The year was 1981 and the FM radio frequency at 91.7 had just emerged into the legal realm of radio as WMSE at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. As WMSE gets ready to celebrate its 25th birthday as listener-supported, frontier radio in Milwaukee, Station Manager Tom Crawford chats with OMC about evolving from an avid listener at age 20 into one of the station's biggest catalyst for the growth and success.
According to Crawford, all it took was a love for music and a solid vision. But we think it's also got something to do with his uncanny knack for fundraising and the strong commitment he has to the betterment of the station -- and city -- he loves.
OMC: Congratulations on finishing the fall membership drive.
T.C.: Thanks. It was a fun one but it was also a really tough one. There's been some heavy duty cause-related things that people have really emotionally tied themselves to this year, and that's where a lot of people's giving money has gone, so it took some convincing. But our goal was $115,000 and we now we have over $120,000 pledged.
OMC: So where does the money go? Are you looking to grow?
T.C.: Growth is something that we are always doing. I don't think there's ever a period of complacency. Complacency in the business of communications is the death of you. And with the fact that we're owned and operated by a science and technology institute, staying on the cutting edge is very meaningful, even from a promotional standpoint of MSOE. When they speak about the many things that go on on campus, we become one of the highlights because we're a state-of-the-art radio station that's majority digital, that's on the Web, that you can listen to anywhere in the world, and that archives years' worth of broadcasting.
OMC: It's grown incredibly since it started. When did you join the team?
T.C.: In 1981 the radio station was founded, but it was in 1978 or '79 that they realized there was a frequency at 91.7 that they could allocate. That's when I really started to listen all the time, right before they went legal.
OMC: What kind of stuff did they play?
T.C.: Everything. There was a DJ called Country Bob who played Charlie Daniels all the time. But there were also people like Paul Host and a guy named Flux Density, who I loved. They played anything from what was then called new wave, to punk and post punk. There was always the kid doing Styx and Journey, too. That was pre-big hair metal, but there were still the Judas Priest and AC/DC kids playing that stuff.
But then two hours later you'd be listening to this heavily Middle Eastern-accented guy whose name was Achmed, but he called himself "Rockmed." He was just awesome. He'd play the New York Dolls, MC5, Iggy Pop, all that punk stuff. It was fantastic. I loved getting up in the morning.
OMC: So, is he essentially responsible for motivating you to get involved with the station?
T.C.: No. There was a guy named Neil Mickey who was very much the catalyst. It was 1983 and he worked at Record Head and Rush-Mor Records. I was playing in a band with a drum machine and synthesizers called Old Dark House. It was horrible. But we made this tape and we took it to Rush-Mor.
Neil worked in the music department and was a DJ at WMSE, so when he heard our tape, he interviewed us and played three of our songs on the radio. I still have the interview tape somewhere. We became friends and he said I should put in an application. By the fall of 1983 I was a DJ on the air from midnight to 6 a.m. and I did that for four months. Then I did midnight to 3 a.m. for six or seven years and I loved every minute of it. By 1988 I was hosting an industrial show from 6 to 9 a.m. on Mondays.
OMC: So is that how you made your money during this time?
T.C.: No, it was all volunteer. I worked on the docks loading cargo for 10 years, but during this time I was also a DJ at a place called Café Voltaire. The thing about being involved with the radio station is that it allowed me to be on the forefront of the scene, or support an upcoming trend.
OMC: Fast forward to when you became station manager. How did that happen?
T.C.: When I was working at the docks I got hurt and basically lost everything. I turned my back on everything -- the legal process, the insurance companies, the lawsuit. I walked away from everything. I was in debt, I was getting divorced and I was losing my home. And for my sanity, I turned to the radio station. I saw that they needed someone to raise money. There was this core group of us in the music department and we'd get together and say, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get a bigger room, have live bands, have a library out in the open where everyone could have their hands on it?"
So, I hosted a couple benefits and in the course of six months, I had raised $12,000 and gotten a couple of underwriting contracts. I submitted a proposal to the president (of MSOE) asking to be the promotions and funding director. I told him that if MSOE paid me $20,000, I would raise $40,000, and they agreed. Feb. 15, 1993 was my first day of work, and I just kept raising money. I was relentless.
Two years after I became promotions and funding director, I became manager and I knew that we needed to start doing membership drives for long-term growth. Our operations committee and I decided to raise money to up our power from 1,000 to 3,200 watts. Then MSOE told us we had to move out of the dormitory we were in, but they weren't going to pay for it. They floated us the dough, and we spent half a million dollars creating a state-of-the-art radio station at 820 N. Milwaukee St. We paid the school back over a three-year period and went from them covering 80 to 90 percent of our operating budget down to self-sufficiency. This place has been a dream. All I really wanted to do was make sure this place got done, because the city deserved it and MSOE supported and encouraged our growth all the way.
OMC: Did you think that Milwaukee was lacking something in the music scene department?
T.C.: I don't think we were lacking, but I was inspired to make it even better. I was working with WMSE's music director, Paul Host, who was, at that time, a transcontinental truck driver. He would listen to various radio stations from all over as he was hauling things across the country, and he would come back and say, "You would not believe how cool we are. You would not believe how awesome of a station we have." But at the same time, he would point out other radio stations that were brilliant and he'd say, "This is what we can do. This is what we can aspire to be."
OMC: For so many people that I know, WMSE is the only good FM choice in Milwaukee.
T.C.: At the same time, those people need to listen to other things to fully realize what we are doing. For instance, we belong to this group called The Development Exchange. It's a consultancy group, and it gives us information on small-market, nonprofit, college radio stations. I sent Jason Mohr, our development director, and Holly Emmer, our account manager, to their annual conference. They get off the plane and they've got guys from KCRW (Santa Monica) and KEXP (Seattle) in line to meet them, saying, "You guys are from THAT station? You guys are awesome!"
It was really eye opening because when you're sitting here, you only really have an idea of who you are or what you are like based on your immediate surroundings. You may be affecting people on a regional level, a national level, an international level, or you may be only affecting people in the room. It's not until you step outside of where you're at that you realize the impact that you have.
Still, some people who listen are ultra hypercritical because we're the only ones doing this here. We don't do news or sports -- there isn't anything else here to compare us to. Are we ahead of the curve? I say we are the curve. If you read "Rough Guide to Internet Radio," we're probably the fourth or fifth most listed radio station.
OMC: And you're going beyond just playing music, you're involved in the community as well. Tell us about the MSE project.
T.C.: Ever since it's first day on the air in 1981 WMSE has had this undying devotion to the local music scene. The MSE project was put together by Brent Gohde and one of our advisory committee members. We really hadn't received any grant money up until that point. We approached the Milwaukee Arts Board and we told them that we're making a commitment to launching a local music resource Web site and hosting a live band every week.
OMC: Have you been able to see the impact it's had on the local music scene?
T.C.: Yeah, it's brought bands to the radio station for a studio-quality performance and they walk out with a really awesome demo and no money changes hands.
OMC: So, now is our scene thriving like it never has before?
T.C.: It's thriving like it always has, in my opinion. There's never been a dull moment for me. If I hear you say, "Milwaukee sucks," I will correct you. A fight may ensue. I just think people shouldn't slag their surroundings. If you don't like it, then move. The only one who can change things is you.
OMC: And you've certainly proven that one person can bring about a lot of change for the better.
T.C.: And I won't stop. My whole long-term goal as manager is to create a full-on public access recording studio. There are very few in the country and we have to find the funds to make it happen here. It belongs in Milwaukee. People that are wealthy with artistic talent but not in economic means need to be able to record. We'll turn it into a live performing space, have state-of-the-art recording equipment, and because we're an engineering school, it sort of becomes a testing ground for electrical engineers. There's just so much opportunity here, it's crazy. I'm always going, "What's the next project?"
OMC: Would you ever leave this city?
T.C.: I don't think so. I like what I do too much.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”