By Eric Paulsen Special to Published Jan 03, 2002 at 6:04 AM

In the turbulent world of radio, there are but a handful of people who've endured for decades to consistently fill our lives with music, information and conversation that gets us through our day. And ya-ya Milwaukee, one standout is Bob Reitman.

Listeners to eclectic and alternative radio in the late 1960s, rock radio in the 1970s and contemporary radio since 1980 know Bob Reitman as one of Milwaukee's most visible, popular and long-standing broadcasting personalities. Reitman's path -- as we near the 20th anniversary of the Reitman & Mueller morning show on WKTI -- includes 30-plus years of radio, broadcasting from the U.S.S.R., poetry, a world record, DJ of OMC owner Andy Tarnoff's Bar Mitzvah, a few marriages and a successful battle with prostate cancer.

The last few years have been busy for Reitman and we caught up with him at a Riverwest restaurant and cornered him for a Milwaukee Talks interview.

OMC: Let's go way back for starters. Tell us how and where you grew up.

BR: It all began 10 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. I was born in Enid, Oklahoma. My dad was an FBI agent and was working an assignment down there. We also lived in Detroit and Chicago when I was little but by the time I was in kindergarten in 1946, we were back in Milwaukee. My dad is from Milwaukee and my mom grew up in Chilton, so it was inevitable we’d end up back home. Basically, I grew up in Whitefish Bay. Went to grade school and high school in Whitefish Bay before receiving an English degree from Marquette and a graduate degree in Urban Education from UWM. By that time, it was the late '60s and everything was pretty open in the community. I was doing poetry readings, finishing graduate school, starting radio, getting out in the community. I also worked in the cemetery business during that time to help pay the bills.


OMC: You turned 60 in December, right? Happy Birthday.

BR: Yeah, it's kind of funny. A friend of mine I ran into a few months back told me that turning 25, 30, 40, even 50 didn't bother him, but that turning 60 was terrible ... which really annoyed me. Well, actually it surprised me. My biggest one was 25 ... that was like, let's get serious here. And now that's almost 35 years ago.

OMC: You began in Milwaukee radio, and in radio in general, right around that time ... in 1967, to be exact. How did you get started in radio after college?

BR: Actually, I was still in school at the time. I've always been passionate about poetry and I used to hang out all the time at this place called the Avant Garde Coffee House. It was a great place on Prospect, just south of that bridge as you approach North Avenue. It was on the second floor. That bridge goes over a bike path now, but at the time it was still a railroad line and when trains would roar by you'd have to stop reading and wait for the noise to go away and the building to stop shaking. We had poetry readings and all kinds of things going on there and it was a terrific place. I also started working for an underground newspaper called the Kaleidoscope, where I was poetry editor. About that time I was asked to do a poetry show on WUWM called Sense Waves. We read poetry on the air and then I started playing records for a few hours after that. That's what moved me toward music-oriented radio. Eventually, once a week we had a show called "It's Alright, Ma, It's Only Music" on WUWM.

OMC: I assume working at WUWM didn't pay the bills. How did radio become a career?

BR: I moved to a new station, WZMF, about 1968, '69, somewhere in there. It was my first full-time radio job. The station was pretty much free-form radio, and we broadcast out of this house in Menomonee Falls -- it was way, way out there at the time. We only had 3,000 watts of power, and we were hard to get in. People used to stack up their stereos, put up rabbit ears ... one of our best ads featured a guy with all this equipment trying to pick us up, and the slogan said, "WZMF ... We're Hard To Get, But It's Worth It" or something like that. The station was privately owned, and we could pretty much play what we wanted, within reason. I'd try to use the music that was coming out to weave a theme. We had all these great cuts from Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Quicksilver Messenger Service and on and on. We weren't "personalities" on the air that much; we barely talked. WZMF was purely about the music. Between full- and part-time, I was there for about six years.

OMC: You also worked at a few others before getting to WKTI ...

BR: Yes. I worked for a new station called WTOS in 1970 and '71. Then I went back to WZMF as a part-timer until 1974, when I went to WQFM. I stayed there until 1980, when I moved to WKTI.

OMC: So what's a typical day like now with WKTI versus a typical day working at, say, WZMF back in 1969?

BR: Wow, it's literally night and day. Now I get up at 2:30 in the morning, into work by 4, on the air from 5 to 10 a.m., and the rest of the day, depending on what I want to do, I do. I have my kids a couple of days a week and love to do things with them. I play golf when it's warm, and I listen to a lot of music. I have all these road tapes, like 125 tapes, that I'm burning onto CDs. I don't watch a lot of TV, but I do watch The Sopranos religiously and I like a show on HBO called Six Feet Under, which is about the cemetery business and I used to work in it. I usually go to bed at 7 or 7:30 at night. When I worked for WZMF, I'd work from 8 p.m. until midnight, stay out until 3 or 4 in the morning, get up at noon, and just do so many different things from what I do now. It was a completely different lifestyle. I missed entire series of TV shows from back then because I was working or out and we didn't have VCRs.

OMC: How would you say radio is now versus 30 years ago?

BR: I'd say now radio is more democratic. There are more stations, targeted at more people, and the station's programming is based on input from many people through research and more sophisticated methods. Back then, it was almost like a ... well, like a benevolent dictatorship, because I played what I wanted to play. It was fun for me, but a lot more erratic for listeners and we always ran the risk of alienating everybody. Here's another analogy: radio now is more like a fast-food restaurant, serving up what we know people want more often; before it was more of a specialty gourmet restaurant where it was more esoteric and although there were more unique flavors, it was more hit-or-miss.

OMC: During your tenure at QFM, you held a Guinness world record for a brief time -- the Longest Continuous Broadcast On The Air By A Disc Jockey -- broadcasting continuously for 222 hours and 22 minutes. Tell us about that.

BR: That was one of my most amazing experiences I ever had. It was 1976, I was going through a divorce, we were raising money for Muscular Dystrophy, and I personally wanted to prove that I could do something that was basically almost impossible -- I mean, I like to sleep. I like my seven hours of sleep and this would be an incredible challenge.

We set up at the State Fair and I broadcast for 222 hours, 22 minutes straight, which is a little over nine days. I was in a trailer on hydraulic jacks, broadcasting that whole time. Per the rules, I was given five minutes per hour each day for bathroom breaks, but no real sleep. I had food catered to me from a local restaurant and after a while I couldn't eat it; your body starts changing after no sleep and you get more sensitive to stuff. After two days, I didn't think I was going to make it. Right about when it was getting bad, somebody delivered to me one of those huge fruit baskets and I thought, "that looks good." I just started eating fruit and peanut butter. I didn't touch coffee during that time either because I was allowed to accumulate the five-minute hourly breaks to the point where I could take half-hour naps once or twice a day.

After three or four days when I would wake up I'd still be in kind of a dream cycle and that was unlike anything I'd ever felt. I'd get more sensitive to everything; I didn't want hyper people in the booth with me, the hydraulics on one of the jacks holding up the broadcast booth failed, the air conditioning went out, it was summer, and I was in this mental zone ... it was just a wild experience.

OMC: Bordering on unhealthy, from the sound of it ...

BR: Yeah, Guinness doesn't keep a record on that anymore. A few years later after another guy broke my record they decided it was too dangerous. Didn't affect me, though!

OMC: Is that the best radio stunt or promotion you've been a part of, or is there another one that's your favorite?

BR: Actually, my favorite stunt -- or the one I'm most proud of -- was broadcasting from the Soviet Union in the mid-'80s. Gene Mueller and I broadcast a number of morning shows from Moscow and became the first U.S. commercial radio station to do broadcast from there. We swung it through the State Department. The Russian people were just great, and this came just as Gorbachev was initiating perestroika to open things up more to the world.

It's kind of ironic that the son of an FBI agent ended up able to broadcast from the Soviet Union. I mean, I heard bad things about Communism all my life, but to be there and see what that type of government does to the human spirit -- it's dehumanizing. And the Russian people were wonderful ... remarkable. They love their children, they love peace, but their incentive was taken away. We could pop down in a restaurant in Moscow, and people around here would look just like this. I hope everything's better there since all those changes took place.

OMC: You have a lot of music loves ... who are your, say, three favorite artists?

BR: I'd say Dylan, Dylan, and Dylan. He's the best songwriter, harmonica player, best singer -- in his own way. To me, there's Bob Dylan in a class of his own, and then a secondary level of great artists that would include Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Pink Floyd, and the Stones. Pink Floyd shows are my favorite live shows, but as an artist, Dylan's my all-time favorite. I just saw him on his most recent tour in Green Bay, Madison, Chicago and Milwaukee; every show was different and startlingly good. There are obviously so many more great artists, but these would be my favorite.

OMC: You've had a chance to meet a number of musicians ... which ones stand out? I'm assuming Bob Dylan is one of them.

BR: Yeah, meeting Dylan. Dylan and Chuck Berry. I met Dylan in the mid-‘70s. I met Chuck Berry at Summerfest and he was terrific. A lot of other rock and roll pioneers, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Fats Domino, the prime movers of rock and roll -- they were very exciting to meet. I'd also say that Patti Smith and Leo Kottke stood out for me.

OMC: You've done a lot of interesting stuff. What would you say is your biggest triumph?

BR: Oh, without a doubt my children are my biggest triumph. I have a daughter Jessica, she and her husband Tony recently made me a grandfather; and my two sons Bobby and Johnny. Being a dad is great.

OMC: Biggest regret?

BR: Well, there's a lot of things I would have done differently in my life. I guess most of us would say that. But for each of the things that I would have done differently, I've learned, and I believe learned the right things, from mistakes I've made. You have to learn from your mistakes, and if you do, then there are no bad experiences. So in doing that, I can't honestly say at this point I have any regrets -- none that are still with me.

OMC: Radio can be tough in that you have a private life that you maintain behind the public persona -- how have you adjusted that through the years?

BR: I don't think I've ever tried to balance my private and public life. It's like "Shrek," where he says he's like an onion, with many layers. You let some people in a little, some into inner circles. There's an inner circle of my life that's my own. Pretty much everything that's happened to me has been dealt with on the air. I've looked at these experiences as a chance to communicate with people. I may not go into great detail, but the audience can relate to many of these things so it's good to talk about it.

OMC: In 1999, you left WKTI for two months and successfully battled prostate cancer. What was that like, how was it to deal with on the station, and how has that affected you since?

BR: It's never easy to deal with cancer or battling it, but I was very fortunate that things worked out the way they did. It's theoretically all gone, but I have to go back in for frequent check-ups. I was actually happy to share it with our audience, because it helps to talk about those things. It also encouraged a lot of guys to get check-ups. Early detection made the difference for me, and maybe talking about it makes it easier for others to deal with.

OMC: You're still at the helm of one of Milwaukee's most popular morning shows. As you near age 60, where do you want to go from here?

BR: Right now, I'm going through a big change in my life that I find interesting. I'm having a lot of fun doing what I'm doing and if I cease to be relevant I hope I'm the first one to know. Life is changing a lot these days, but I don't know what changes will bring. I want to keep contributing as much as I can in my work, I'd like to write some more, especially some more poetry. I've always loved it, and I want keep doing things that I love.

OMC: So what's up with the commercial on TV? Your chin and face are really not that long.

BR: Whew ... Thanks. I didn't think so, either! I've been getting kidded about that a lot by the guys. But women seem amused by it, so that's okay. I think it's funny.

Bob Reitman can be heard along with Gene Mueller on the Reitman & Mueller morning show on WKTI (94.5 FM), weekday mornings 5:30-10 a.m. But you probably knew that already.

Eric Paulsen Special to
Eric Paulsen is a Milwaukee native but also grew up in Chicago, Detroit and Dallas, which means he’s never lived in a decent climate. Paulsen works as the Communications Officer for the Greater Milwaukee Committee, serves as a writer and contributor for commercials and a national TV show and pops up on 103.7 Kiss FM on weekends, doing his share of overplaying Top 40 hits. Previously, he was a business partner and director in a start-up online research company that began in 1998 and reached the Inc. 500 list by 2005. He was an early contributing writer for, dating back to 1999. He got his MBA from UW-Milwaukee in 2007 and also holds a BS in Consumer Science (a degree he can’t explain, either) from UW-Madison and thus cheers on the Badgers with reckless abandon. Eric is a graduate of the Future Milwaukee Leadership Program and participates in many community-minded events and initiatives, invited or not. When he’s not working, Paulsen enjoys running, road trips and practicing for a future career as a beer connoisseur.