Milwaukee radio veteran Steve Palec is a busy man. In addition to hosting "Rock and Roll Roots" every Sunday on 96.5 FM WKLH, he also hosts a weeknight show Monday through Fridays called "Legends of Rock" on the station. On top of that, Palec holds a "real" job in commercial real estate as a senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis.
Somehow, the 53-year-old Palec also finds time to be a dad and work out every other day. Golf is some guys' hobby, says Palec, but his is radio.
We don't buy it. Music and radio is more than just a hobby or a job for Palec, whose savant-like knowledge of classic rock makes him a walking Wikipedia. In the next few weeks Palec will take that experience and start a blog on OnMilwaukee.com, too -- as if he doesn't have enough on his plate.
We sat down with Palec to talk radio, music and what it was like spending three hours with guitar legend Les Paul. Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks.
OnMilwaukee.com: You do a rather time-intensive radio show six days a week, and you hold a full-time job as a commercial real estate broker. When do you sleep?
Steve Palec: Both of them are full-time jobs. Commercial real estate is so consuming and pressure-filled. My co-workers have hobbies, too, but radio is my golf. I just stupidly turned it into another full-time job with the weeknight show. I feel like John Edwards with two separate lives.
OMC: But you started in radio, so it's not really a hobby, right?
SP: When I was a sophomore in high school, I was fascinated with radio. I sent a letter to every station in town and said I'll do anything; I'll sweep your floors. One did have an opening for a janitor, the other was WUWM. They said I could hang out, and I went every single day. They put me on the air after a couple of weeks. Dave Edwards was the guy who gave me my break, and he's still there. After three years, I went to Whitewater and worked at their station.
After that, I actually had a job at a bank for a while, but I really still wanted to be in radio, so I was dabbling as a sportscaster. This was in the late ‘70s, and I was a stringer for NBC. I realized that you could eat for free, since I was literally starving, collecting nickels from the couch to eat. I did some sports reports for WAUK and WQFM, and I ended up with my first full-time radio job doing overnights at QFM. Those were wild days.
OMC: I've heard some good stories about that station.
SP: That was an eye opener, from sexual exploits to things I can't talk about.
OMC: Yet, you've taken a slightly different direction with your career.
SP: I went to WZUU, with Larry the Legend and Jonathon Green. I was doing commercials as the production director. I wound up doing mornings on QFM for about three years and then got the idea in my head that I didn't want to be 40 years old and still playing the new Stones album. That's when I got into commercial real estate in '86.
OMC: Apparently, radio and music never got out of your blood.
SP: Absolutely not. It did, for about a year, by necessity, since I was so naïve about the world of business. In '87, WKLH came to me and said, "Hey, do you want to do a show?"
OMC: Are you in love with the medium of radio or are you in love with music? Or both?
SP: Both. If you've ever had that feeling of someone coming over and you saying, "Here, listen to this." And it's something you really like that you want them to hear. And you have the captive audience, and they go, "Wow, that's really good, what is that?" That feeling is exactly why I do this.
OMC: But you've worked in different formats. Clearly not every one of them has been your favorite genre.
SP: True. When I was working at QFM, we were forced to play AC/DC and Loverboy, things we weren't listening to at the time. A lot of us on the air were making fun of what we were playing. We were appalled. In decades of radio, I've somehow, in varying amounts, had the freedom to do some things that others don't get to do. So, if I want to play Little Feat or Barenaked Ladies or Dean Martin, I always had that chance. I could put up with the meat and potatoes if I could have some dessert.
OMC: My colleague Drew Olson says you're the Rain Man of classic rock.
SP: I'd consider that a compliment. I'm just cursed with always remembering things that interest me, and anything that doesn't becomes a huge a challenge. I can be savant like on things that interest me ... and an idiot on things that probably shouldn't.
OMC: For years, I assumed your show was syndicated.
SP: That doesn't surprise me. I hear that all the time.
OMC: Honestly, it seems too polished for local radio.
SP: I take that as a compliment. I really appreciate that. The only frustration, and it's kind of weird, is that people think the show is taped. It's not. "Rock and Roll Roots" is live -- you hear the weather. I talk about things going on real-time. People think the weekday show is live, but that's the one that's actually taped. I think the reason people think I'm syndicated is because I over-prepare. For a three-hour show, I have a five-hour show. I have hundreds of clips ready to go.
I have taken technology and figured out how to make life harder. The other thing -- and what a great model, the guy is in prison -- but Phil Spector; I try to bring the "wall of sound" to radio. I'm almost ashamed to just go on the radio and talk.
OMC: And you still do all of the technical stuff, too. Do you still enjoy that side?
SP: The greatest three hours of my life were the three hours I sat down with Les Paul. I walked out of there drenched in sweat like I had just copulated. I was in the presence of genius. Sitting there and hearing about his experiences just fired me up, and I wanted to share it with everybody. The greatest honor I had was doing his eulogy at his funeral.
OMC: Are you a musician?
SP: The only thing I can play is a turntable.
OMC: Let me ask you a question about classic rock that's been nagging me for a while. What happened to guys like Billy Joel or Eric Clapton or even Elton John, who used to rock in the ‘70s? Why do they all suck now?
SP: I think they ran out of stuff to say. The antithesis is Bruce Springsteen. This is a guy who was releasing stuff while I was in high school, and for him to still be relevant and to have something to say ... that's why classic rock still resonates. Because it's real. You take a Britney Spears, and her success was based on selling records and product. There was no emotion, no statement.
That's why rap is sincere. When Eric Clapton sang, "Layla" about wanting George Harrison's wife; not only can I relate to that, but I can feel his sincerity. That's why you can hear it 30 or 40 years later. A lot of the same guys are now going through the motions or just being melodic or feeling like they have to perform.
OMC: Do you think those artists know that their best days are behind them?
SP: I have the utmost respect and love for Paul McCartney. He had a song a few years ago that's lyrics were "one, two, three four." What?! All you can do is hope he looked in the mirror and asked himself if that was as pertinent as "the love you give is equal to the love you take."
OMC: Who do you listen to now? What current artists do you like?
SP: If you saw my iPod, you'd think I am insane. I love putting it on shuffle and having it go from Frank Sinatra to Lyle Lovett to Usher to Deep Purple. I like anything that's melodic. It doesn't have to be deep or sincere.
OMC: Is your show helping keep radio relevant?
SP: I hope so. I think the relevancy will still always be local. People also ask why I'm not syndicated. There are times when I think, "Shouldn't this be shared with as many people as possible?"
OMC: What's the best band you've ever seen live?
SP: Seeing Paul McCartney at the United Center in Chicago after he hadn't toured in a long time, I think right after George (Harrison) had died. That show just touched me. And I was at the bomb scare Springsteen show (at the Uptown Theater in 1975).
OMC: Apparently, so was everyone in Milwaukee!
SP: It was like the Ice Bowl, but I really was there. I have the bootleg tapes of it. The performance was phenomenal.
The first time I saw John Prine, that one hit me. I was at Summerfest, and just wandering and stopping, and here was this guy just playing. I stopped in my tracks and thought, "What is this?" I've bought every single album he's put out since.
OMC: What band would you have liked to see in concert?
SP: I hadn't seen the Stones until they were here last. Sans walkers would've been nice. I never saw Led Zeppelin. The Doors came to Milwaukee in the ‘60s, and I was oblivious. I couldn't go anywhere in the ‘60s unless my parents said it was OK.
OMC: Why do you live in Milwaukee? Why do you stay here?
SP: A couple reasons. One is that I've never been fired. When I was in radio full-time, that might have forced me to go elsewhere. Secondly, I actually like the idea of being in a city where you can have anything you want, albeit with limitations, but you know what is out there. I feel like this a perfect-sized community. It's in my blood as much as radio, and I can't explain that, either. But it's home, and it's really encouraging to see the progress that is occurring here. There's just something that almost tempts me to sing the old Channel 12 song. This is home.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. 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 OnMilwaukee.com 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.