By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 04, 2013 at 9:04 AM

Michelle Rutkowski is the person you can thank (or blame) for the music you hear on FM 102.1. As music director, she's constantly scouting out new music and working with record labels to pick the station's lineup. And, because FM 102.1 isn't affiliated with other alternative stations around the country, Rutkowski selects songs tailored for Milwaukee listeners. But Rutkowski is also a mid-day DJ, and in full-disclosure, is the wife of Sports Editor Jim Owczarski.

We caught up with her in this latest Milwaukee Talks. How active of a role do you have in selecting the music we hear on FM 102.1?

Michelle Rutkowski: That’s the traditional role of the music director, and I help organize the stuff that we already play into categories. Yes, we do have a playlist, but what we try to do is to allow for little changes here and there. I add random requests throughout the day. There is a methodology to it. You want to play the songs that people want to hear.

OMC: In the world of carbon-copy FM stations, how is your station different?

MR: The big radio companies have a guy at the top and stuff trickles down to 17 stations that are pretty much mirror images of each other. Every decision we make, for better or for worse, is us. Me and (program director) Jacent Jackson. All decisions are made in-house.

OMC: Is that good, or is it scary?

MR: It’s the best. I can’t imagine someone telling me that I need to be playing this or that. It’s not coming from New York saying that in Milwaukee they really think it would be really cool if you guys played more Nickelback. Well, we’re not New York.

OMC: Have you made some changes since you took this job?

MR: I took this role on after having already been at the station for four years, but every music director puts their stamp, their style on the music. I believe in making the station as cool as possible, while still not trying to be the coolest person in the room. I want people to enjoy the station and make it accessible. We moved away from some of the harder stuff we were playing.

OMC: A lot of people in radio work in genres they don’t necessarily love. Do you like the music you program?

MR: I love it.

OMC: If FM 102.1 was your own personal radio station, how different would the music be?

MR: It wouldn’t be that different, actually.

OMC: Do your scouting trips to L.A. help you do your job?

MR: It’s helpful, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it convinces you that the band is really great, and sometimes it convinces you that the band isn’t really for us.

OMC: You’re also a DJ, and you have one of the more distinctive female voices in this market. Do you like that side of it?

MR: That’s my favorite part of the job.

OMC: How did you get into this business?

MR: My sister and I would screw around with our boom box when we were kids. We had a fake talk show called "Married To Jocks." We made up commercials. I really got serious about radio when I did announcing for my high school basketball team. I did college radio at a liberal arts school in Illinois. I was actually the news director there. And I hosted an ‘80s hair metal show.

OMC: Yeah, you have a thing with hair metal, right?

MR: Unabashed. I have an older sister who was totally into it, and I wanted to be like her.

OMC: Can you sneak some of that on the air?

MR: No, it has its place, and that place is deep inside my heart.

OMC: What was your first real radio job?

MR: I interned at a mom and pop radio station, but thankfully someone convinced me I could go to a place that wasn't infested with box elder bugs, and I got an internship at Q101 in Chicago. I drove the van and handed out bumper stickers. One time they made me dress up in a ski bunny outfit and hand out sausage. In fact, they called me "Sausage" because I’m extremely Polish, and my family makes its own sausage.

OMC: But you’re a vegetarian, right?

MR: Yes, can you imagine why?

OMC: After your internship, then what?

MR: A friend pushed me to do on-air. A new guy (Jacent) came in and told me I was great, so he put me on at 4 a.m. This was 2004. Jacent then came to Milwaukee, and he brought me here. July will be my seventh anniversary. I did nights, then I got promoted to middays.

OMC: Do you like this time slot better?

MR: Oh yeah, doing nights I always saw my friends going to really cool shows while I stayed here and worked. Now, I gorge myself. I see as many shows as I can.

OMC: What’s different in this shift?

MR: The callers and different and the requests are different, but I didn’t really change what I do.

OMC: Unlike Kramp and Adler, who can play off each other, you’re solo. Does it take a lot of practice to have that monologue with the listener?

MR: Practice is probably a good word. I do a lot of self-editing.

OMC: How much of the show is live?

MR: I try to do every show live. I edit my writing, but nine breaks out of 10 are live. Unless is here to interview me. But there is a lot of planning.

OMC: I’ve gotta ask, since I work with him every day. You’re pretty different than your husband, Jim. He’s a sports guy, and you’re a music girl. And until last year, you worked in different states. Do opposites attract?

MR: It is like a dream for us to both be living in Milwaukee and doing what we love. I do love my football, and I played basketball for a while. So I enjoy some sports and Jim enjoys some music. He reigns me in, and I push his boundaries. Somewhere there’s a balance. I’ve gotten to learn and appreciate sports more, and he’s come to appreciate the alternative genre.

OMC: Are your hobbies the same as your job?

MR: My thing is I need to work out. I do yoga, I try to get out and run. On a really personal level, I love being an aunt. I have five nieces and nephews, and they think that having an aunt is the coolest thing. I think being an aunt is the coolest thing. We are pretty mushy with our family.

OMC: I saw today how your coworkers barged in and threw grapes at you. Is this an old-boys club?

MR: There are a couple of women jocks who work on the weekends, but I’m totally fine being one of the guys. I still get to offer a female perspective but I don’t have to feel like I’m fighting the good fight every day for feminism. I’m not delicate.

OMC: What comes after this?

MR: I don’t know. Being on the air was my dream. If I were to be able to on the air for the rest of my life and have input on what’s on the station, I’d be a happy girl. Maybe someday running a station? That would be pretty cool.

OMC: Do you like Milwaukee?

MR: I love Milwaukee.

OMC: In some markets, alternative rock stations have failed. Will alternative radio keep working in Milwaukee?

MR: When some prominent national stations went under, everyone was writing articles about how rock radio is dead. Meanwhile, we’re here in Milwaukee, doing really well! Everything is great, we’re locally programmed, we’ve got our stuff together, and two months ago, we ended up having our best ratings ever.

OMC: Why is that?

MR: (Owner) Willie Davis mostly stays out of our hair and we’re able to do what we do because Milwaukee is a unique market that appreciates us.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. 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 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.