NEW YORK -- Yesterday, OnMilwaukee.com talked to Peter Buffett about Milwaukee and the move to New York City, as well as about his foundation, charity work and more.
In this second installment of a two-part Milwaukee Talks, recorded in Manhattan in May, Buffett tales about his involvement with Radio Milwaukee (WYMS), about his music, about his “Spirit” show and much more.
OMC: Let’s talk a little bit about the radio station. Are you still involved in the radio station?
Buffet: Yes, very much so.
OMC: Have you been able to hear it much?
PB: It is online, so I can listen to that. I’m not listening probably as much as I should, which I feel very guilty about, but I do listen. And it was very fun to listen in Milwaukee when I was there. The funny thing is that when I was first listening, when it first got launched here in New York, I was listening and I was really liking it, and then it dawned on me that, oh my god, this is coming out of car radios in Milwaukee. I didn’t quite make the full connection, which is kind of funny, but because you’re listening on your computer, you’re sort of thinking that that’s how people are getting it. Then you go, “Wait a minute, this is the local station now.”
OMC: Yeah, I’ve been listening to radio online for probably eight or nine years now, and I used to listen to a London station all the time, and I actually heard that there was a fire on a street where my friend lived. So I emailed her to say that I had heard that there was a fire on her street, and she was at work, and said that she hadn’t heard about it yet. She said, “Thanks, I’d better walk home instead of taking the bus,” because the bus would just be sitting there in traffic.
PB: Oh my god, that’s hilarious. To answer your question though, yes, I’m really liking what I’m hearing. Absolutely. You know, I’m not involved in that at all purposely. We hired people to do those jobs and I trust them, and believe in them, and all of that, and I’m thrilled so far.
OMC: What’s the feedback been like? Have you been hearing much about that?
PB: Personally, I’ve been hearing nothing but good feedback. It was very fun, because Jennifer’s cousin had it blaring in the house, and had it in her car, and was saying that she hardly listened to CDs anymore, she just listened to the station. I forget how old she is, but she’s late 40s early 50s, and she’s loving it. And we’re only getting a few negative comments. Of course there are jazz lovers that are disappointed, understandably so, but you know, it’s owned by the Milwaukee Public School System, which should somehow be serving their constituency. The way we look at it, we’re serving the parents of young children, and the community in general. Frankly, I think almost all of the complaints were from outside the city limits. So it’s kind of like, well, two things: one, you’re not even in Milwaukee, and two, this station was not serving its known constituency.
OMC: What’s your role there these days?
PB: Definitely. Well the role really… when I say heavily involved, we are really interested in a successful outcome. But in terms of, in any sort of day-to-day involvement, no. Not at all. We’re just heavily involved in supporting it, and hopefully setting the stage for the Milwaukee community to take ownership. Kind of literally and figuratively, so we’re really, and I’m really, I say “we” like the foundation, really, is very interested in its success and making sure it happens. Frankly, it’s only going to happen if Milwaukee loves it.
OMC: Is there red tape involved because it’s an MPS thing? Is it complicated by that?
PB: So far, it really hasn’t been. They’ve been really great, which is so not MPS in terms of the way people think about the complexity of the school system.
OMC: So, there hasn’t been some sort of bureaucratic roadblock with every step?
PB: Well, the truth is that they sent out a request for proposals because they knew that running a radio station is not their core competency. It’s not something they wanted to do. But they knew they had an asset. So all they wanted really is something that the people they serve liked, and did some service to them, including school itself, which will have the whole online student component. And that it didn’t drain their books. So, those things are happening, so they’re happy. If they got a bunch of complaints, they’d be complaining to us, but that’s not been happening, so they seem to be thinking, “Well, if it’s not costing us a dollar, and it’s doing better for the people we serve, then let it go. So, so far so good.
OMC: Is this something that, this is not a personal thing you’re doing, this is via the foundation?
PB: Yeah, I’m Chairman of The Board of the radio station right now, but we’re looking to change that, because again, I would like Milwaukee people, the people to live there, to be connected to it.
OMC: I wanted to talk to you also about music. And now, my first question is, is about “Bison Head,” which, I don’t know, I got the sense early on that it was meant to be something more than a vanity label for your own releases.
PB: Right, but it hasn’t been that yet.
OMC: Is that still the plan, or has it become an outlet for you to release your own stuff? Are you happy with that?
PB: I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. What I’m going to do is this new vocal release, which is going to come out in August, is switch over all of the Pop stuff, which would be “East Side Attic,” “Christmas Album,” “Gold Star,” and the new one to B-Side Records. So, I’m going to switch the name. Because Bison Head is so shaded, and rightly so, with the Native side. So, keep the native stuff on there. I’m hiring my first employee soon, for the label, so they can start to just deal with mounting either interest or just stuff that has to be done, and for the first time I sort of thought about bringing on other artists as a possibility. At first there was, I didn’t really know what it was, but I knew that I didn’t want to be signed to a label, and I didn’t really foresee the fact that you don’t need to be signed to a label anymore.
OMC: Well, it changed over time. It used to be that distribution was the key thing.
PB: They can’t really do a lot unless you’re a huge act. And even then, I’ve had people in the PR and marketing world say that the labels just call them, so okay, “do this, do that.” So clearly there’s no need to be signed, and then of course there’s how much of a label do I want to be if there’s no need to be signed. So, what I’d like to do, is, and focus for the first time intently, on seeing if I can crack some sort of code to get a record known and out there in the world. So with this new release, I’m hiring a PR company called “Shore Fire.”
OMC: They’re in Brooklyn, aren’t they?
PB: Yes. Exactly. Great reputation. Great people. So, I’m hiring them, I’m bringing somebody on, I may hire a separate marketing arm as well, and really start to see if there’s a way to capture new people that are interested in the record, but also my old audience, because 30,000 people used to buy my records on Narada. You know if I can find half of them, that’s a great start. So, it’s sort of…
OMC: And you’re not paying somebody else …
PB: Oh, it’s amazing. I’ll make way more selling 15,000, whether it’s downloads, or the physical product, or whatever.
OMC: Than you would selling 30,000 on Narada.
PB: Easily, and, you know, probably three times that. So, I’m going to see if I can start to establish a little foothold, and then I might start to bring other people on. Because there are a few other opportunities that are looming that, we’ll just see how it all unfolds.
OMC: So the foundation work and the move have not cut into your music playing too much, or has it?
PB: Well, it’s been… it’s certainly a great time to be alive playing music, because in my second bedroom, I can now make a record, and truly make a record.
OMC: Now, you’ve been doing that for a while.
PB: Now, I’ve been doing that for a while. I’m sort of, an old hand at making records myself and making things hopefully sound good in a small space. So, what I can do here is, and the vocal stuff has been this whole new found thing for me, which is a blast. I’m really having fun with it. So I can do the foundation and set aside a day here or a day there, or a four-day spot here, that kind of thing, and do a surprising amount.
OMC: But you have to take the time, otherwise the days slip away if you don’t.
PB: Definitely. I have to book the time. That’s what I’ve learned here in multiple ways. There’s so many things, to potentially get invited to here, or do, plus the foundation, plus the music, that we really have to be smart about allocating our time.
OMC: Is it hard to force yourself to stick to that?
PB: It has a tendency to get a little sloppy around the edges, but I’m really learning that you just have to do it, and so I’m fairly disciplined in general. It hasn’t been too hard, but I’ve noticed that I’ve started to encroach on time I’ve set aside, and I really have to pay attention to it.
OMC: So, were you happy with the results of “Gold Star” and with the response to “Gold Star?”
PB: Very. That was a real surprise. I got another one done already that will be out, and I’m very happy with that as well. “Gold Star,” as you can see by the packaging, was really just an experiment. So I’d slip it under the door and see what happens. And the response was so good, you know. Like with radio, I never thought I’d get it to radio at all. But the New Age Reporter, which is the New Age rag, sort of, that would play some of my instrumental stuff, they have 200 some reporting DJs, and it got nominated for Vocal Album of the Year, which is really great. I mean, they get a lot of CDs, so okay. Didn’t win, but in the top five. That’s pretty good for a first time out.
And then lots of good reviews and response. Really great. So that’s why I’m putting more into this one. Let’s see how far I can take this. So I’ve been, yeah, really happy with it.
OMC: You’ve not been superstitious about trying too hard on this one, after not trying too hard on the last one?
PB: Yeah, right. No, I think because I’m really happy with the songs. The music’s there. If I wasn’t so sure about the music, it would be different, but I really feel like this is an evolution. It’s got all of the stuff that “Gold Star” had, but it’s just taking more chances, in a way, and I think it’s going to pay off.
OMC: What about the “Spirit” show? Did you learn any of your lessons from that? Is it something you’ll do again? Tell me a little bit about your thoughts on that -- how it turned out as opposed to how you envisioned it.
PB: Well, it’s so funny, it’s like something was just working through me, because it’s amazing what I attempted, when I look back. Even during it, I knew. The best word people would use is “ambitious” to describe that.
OMC: Were they using it in a scornful way?
PB: No, just like “wow,” you know. Or in like, as impressed in the sense that I kept working’ at it and kept making’ it real. I was saying to somebody before that one of the things I learned is that if you put art before the business, you can get yourself into a mess, and they said yeah, but if you put business before the art, you’ve got nothing’. So I said, yeah, okay, you’re right about that. Again, that show critically, a complete success. Audience-wise, a complete success. We had great turn-outs, in a sense that we’d always struggle at first, and then we’d have people coming back four or five times.
We had people literally changing their lives. I ran into a guy on a plane with his family, and he said, “Are you Peter Buffett,” and I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I saw your show in Milwaukee, and I took my dad and I took my wife.” And I got some emails from him, so I knew, okay. He said, “I sold my business and I’m moving to Costa Rica to do work down there.” And I mean, this guy, based on the show. I kind of woke him up and said I’m going to reprioritize my life.
OMC: That has to feel good, regardless.
PB: It’s amazing. I got so much positive feedback from the show, and you know, it was able to get taped when it finally reached what I considered to be its completion in Philadelphia. Because even in Milwaukee, there was still work to be done.
OMC: How many places did it go after Milwaukee?
PB: Milwaukee, then it went to Washington -- it was on The Mall for the opening of the museum, which was tremendous. Amazing to see it on the cover of USA Today. And native people, thousands of them saw it there. It was two shows a day for a week, and lines down the mall. I mean, it was just amazing. So, a total success there, which is great. Then we went to Louisville, which was tough. But in like all places, low turnout at first, then it just grew and grew and grew.
OMC: By word of mouth, presumably.
PB: Yeah. Then I stopped it because it was not sustaining itself. The business model was wrong, and we needed sponsorship, and I knew that, but we were never far enough ahead of ourselves to get the right sponsorship and do all that. So then we restarted in ’05 in Philadelphia, and that’s when the show was essentially perfect. I felt like, okay, this is the show. Still, the business model was wrong. The wrong guy was in charge of the production side. I could just see that this was not going to make it. I had some guys from Purple Onion come out and video tape it and everything, made the DVD, and so I thought, okay, “Got it.” You know, “it exists.” Some people had heard about it, a lot of people had heard about it, but this organization in San Francisco that takes shows around the world, had heard about it, and they’re now busy, hopefully, if all goes well, it’ll be touring Europe next year.
OMC: So it’s not past tense.
PB: It’s not dead, no. Robert Redford saw the video, called me up, and said, “I’d love to meet with you.” So I went out there, and we spent the day.
OMC: That’s not a phone call that comes every day.
PB: No, that’s wild. I went out there and sat with him for a day, and he said, it’s so funny, the conversation would stray, and he’d say “let’s go back to talking about Spirit.” He loved it, and wants it at Sundance during the summers. So, that show will absolutely live again in some form, and maybe multiple forms.
OMC: I’m not sure what its legacy seemed to be. It seemed there was some mystery, at least in Milwaukee, where it went after Milwaukee. It seemed like a big deal at the lakefront at the time, but then you didn’t hear about it anymore.
PB: That’s too bad, but it was because we were just struggling so hard, and it clearly was the wrong … you know, I was trying to make it happen, and at some point I should have, and I was trying but just never found, the right partner. You know, if I’d gone to Cirque de Soleil and said, “Here, take this over. I don’t know what to do now.” That would’ve been a fantastic thing. I mean, I never went to that, but that’s the kind of thing I should have done. I mean, you have to make it real for people to get it.
OMC: Right, it would’ve lost it’s …
PB: It could’ve easily. And that’s the thing. I wanted to own it long enough to make it what I wanted it to be. And the DVD and the soundtrack show what it is now, and so now, whether it’s Robert Redford or somebody else, they can see it and say, “Oh, okay. I get it. Let’s make it happen.” I don’t really have to do much of anything until we launch it, and I can just oversee that, and I don’t have to be in it, and I don’t have to you know. It now has the potential to be whatever it’s going to be on its own, which is just great. I’m thrilled.
OMC: Well, I have one last music question for you.
OMC: From another coworker, who wants to know if you’re a Parrot Head.
PB: Yes. Good question.
OMC: Are you hanging out in Margaritaville?
PB: I’m hesitant to say, “No,” because about two weeks ago, Jennifer and I had lunch with Jimmy, and I’d met him before, multiple times.
OMC: So you guys didn’t grow up hanging out at each other’s houses.
PB: No, not at all. We were…
OMC: You said that you are cousins.
PB: Well, here’s the funny thing.
OMC: Are your dads brothers?
PB: No. We never exactly knew how we were related, and his mother and my aunt were both really into genealogy, so they knew that they had found what they thought was common ancestry. So, about two weeks ago, I was having lunch with Jimmy, and that’s the first time I’ve spent time with him in sort of a relaxed setting. It was always before a show, the first few times I spent with him before. We had a great time -- he’s a great guy. It was really nice. A couple of hours, we had lunch together, and he then went to my dad’s big shareholder’s meeting that was just in Omaha a couple of weeks ago. So, we had lunch before that, and he said that he had just gotten the message that the DNA results were back. Because for this meeting, one of the things they were going to do was announce just how related they were.
OMC: Is he a shareholder or something?
PB: Yeah, he’s a shareholder, and he did a funny skit at my dad’s meeting.
OMC: He’s just an investor.
PB: Yeah, right. He’s no dummy. Clearly. So, he came on stage. I never talked to him directly, but he said, “Well, the DNA tests are in, and about 6,000 years ago in Scandinavia, there were Buffetts mixing it up.” I said, “Well, okay, that means that he is essentially not related.”
OMC: But you’re a Parrot Head in knowing that he’s a nice guy.
PB: Yeah, he’s a great guy, and that’s even better. You know. So, it’s funny you would ask, because I happen to have all of this current information that I didn’t have two weeks ago.
OMC: Well, we’ll help get the word out.
PB: People thought we were brothers, cousins, and turns out, it’s nothing’. Turns out there’s nothing there. We (you and I) are probably just as related.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.