelled his name wrong. (*laughs*)
Another time he came to town and we made a sculpture – a giant head of cheese in his likeness. We just had that kind of relationship – and then, because of that, he’d invite us on to movie sets with him. We just laughed all the time, and the interviews were a scream. He was very forthcoming. After him, everything else paled. We just never had a relationship with anybody quite like that.
The cast of “Cheers” was great. They were all so nice to us and availed themselves to us during the taping. There’d be a break, and we’d talk to Ted Danson or Kirstie Alley. The only one we didn’t talk to was Frasier, Kelsey Grammer. He was busy. But even Woody (Harrelson) talked to us, and that was when his dad was in the middle of that weird whole thing where he supposedly killed Kennedy or his dad was in prison or some bizarre thing. There was shit it didn’t want to talk about – but I think he did still end up talking to us.
Those were among the favorites. Those are the ones who come to mind. The bad ones are very few and far between.
Matt: What do you make of the state of radio right now? What’s next?
Gene: I think local radio, there will always be a place for it. I’m glad I’m not in music radio – I don’t know what happens there. But I think sports talk will be fine. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing gambling will have a huge impact on that format, even just in terms of advertising if nothing else. As it becomes more common place, it’s gonna be one more thing to talk about when you’re not debating who’s the GOAT.
Local talk radio like what we do? I think there will always be a place for that, with a heavy news emphasis. The problem is having the bodies around to execute it. It’s very labor-intensive. Hosts cost money, reporters cost money, all your ancillary things cost a lot of money. Music radio’s a lot cheaper – but they have to compete now with streaming services and people can now pick their own music on their phones. We didn’t have to worry about that in 1982. If you wanted to hear Madonna or A Flock of Seagulls, you had to listen to KTI or one of our competitors.
I don’t know what’s going to happen there, on the FM side, but I think there will always be a place for the warmth of conversation. And the podcast proves that. That niche programming works; you can draw a crowd to almost any kind of subject. The problem, like anything else with these new digital formats and platforms, is how do you monetize it.
Matt: And there’s just so much out there now. So many podcasts and it’s like every niche is filled.
Gene: Right. It’s like streaming on TV. How many services are there now? Where are we going to be in ten years? You can only afford so many – and the people who cut cable now have eight streaming services and are paying as much for all of that as they were for Spectrum. The economics will always be in flux and chasing each other. Newspaper too – they’re trying to find their way because digital platforms took away the legs under their stool. Newspapers then gave their product away for so long online, and then you put up a paywall and people go, “What!? I was getting the milk for free!” Well now you have to buy some of the cow.
Matt: What’s next for you?
Gene: I’m not going to say sleep. That’s too trite and too easy. The immediate is Florida; a vacation with your mom. That was our hard out: You will be done by Feb. 25 so we can go to Florida and see my friends.
Then I’ll come home and see what it’s like being a pensioner. I’m going to let things come to me. I’m sincere when I say I want to reconnect with friends and couples that, because of our lifestyle, we couldn’t be with on a Sunday night through Thursday night, cramming in a week’s social life into two days. I’ve got a million acquaintances; I have very few friends. That’s not a complaint; that’s just the reality. I know a lot of people, and a lot of people know me – but I don’t know a lot of people closely. And I’m not going to make all that back in whatever time I have left, but there are some people that I really feel the need to connect with. Now I’ve got the time to do it.
Then, with what’s left of my talent and skills, we’ve talked to TMJ about doing some things. They’re very chill about how it doesn’t have to be decided yesterday – it can be at my leisure – but I’d sure like to help them. They’ve been good to me, and if they see value in me, I think there could be a very good mutual arrangement. If others out there see value in me, I’m open to bidding.
Matt: OK, Aaron Rodgers. (*laughs*)
Gene: (*laughs*) Do I have to do a purge!?
The thing I definitely don’t want to do is take on too much. I’ve heard a lot of retired people say you don’t want to do that because it’s like you’re working again and you’re all booked up and you don’t want to be that person.
I’m still doing the Penfield board, but I’m stepping down from the Milwaukee Press Club board. I’ll stay a member, but it’s time for a change there in terms of the makeup of the board. They don’t need another old white guy; it’s time to open that seat up to somebody from one of these new media platforms that doesn’t look like me and maybe doesn’t go to the same restroom as I do. More women, more people of color, more people from different backgrounds, not necessary people from legacy media. We need to keep the club going – because I really believe in their mission. I think the media needs a place like that, and I think the community needs what the club provides in terms of access to politicians and that civic service it does. That should never die. I think they do a great job; it was an honor to lead it for a few years and an honor to serve on its board, but it’s time for me to go.
And Penfield I just love, because of the organic way I fell into it and the mission they do. They fill so many gaps in this community that I don’t think people fully understand or know what Penfield is. It’s really an amazing place, and to be on that board is an honor. That’s something I want to devote some time to. That’s a firm, hard commitment that I keep. And your mom’s got ideas for me. And I don’t want to give out any names before I get anything done, but there are a million places that people could use help. And it’s time to do something like that now – because it’s the right thing.
Matt: Did you want Alyssa or me to get into media and follow you? Or was it the opposite?
Gene: I don’t think your mom wanted you to go in.
Matt: Yeah, I can confirm that. (*laughs*)
Gene: She saw me as a unicorn – the things that happened to me and the good fortune that I had and the opportunities don’t happen to everybody. In fact, they seldom occur. Staying this long and leaving on your own accord and achieving what we did with a lot of people’s help.
Me? I didn’t care. I just wanted you to be the best yous and not to be “Alyssa Mueller, daughter of Gene” or “Matt Mueller, son of Gene,” that you will be your own people. That was my biggest thing: I never wanted you to be in that shadow or in any way, good or bad, treated differently because of what I did. I can honestly say that all that has come to you guys is of your own making and skill sets.
Matt: I don’t think nepotism doesn’t mean that you don’t have talent or that you don’t work hard – but if we’re being honest, it does probably mean things were easier.
Gene: Maybe because you lived around someone who was in kind of a performance art, that made you more comfortable to even just try it because you were exposed to it.
Matt: Well, and we had the opportunities and contacts to try it.
Gene: And consuming media the way we did in this house, because I had to watch it all the time. We always had the news on and talked about the news. So maybe that bent the twig, but the tree still grew on its own. If you had come to me after high school and said you wanted to go to Marquette law school, that would’ve been great.
Matt: What advice would you give to, say, a 31-year-old person working in the local media landscape?
Gene: Stay open to everything. Be willing to change. Always ask for advice. Get to know everybody you possibly can – it’s easy to do now that you don’t have to carry a Rolodex anymore. Take down everybody’s number and keep it. You never know when you’re going to need somebody. Expand your horizons and don’t become a one-note. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help. Humble yourself – and when being coached, accept it graciously. And when you’re being complimented, be even more gracious. All through this process, for all these people who love me and are saying these wonderful things, all I have to do is crack open a ratings book and realize that there’s a lot of Bob & Brian listeners and Czabe listeners and Jay Weber listeners who couldn’t care a flip what I’m going to do Friday afternoon after I leave the radio business. So never get too full of yourself.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.