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I’ve known Charlie Sykes since he was 16 years old, a freckle-faced kid swimming in the wake of his colorful father, Jay, trying to keep up.
Jay was an iconoclast who had a varied and colorful background and who decided to run for lieutenant governor in 1970. Most candidates release lists of organizations that endorse them, but Jay released a list of organizations he couldn’t endorse, like the Boy Scouts because they wore military-like uniforms. That’s the kind of humor he brought to the race.
Jay didn’t come close to winning, but he brought color, a viewpoint and a bravery to politics that was rare in those days. And he dragged his son around on his campaign trips.
Charlie has the same thing. He’s colorful, has a viewpoint and is unafraid to say what he things. From his time as a young reporter on the staff of the old Milwaukee Journal, he has always had the instinct to ruffle feathers no matter what the opposition thought of him.
As announced yesterday, he’s leaving his gig at WTMJ after a quarter-century. And the radio landscape in Milwaukee will be poorer because of his departure.
Charlie and I are caverns apart politically, but we have always been friends. He and Mark Belling at WISN changed Milwaukee radio, perhaps forever. They are both staunch conservatives, and as the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon swept the nation, both rode their own similar waves in Milwaukee.
While Belling is known for his irascible nature, Sykes has always tried to downplay his furies.
Hei climbed into national prominence in recent months thanks to his fierce feud with Donald Trump and his growing concern for both conservative talk radio and the conservative movement itself.
Charlie is 62, a year younger than his dad was when he died of a heart attack. And his growing frustration with conservatives obviously had something to do with his decision to leave, although he says that wasn’t the key.
"It would also be fair to say that this campaign has made the decision easier," he wrote on the Right Wisconsin blog. "The conservative movement has been badly damaged; obviously the conservative media is broken as well. So this is a good time for step back, sit down for a while and ask, ‘What the hell just happened here?’
"And I plan to spend much of the next year working on a book about the crackup of the conservative movement. My working title is 'How the Right Lost Its Mind'."
Charlie was the linchpin of WTMJ radio. Steve Wexler, who is now the vice president for radio for Scripps, plucked him from WISN and gave him the morning slot. The effect was almost immediate for a station that had always been the "good old station" in Milwaukee.
Suddenly WTMJ had a superstar. The president of The Journal Company, Steve Smith, pledged that the station was going "to climb the hill with Sykes." And it did. He had tremendous influence on conservative politics in the state. His support was crucial for several candidates over the years. State Sen. Leah Vukmir was a Waukesha housewife interested in education until Sykes put her on his bandwagon, and she has gone on to become an influential voice in the Wisconsin legislature.
One more note here, and I think it’s important: Putting Jeff Wagner into Sykes’ morning slot is going to be a shock for his audience. Wagner is a guy who looks good on paper, but has never shown the depth or the contacts that Sykes has. He has always liked the notoriety a little too much and often acts like a know-it-all celebrity rather than a thoughtful radio host.
This would have been a great opportunity for WTMJ to take a risk and move the station away from the right.
This would have been a great opportunity for WTMJ to take a risk and move the station away from the right wing into the world of liberal talk. Conservative talk radio is beginning to wane in popularity and the cyclical nature of things will soon likely turn back to liberal talk.
But, that’s not going to happen. Sykes is going to leave a legacy that is impossible for WTMJ to match, no matter how much brave talk they give us.
I’m going to miss Charlie on the air. He always pricked my sensibilities and I often found myself smiling along with him. On his blog he wrote about a mentor he had who retired and was asked what he was going to do.
"I plan to sit on a rocking chair on my front porch," he said. "After a couple of weeks, I plan to start rocking. Slowly."
I’m pretty sure there is not going to be a rocking chair for Charlie anytime soon. And we should all be grateful for that.
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.
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