By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Apr 12, 2005 at 5:41 AM

Radio talk show host Charlie Sykes was born in Seattle and moved to New York State when he was 3 years old. He didn't get to Wisconsin until third grade, in 1963, when he landed in Fox Point, eventually attending Nicolet High School and then UW-Milwaukee.

After graduation in 1975, the English Literature major ("the most un-sellable major," Sykes says), got his first job working for the weekly newspaper chain, The Post, here in Milwaukee. Within a year, he moved to the old Milwaukee Journal where he started out covering what he calls "suburbanite stuff." Sykes did that for about a year before becoming a City Hall reporter covering Mayor Henry Maier.

In addition to his "Mid-Day with Charles Sykes" radio show on 620 WTMJ-AM, Sykes has authored several books, writes a syndicated column and hosts the television show "Sunday Insight With Charles Sykes" on WTMJ-TV.

Chances are that you have an opinion about Charlie Sykes. Even if you don't listen to his radio show, you most likely find him entertaining, informative or annoying. And he has a ton of his own to share with you in this edition of OMC's "Milwaukee Talks."

OMC: Did you know what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

Charlie Sykes: No, I didn't. Actually, I didn't think about media (as a career). For a while I figured I'd do something in politics or government, and then later, when I was in college, I thought maybe I would go into academia. Life is a series of fortunate accidents and surprises.

I worked at the Journal from '76 to '82. Then I went to Milwaukee Magazine. I became the editor and worked there through '87 when Harry Quadracci and I had a brief disagreement which resulted in me moving on. I was fired with great enthusiasm.

OMC: That's a beautiful phrase.

CS: Actually, I stole it from somebody, but I said when (former Milwaukee County Executive) Dave Schulz hired me that I was entering my new job the same way I left my old one; fired with great enthusiasm. So, I left the magazine in '87 abruptly and spent the next year or so writing my first book, "Prof Scan." And then as I was wrapping that up I went to work for Schulz. Dave was a character. Dave was a lot of fun.

(The job with) Dave was a great education. It was wonderful for me to have a chance to see county government from inside. I wouldn't say I was the most successful bureaucrat in the history of county government but it was a real education to be able to see what actually was important to people in government and so I enjoyed that thoroughly. It was an adventure; it was a lot of fun.

OMC: How do you think the County Executive's job has changed since Schulz left?

CS: Well, everything changed in 2002. In some ways Dave was kind of a blip because county government was this very incestuous, self-involved organization that was really concerned with protecting the insiders.

One of the lessons I learned was (that) in county government about 80 percent of the attention of the energy was spent on just internal ring kissing, ego massage and taking care of one another. And about 20 percent was actually concerned with anything remotely involving serving the public or public policy.

And Dave interrupted the normal line of succession -- the insider game -- and as soon as he was gone it reverted to form. County Executive Tom Ament was really the direct line of that, and I think what happened was the incestuous culture of county government just caught up with itself, and you had the taxpayer revolt.

I'm not sure that anything will be quite the same again. Although what happened was that before Schulz, nobody paid any attention to county government. After Schulz, nobody paid any attention to county government and this is one of my themes on the program -- you've got to watch these guys all the time. If you don't watch them then they will grab everything they can, including the dishtowels, which was pretty much the story of the Ament administration.

OMC: Sitting where you are today, who do you think would have a better chance of beating Governor Jim Doyle, State Rep. Mark Green or Scott Walker?

CS: I don't know, it's too early to tell. It really is. You have two incredibly strong candidates. They have the political smarts, they have the policy smarts, they have the personality, they have different bases. This is one of the things you get over the course of a primary -- is you get to see who in fact is a good statewide candidate. I've learned never to underestimate Scott Walker. Scott is one of the truly gifted politicians, and I've made no secret of the fact I feel that way. But I also think that Mark Green is very, very gifted -- it's too bad they have to run against one another. So, I honestly don't know.

OMC: If you had to grade Mayor Barrett so far in his term, what would it be and why?

CS: I'd probably give him a tardy for being so slow to show up. I like Tom Barrett, I think he's got the potential to be a very good mayor. I think he has the potential to have a lot of really good things happen on his watch but his first year's been a little tentative.

I joke with him that you have to look for him on the milk carton because he's been so absent. I think he's been reluctant to make some tough choices, and as a result it's kind of hard to give him anything other than an incomplete.

But he still has a chance, but I think he's been reluctant to pull the trigger. He was reluctant to pull the trigger on (Lisa) Artison (former executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission who resigned March 1, 2005). He seems addicted to appointing committees and task forces, and he seems to not have really figured out what issues he really wants to lead on. What is his thing? What really matters to him? Part of his problem is that guys like Henry Maier and John Norquist -- their whole lives they wanted to be mayor of the city and they thought about urban issues all the time and they had a philosophy; sometimes right headed and sometimes wrong headed but they really -- these were urban guys. Tom Barrett, I think, backed into being mayor. He ran for governor, lost, didn't want to be a practicing lawyer and this was open. Now, he can grow into the job.

OMC: What qualifies you to be a talk show host?

CS: What gives anybody the right to be a talk show host? Really, I have a lot of opinions and the willingness to express them. Beyond that, I don't claim that there are any special qualifications. The fact is I have been in Milwaukee journalism since the mid-1970s. So in terms of journalistic experience, I suppose I could stack that up against a lot of folks in both newspaper, magazine, TV and radio, but ultimately what is a talk show all about? It's about somebody willing to run his mouth. And I've been willing to do that.

OMC: Does it wear on you when people have certain opinions of you as a talk show host because of what they hear and what the national media's saying but yet they don't know you as a person? How do you deal with that?

CS: At one point it might have, but I think this is one of the qualifications to be a talk show host, that you need to have thick skin and you need to not be afraid of being controversial.

So, frankly, I think it goes with the territory. And I know that there are people who have strong feelings on both sides and that's just part of the job description. I will tell you the story though. When I first started doing this, we live in an age where anyone who wants to communicate with you can do it instantaneously through e-mail and a variety of other ways, they don't have to sit down and write a letter. I remember Jim Iriwin, the voice of the Packers, got a letter that was critical of something he'd done on a play-by-play and he obsessed about it all morning -- he obsessed about this person criticizing him. Jim would get maybe one a month and he would really ruin his whole day. I said, Jim, I get 10 of those a day! I'll be glad to exchange my hate mail for your hate mail. After awhile you just learn to deal with it.

OMC: Do you think that your influence and your opinions have had a greater influence on WTMJ as a whole? In terms of the perception that it slants more to the right in its news coverage?

CS: You'd really have to ask other people on that. I really very consciously just focus on what I do. I don't try to influence or critique or focus on what any of the other hosts or reporters do because that's up to them.

OMC: How has your celebrity status affected you? I'm always amazed at the way people perceive individuals who are on television or radio because you're put on a pedestal a bit.

CS: I don't think anyone has that impression of me.

OMC: But, people who see you in the store or out and about think that they really know you, right? That's got to be a challenge.

CS: Well no, that's the thing about radio that is extraordinary. And I think it's different from other media because it is a very intimate media -- you are really in peoples' heads and you're part of their lives and you do have an ongoing dialogue and there are people who will spend every morning with an earplug listening to you and so you do develop a relationship but it's asymmetrical because you're a very important part of their lives. Radio is a very intimate medium because it's human, it's personal, it's interactive. I think people have a relationship with people on radio that's more intimate than with someone on television who is sort of up there as you described them before.

But people in Milwaukee are extremely polite. I could count on one hand, really and have some fingers left over, in more than 10 years anybody who has been unpleasant in any way. Basically Milwaukeeans believe that if you don't have anything nice to say don't say it. They're nice people.

I do know that people sometimes -- and I keep this in mind when I'm talking about other people in the public spotlight -- they kind of forget that you're actually a real person. My life is really no different than anybody else's. I get done with work and I'm gonna go home and I've got to get out the pooper scooper and clean up two dogs' worth of poop that hopefully is thawed out of the ice. There's nothing celebrity about that.

OMC: What do you think Milwaukee radio will sound like and look like in 10 years? Satellite radio and the Internet, will it change the way broadcast radio is consumed?

CS: It will. It will have a dramatic impact. I don't know what that impact will be because I'm not an expert in that. I will say that when you think of all the things that are changing in the media, you think of the role of the Internet -- all the ways in which we consume information that we didn't have before. The options are given to consumers through the DVR, people who will get music through satellite radio or through iPods ... the one thing that I think is going to be the most stable of all of those, and I'm not saying this just because I do it, is local talk. It's the one thing satellite is not going to have a local talk show from Milwaukee, Wis. I'm not going be able to get that from other places so I think that local radio will continue to be strong.

I honestly don't know what I would do if I was in the music radio business. My guess is that what I would emphasize would be the strong personalities like Dave and Carol and Reitman and Mueller. Because those are the things that can't be copied.

OMC: What's your relationship with Jeff Wagner and Mark Belling? Friends, associates?

CS: Jeff and I are close associates because we do the same thing, we're almost a tag-team. For many years around here I was the only person who could be described as a conservative so it was really a very positive thing for me when Jeff came onboard. So I value him a great deal.

Mark and I ... that's an interesting question. I have great respect for what he does, I think what he does is incredibly important, and I think that was reflected when he was going through the controversy over the ethnic slur when there were people trying to get him fired. Even though he works for a competitive station, I felt it was really important to provide a forum for people who wanted to express a different point of view so I made the decision I was going to stand up for him. I didn't support a use of the word, I thought he mishandled it, but I also thought that the reaction was grossly overblown. We had the liberal thought police trying to take off an important conservative voice.

OMC: You call yourself "a recovering liberal." Can you talk a little bit about that transformation? Do you think it's typical in the maturation process of an individual?

CS: It may be. I went through a very particular thing. I was quite liberal when I was in high school and college. My father was the campaign director for Eugene McCarthy during the anti-war campaign, during 1968, the anti-war candidate. He was the state campaign director.

When I was 13 years old I went to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a Page to the Democratic Delegation. In Chicago with the police riots with Mayor Daley, I was very active in the Young Democrats. In fact, I was once the Chairman of the Milwaukee Area Young Democrats. I was very liberal.

It was over a period of time, and I think it was in reaction to some of the extremism that we saw -- that I saw, in the early 1970s when you had the bombing of the math building at UW, the trashing of the university campuses, that I guess I began at least turning me off to -- asking, do I really want to be associated with this? My whole life (I thought), of course, liberals were good and conservatives were bad and I became more open minded. And actually as a reporter, what I saw up close was all of the various programs that had been created with certain intentions were either failing miserably or actually having the exact opposite impact on the people they were supposed to help.

So at what point do you go, "OK, so am I a right-winger?" If suddenly I say that these programs are actually destroying the lives of the people that they're supposed to be helping? Can I ask these questions? When I describe myself as a recovering liberal it is, in my mind, an accurate description of how I came to be what I am now. But it also means that I remember what it was like to be a liberal so I think I can understand where the other side often is coming from.

OMC: Do you think it's difficult in politics today to see both sides?

CS: It is, and things have gotten polarized, there's no question about it. I guess the one thing I noticed as a recovering liberal was that I see my friends who are liberal -- I think that they are my friends -- I disagree with them on the issues. I think that they're perhaps wrong. Liberals have a tendency to look at conservatives and say you're a bad person, you have sold out, you're a hypocrite, you are a fascist, you are something that -- this reflects upon your character. How someone stands on the flat tax doesn't reflect on your character, as far as I'm concerned. You and I can disagree on the flat tax, we can disagree on Social Security reform, that doesn't mean that you are less or more of an honest person. And I think that unfortunately that personalization has helped poison it (politics) so! And I said this before, I've lost, obviously, a lot of friends as I've become more outspoken as a conservative.

OMC: How about the Milwaukee Connector. Do you have thoughts still on rail possibilities in Milwaukee?

CS: Seems like kind of a dead issue. I just don't see Milwaukee as a town where that's ever going to work. I'm more open-minded about commuter rail. People would actually use it and it would be efficient. I don't think that there's an ideological litmus test on it (light rail), it's whether it would be used and whether it would be feasible. And if commuter rail at some point is feasible, fine. Milwaukee is just not a town where people want to get out of their cars and take rail -- I've ridden it in other cities, including Portland and San Diego and some other cities that are, I think, designed pretty well and it fits into the culture, I don't see it here. When John Norquist left town, I think that sort of took the Milwaukee Connector with him.

OMC: You were a big supporter of Miller Park. Looking back on it now, do you think it was built in the right location? In hindsight, the Brewers got a lot of tax money to build a stadium. Was it right?

CS: There's no question about it, I was a big supporter of Miller Park. Some people say I schilled for Miller Park, I don't disagree with them. I regret it, I regret it a lot. I believe that we were misled. We were misled about what the team's intentions were. I think I made it pretty clear that I felt betrayed. I believed the Brewers that if we built a new park it would generate revenue, which would then be used to fuel the more competitive team.

So we built Miller Park at tremendous expense and what happens, they slash the payroll. I don't know how you see that as anything other than reneging on a deal. The taxpayers in the community lived up to their end of the bargain, they built this, and then it was incumbent on Major League Baseball and the Seligs to live up to their end of the bargain and I don't believe they did. Which is one of the reasons why I did not go to opening day last year.

But I think it's a new era and I'm going to approach the new owner with a completely open mind, and I think the Brewers are an important institution in town. I want to be able someday to say, OK despite the bumpy ride we were right to build Miller Park. I can't say that right now. And I'll tell you it'll be a cold day in hell before I'll support another tax increase for a major league sporting venue.

OMC: If you had the magic Milwaukee wand and you could wave it and say, "Here are three things that the city needs," what would they be?

CS: Do I have to have just three? Wouldn't it be great if Milwaukee could be an entirely wireless city? If we could be entirely Wi-Fi? And, if we could develop, in an intelligent way, the Park East land and Pabst City and make it into a real hub of creative enterprise to attract young people back into the city, to sort of get past the beer and the brats and the "old fart nothing ever gets done in Milwaukee" mentality. I really think there's a real possibility there that we could do that.

And quite frankly, we're never going to really turn around the city until we get a grip on the education system, until we find a way to either upgrade MPS or expand a successful school choice program so that we're actually beginning to create the kind of workforce that would be attractive to companies. It creates the critical mass; you want the businesses to bring the right kind of jobs but you also want enough employees to be able to fill those jobs. I don't think we're there yet. I don't think that right now that we either have the workforce, the tax climate, the regulatory climate to do that.

Plus, Milwaukee needs to get over its inferiority complex. And all of these things are going to have to happen at once. There has been a lot that happened downtown. There's been a lot that's happened in this community. And I think that's where Mayor Barrett has the opportunity, if on his watch he is able to preside over the renaissance of Pabst City, the renaissance of the Park East quarter, if he is able to begin to attract some of these knowledge based industries into Milwaukee, I think that you could start to have people feel differently about this community, dramatically differently.

I think one of the most extraordinary developments in Milwaukee has nothing to do with politics or government at all. And I don't know if you have an explanation for this, we are experiencing a major renaissance in restaurants in this community. We have more good restaurants than any time in the city's history. And, the range is amazing. You can put us up against any mid to large city in America and we can hold our own.

There's obviously some latent energy out there that people who have not been downtown lately -- when I first moved here you had Karl Ratzsch's and Mader's. That was it for restaurants. Now you go through a list of the top 30 restaurants in Milwaukee and you still have another at least 20 newer, really outstanding places. So in terms of the quality of life and culture of this community we have a great deal of energy. The Milwaukee Art Museum as a symbol of the city is a completely different image than this community's ever had. So the question is: What are we going do with it? In that sense we're on the bubble.

OMC: What's that tipping point? Could it be Pabst City with its ability to showcase the local restaurant flavor, because downtown just doesn't have the big national chain restaurants yet?

CS: I think that could be the tipping point. There are some negative tipping points, as well. There's racial divide in this community, and you have people like Michael McGee who feed on it and that's not going to go away any time soon.

OMC: Do you think there are any creative solutions for that racial divide other than people getting to know each other better?

CS: Well, that would be nice. Looking at the positive developments, and I said this on my TV show, I thought it was very interesting that Michael McGee called for a boycott on local retailers and it completely fizzled. So his start sort of burned out -- at the very moment though, and this is the good news though, is that you had Willie Hines, Common Council President, and Alderman Joe Davis who are stepping forward as bona fide leaders with a responsible message that, "Yes, we're going to be concerned about the community." I think that with the rise of responsible leadership, there's a real potential there.

OMC: What's the last concert you saw?

CS: I'm a music fan. My wife and I have slightly different tastes in music but I think probably the last thing I went to was probably the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. And, yes I do have an iPod. Our family has a bunch of them now.

OMC: If you could have a drink or a cup of coffee with one person today who would it be and why?

CS: Who would I have a drink with? It would be great to have a drink with my dad, who passed away 20 years ago, to tell him all the stuff that's happened since. I've often thought that I kind of backed into being a talk show host but he would've loved this. He would've loved doing what I'm doing right now. There are worse ways to make a living you know than to come in and talk about stuff for a few hours a day.

OMC: Do you listen to other radio shows? Are you a news junkie?

CS: During the election and campaign I had almost an unhealthy junkie fixation. And it took me awhile to come down from that because I would leave here and get immediately on the Internet and spend the whole afternoon reading -- blah, blah, looking at the various sites, tracking polls, and then at night watching -- flipping back and forth between MSNBC, Fox and CNN. And after awhile it's just too much.

I watch very little television. I get most of my information off the Internet and through other publications. Something I've sort of been focusing on is to get into the world of the Net because I think that that's the future of information. Recognizing that there are strengths for every media, there's some things that work incredibly effectively on television far more so than anything else but in the modern age you have to be conversant in print, you have to be conversant in the spoken word, you have to be conversant in video, and you have to understand how the Internet works and how information is disseminated.

Just in the last year, you want to talk about tipping points, we're having this interview the day before Dan Rather's last day. Now think about the historical transformation and think what that represents; the tipping point for the new media in the last year, what happened with the once all-powerful dominant news networks at the hands of the Web logs and what it means for the future of information that the stories and commentary can be disseminated instantaneously.

I did a show a few months ago where we brought some of the Wisconsin Web loggers in. It used to be that in order to participate in the dialogue you had to be a columnist for a newspaper. And how many of them were there? Now what do you need to be a columnist? You need your own Web site; anyone can do it. And so it's the ultimate free marketplace. There's going be a huge churn of new voices coming on and old voices going out, we have more voices than we've ever had before.

I always find it funny when people start complaining about there are too many conservatives in this or why can't we have our side presented, well excuse me, look around you. The old models are falling apart. And you have the people who are sitting in the ivory towers of the newspaper or the ivory towers at CBS, and either they are completely in denial or they really don't know how to adapt to this rapidly changing environment.

OMC: Are your radio shows archived? Can I go to the TMJ site and download yesterday's show?

CS: No.

OMC: I should I be able to, shouldn't I?

CS: I think so, too.

OMC: Do you think that's one of the futures for talk radio?

CS: I would think so. In fact, that's one of the -- there's a real connection between the Internet and talk radio. People are listening more online, and (we are becoming an on-demand culture where if you want to hear the Rush Limbaugh show and you're not available, you have to work, that you can go home at night and you can download -- he's really been a pioneer in that. So, yeah, that will be the future. I never cease to be amazed at how good the quality is, too.

You have to understand that this is all happening so fast -- all the business models are changing ... people used to wait around and they would open their newspapers and they'd get their news once a day -- that's not the way anymore- by the time that newspaper actually hits my desk in the morning I've read everything. I've seen all that.

OMC: Are you in Milwaukee to stay?

CS: Well, they're treating me awful well and they keep giving me good stories and things to talk about so I'm not restless. I'm enjoying this very much.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.