Jay Weber doesn't quite "fit the suit" of a man who makes his living as a talk radio host.
Not that he wears suits. Few people on the "talent" side of the radio business do, particularly those who start their work shifts before dawn.
In an industry filled with nomads who move from market to market in search of higher ratings and bigger contracts, Weber, the morning host at News/Talk 1130 WISN, is the picture of stability.
He has worked at WISN since 1990, when he signed on as a news anchor and reporter. In 1992, he hosted a "WISN"s Morning News," which was followed in 1998 by "Weber and Dolan," an eight-year pairing with sportscaster Bob Dolan, and his current program, "The Jay Weber Show," which airs weekdays from 6-10 a.m.
While some radio hosts are upended by swelling egos and shrinking work habits, Weber comes across to his audience, primarily suburban residents, as both humble and hard working. Though he's passionate about his views and at times amplifies his conservative opinions on the air (a hazard of the job), Weber, who is 42 and single, leads a quiet existence, spending his hours away from the microphone hunting, fishing and working on woodworking and home improvement projects.
"I'm actually a pretty boring guy," he said over lunch last week at Saz's. The conversation about Weber's career, the radio industry and the upcoming election was anything but boring.
Enjoy this Milwaukee Talks interview with News/Talk 1130 WISN morning show host Jay Weber.
OnMilwaukee.com: With the election coming up, I imagine the next few months will be peak time for talk radio. It'll give everyone something to argue about besides Brett Favre.
Jay Weber: The election will be huge, no question. But, Brett Favre was nice for me. The news generally stops during July and August, so it was great to have that diversion. It's what everybody was talking about. It was THE story.
OMC: And with the conventions coming up, you won't be hurting for material.
JW: That's true, but I really don't know how (national conservative hosts) Rush (Limbaugh) and (Sean) Hannity do it, where they can be interested in it day after day after day for so long.
There is a point where I realize, "OK, I've got three Obama topics today and I had three Obama topics yesterday. I can't do any more Obama topics."
OMC: Do you listen to other radio shows, or are you afraid that doing that would influence your opinions or make you feel like you were repeating things that had been said elsewhere?
JW: It really depends. I don't ever listen to Rush, because I go home and nap. I'll listen to Charlie (Sykes) from WTMJ on my way home. I'll sometimes listen to (News/Talk 1130 afternoon host Mark) Belling, but there isn't much on his show that I don't know about.
I sort of sample a lot, but I don't really listen for very long. That's the nice thing about doing a show in the morning - you know you get the first crack at everything.
OMC: Give me the Cliff's Notes' version of the Jay Weber story. How did you get to where you are?
JW: I went to Kettle Moraine High School in Wales and then I went off to UW-Madison because my brother, J.J. was playing basketball there. I'd never given much thought to where I was going to go to school. I never thought about going anyplace exotic. I thought I'd wait until the time came and choose one. Well, my friends and I went up there to visit my brother a couple times and I thought "This is a pretty neat campus."
OMC: That was all it took, huh?
JW: Yep. I did 4½ years there. While I was in school, I worked at radio stations WIBA and WTDY. I started at WIBA doing a nighttime board job. Everybody else was screwing around at the school newspaper, and I was actually doing it. I thought I was in a good place.
When I got out of college, Mark Belling was the program director over at WTDY. He hired me as news director and, right after that, he left for Milwaukee.
OMC: Belling was your boss?
JW: I never had him as a direct boss. He hired me for my first job. It was sort of funny, because Belling's interview was a quiz. I was a young reporter. He didn't' know me from Adam. He started out by asking me who the secretary of state was and who the mayor of Madison was. He got more and more obscure until finally I couldn't answer the questions any more.
OMC: That sounds different.
JW: It was. But, I've been in interviews where they ask these bizarre questions and you don't now what they're looking for. Obviously, he wanted to see if I knew anything. He didn't want to waste his time hiring someone who didn't know who the secretary of state was. He basically wanted to know if I was stupid or if I was paying attention.
OMC: And now you guys are the bookends of local programming at WISN.
JW: Mark has been good to me and good to ‘ISN in general. If not for the stability of the other day parts, I probably wouldn't have had the chance to do what I've done.
OMC: And when did you get to Milwaukee?
JW: It's funny because Homer (Steve True from 540 ESPN) was doing the morning show for Belling at the time that I started. Shortly after Belling left, Homer went to Milwaukee, too.
OMC: Did you feel left out?
JW: After a year of working at WTDY for about $11,000 a year, I decided I would send out resumes. I sent them to everywhere warm first and then to Milwaukee. Of course, Milwaukee called. I came and I'm still here.
JW: I did news for a while, then I became news director. Then WISN decided going to rival WTMJ's news show in the morning, so we put on a four-hour news show. I worked on that and I actually thought it was a pretty good show. We were breaking news. We were actively reporting news instead of just writing stories out of the paper.
After that fell apart, they didn't know quite what to do with the morning show. They had Don Imus on for a while, and I was hacking out two-minute newscasts on the morning show and on Belling's afternoon show.
Then they decided to pair me with Bob Dolan and do a lighter show.
OMC: What did you think about that?
JW: I was concerned about that, because all of my credibility was in news. I had some feelers out with other stations in town and some TV stations and I worried that this was going to shoot all my news credibility. But, I figured "What the hell?" Let's do it. It lasted for eight years.
OMC: How long did it take you guys to gel?
JW: We were just thrown together. It took three or four months before we clicked. It took six months before we figured out what the show was going to be. Management, in typical fashion, said "Now, we want a light-hearted, funny show, but with a news edge. We want you to be serious, but not too serious." They didn't know what they wanted. Ultimately, you have to decide which way you want to go. One thing I learned from watching other guys do the job is that you develop the personalities. That's what people respond to.
OMC: How did that show end?
JW: We both sort of got tired of it. There is only so much nonsense you can do day after day. After eight years, you run out of stories. That's why I admire people like Bob and Brian (from 102.9 The Hog) and Dave and Carole (from 96.5 WKLH). We were out of topics. It wasn't fun any more. We decided when our contract was over, we'd go. Bob asked to get out of the contract early, because he wanted to do his travel show for TV.
I had six months left in the contract. At that point, we had moved to middays. So I said "Look, there are six months left in the contract. The one thing I hadn't done yet was serious talk. Let me try it. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, you can get somebody else."
OMC: Apparently, it worked.
JW: From day one, it started to take off. That surprised me a little. I figured it was going to go one way or another. The question is "Are people ready for serious topics early in the morning?" I thought the answer was probably "No." But, the ratings are as good as anything we had on Weber and Dolan. I'm a year and a half into it and I still enjoy it.
OMC: Doing a morning show in this market, where so many other shows have been around for more than a decade, has got to be tough.
JW: It is. I hope that WISN has finally learned the lesson. Because we power up and power down, because we're an AM station against Bob and Brian and all the other shows. They have to learn that a 4-share or a 5-share (in the ratings) is a really good number up against an FM station.
OMC: One of the things you do that some other hosts don't is mix in some lighter topics. When you do that, do you ever get criticized or feel like you are somehow shirking a duty?
JW: I try to mix it up, because it's in the morning and I used to do a really light show. I get some complaints when I do that, because the audience has been reprogrammed to expect the more serious stuff.
OMC: The conservative talk audience is fiercely loyal. You hear about people who listen to a station they like all day long.
JW: That's true. I was a big consumer of talk radio before I was doing it, but I'd get burned out on any one show. I'd listen to Rush for six months and I'd need a Rush break. I'd go away for a while and come back. A lot of people in the audience will do that, but a lot of people listen wall to wall. I have an uncle who literally does not watch TV. All he does is listen to talk radio. Unfortunately, he never gets a ratings diary, so he's not helping me.
OMC: I imagine that when people find out what you do for a living the two most common questions are: When do you sleep? And, what is Mark Belling like?
JW: Those are the two.
OMC: So, when do you sleep?
JW: Most people don't realize that I get up at 11 o'clock at night to put in six hours of prep for a four-hour show.
OMC: Is it easier to do a lighter show or a hard-news show?
JW: What I'm doing now is a lot harder. First of all, I had a partner. We could come up with topics without really working too hard. With lighter topics, you're just talking off the top of your head. You're trying to be funny and witty, but it's so spontaneous there isn't a lot of prep you can do. It was easier. You didn't have to defend a position, you could just throw out a topic, kick it around and have some fun. There was nothing controversial. There was nothing you needed to defend.
I don't know how other guys set up their shows, but for me it's like cramming for an exam every day. It's six hours of cramming to do a four-hour show.
OMC: Why is that?
JW: I have to know that I've got enough material, that I've got a handle on that material and that I can defend my position if someone calls up and argues with me.
JW: That's dead wrong. When people disagree, that's interesting radio. My producer, Jason, is instructed to move the dissenters to the top of the pile. I actually leave them on longer. They'll say I cut them off, but when you listen to it they got more time than anyone else.
OMC: So, is it fun to slap people down?
JW: Well, you have an inherent advantage because you thought up the topic. You've plotted your position and you can defend it. Callers grab the phone, call in, and haven't thought it out. You're at an advantage there.
But dissenting calls make for good radio. One of the things dissenting callers do is anger the people who agree with you. Then they call in to disagree with the previous caller.
OMC: Are you ever surprised when you have what you think is a good topic and the phones go quiet?
JW: That will happen on occasion. It surprises you. First, you learn that the topic can be interesting without calls coming in. Belling is very good at that. He can talk for a half-hour and it's compelling and he never takes a call and the whole thing is interesting.
Callers aren't a good gauge on what is interesting. We can say "Let's talk about movies; What are your favorite horror movies?" We can do 45 minutes and it's boring radio, but there are a lot of calls.
I've found that when I set up a topic and it falls flat, nine times out of 10 it's because I screwed up. I didn't set it up properly. I didn't have the right take on it. I didn't ask the right question about it. It's not "Why didn't the listeners care?" but it's "How did I blow this?"
OMC: They say that the trend in radio is local, local, local. But a lot of the "local" shows focus mainly on national topics. Why is that?
JW: One of the reasons for that is that there are fewer newspaper reporters in town than there were years ago. Most of what we do is skimming from newspapers. When there were two papers, it always seemed like there was all this stuff going on. Now, there are fewer people digging it up and that's one of the reasons there is less to talk about.
This emissions testing story that cropped up in the past week, the Department of Transportation contracted for service stations to do emissions testing. I think that's a crock. The stations are going to benefit if they find something wrong with your car. Well, the story came out because one of the companies involved turned around and sued because they didn't get the contract. Otherwise, we would have been reading a story that says "OK, there is a different process now." That would have been it. Nobody would have known about it.
One of the reasons I find myself talking less about local news is because of that. There is less in the paper.
OMC: We don't really have very dynamic leadership in town, either. It's not like our local political leaders make a lot of headlines.
JW: You're right. But, my audience really isn't the people in Milwaukee, it's all the people in all the suburbs. When you talk about city of Milwaukee issues, no one calls. Only people in the suburbs call. People in the city of Milwaukee don't care. I did something on the wheel tax and years ago that would have been a major issue. Nobody cared. People in the suburbs aren't paying for it and the people in the city don't care.
OMC: You've done some teaching in the past. What about Milwaukee Public Schools?
JW: I've reached a point with MPS where I've told the audience that I don't know what to talk about any more. Nothing changes. Why spend time rehashing the same old ground?
OMC: Is your career playing out the way you thought?
JW: It certainly hasn't played out the way I thought, but I'm glad it's played out the way it has. I'm glad it's been at WISN. For awhile, I was clamoring to get over to WTMJ, because that was the No. 1 station in town, but I would have been in and out of there so fast. I think they see you in one role and when you're not useful to them any more, you're out of that role.
WISN has kept me, I don't know if it's that I've shown promise or they're just lazy but they've kept giving me shows. I'm glad it's played out the way it has.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.