By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Sep 10, 2007 at 5:33 AM

For years, you could set your watch with the stability of the morning show on 94.5 WKTI-FM. Thousands of Milwaukeeans were practically raised on the voices of Bob Reitman and Gene Mueller (and later, Amy Taylor). But when the show ended with Reitman's retirement, Taylor's resignation and Mueller's reassignment to the company's AM counterpart, a sizable void emerged on the city's FM dial.

When it came time to find a replacement, station management started fresh, bringing in Matthew Blades, a young but experienced DJ who most recently worked in Denver. Blades assembled a team with Erin Austin and producer/co-host A.J. (no last name, just A.J.). The trio hit the airwaves this summer, and while they await their first ratings book, they are moving full-steam ahead with their new show -- fully aware that they're being watched closely by media critics and skeptics, alike, who tend to be slow to accept on-air changes.

Fortunately, the group has quickly built a strong chemistry and is becoming more passionate about their new home every day. We recently caught up with the trio in this latest Milwaukee Talks.

OMC: What are your different roles on the show?

Blades: A.J. is responsible for most of the production side, when we use sound clips or a music bed. He also screens phone calls. We look to Erin to live life, and that's a big deal, because she's in the demo. We look to her to get our entertainment news. I do all the other stuff. I plan the show out, cross the Ts, make sure there's good balance.

OMC: You're filling some pretty big shoes on your station.

MB: You've noticed?

OMC: You each came in from other cities into a market that's not known for embracing change. How did it all go down?

MB: It started after Bob Reitman announced that he was going to retire. KTI formulated a plan, and I didn't even show up on their radar until the very end. I came up here and met with them a couple times.

OMC: What market were you in at the time?

MB: I was in Denver.

OMC: Was that a Journal Broadcast station?

MB: No, but I know Tom Land, who is the director of programming for all the Journal stations. I met (WTMJ's) Bob Walker and Jon Schweitzer, and I guess I won them over. I wanted to come here before I went to Denver, but they weren't ready yet.

OMC: A.J. and Erin, how did you get here?

A.J.: I've known Matthew for 11 years. We worked in D.C. together. In radio, there's a lot of moving. I haven't kept in touch with more than two or three radio people, but Matthew was one of them. We became really good friends and lived together, which was a disaster -- but a fun disaster!

MB: Who was that fun for? I always had to pick up after you!

A.J.: We always thought we'd work together again. I was doing television when this opportunity came up. I have a 3-year-old girl and a 5-year-old girl, and I tried to do whatever I could in radio until they got to the age where they started making friends. This was a perfect opportunity to set down some roots.

OMC: So, Matthew, you recruited this group?

MB: Yes, I put together the show. It was my responsibility. I knew I wanted to work with A.J., and we just needed to find the third component. Enter Erin Austin from St. Louis.

Austin: I was in St. Louis, and in the back of my mind, I knew I was looking for other things, but I thought I needed to put a package together first. My ex-husband knew Matthew in Denver. He was also my boss, which got a little weird. He thought I should go for (the job in Denver), but I wasn't so sure I wanted to go into that direction. Matthew ended up e-mailing me. He heard (my work), and he liked it.

MB: It's hard, because there aren't a lot of great female voices out there. We must have talked to eight people just in Wisconsin. But Erin brings something to the table that's different that what A.J. and I have to offer.

OMC: How is the chemistry between the three of you?

MB: I think it's good. We work on it every day. In radio, you have to be "insta-friends." The chemistry was the easiest part of the show. A week before we debuted, we did 2-5 a.m., just practicing and getting used to each other. The technical side is where we want to improve.

OMC: There's clearly a big spotlight on you, since you're working on one of the company's most visible shows. What's that like?

EA: I don't realize how big it is until we're out at places and people say, "Oh, you're the one!" It's just kind of weird.

MB: But it's cool, man, I like it. I'm at a radio station where I want to be. We work for great people who understand what's going to happen.

OMC: How old are you guys?

MB: I'm 33, A.J. is 37, and Erin is 30.

OMC: You're quite a bit younger than the show you replaced.

MB: Reitman was 68 when he retired. That's the elephant in the room. People ask if we're going to aim for a younger crowd. Well, we're talking about things that we can relate to.

OMC: Before you got here, the show was definitely skewing to an older crowd. What kind of feedback are you getting?

MB: Positive, from the people that we want and hope will come to our party.

OMC: Have you talked to Reitman and Mueller at all?

A.J.: Sure, Gene Mueller works right down the hall. He's a good dude.

EA: I've yet to be formally introduced.

OMC: Have you met Bob?

MB: He was really a cool cat. It's easy to see why he was a success. He built an empire.

OMC: What kind of assurances are you getting from management about how committed they are to making your show a success?

MB: They think this may take a couple of years. I hope that it doesn't take that long.

OMC: I'm sure the ratings took a little bit of a hit with the switchover, right?

MB: We'll find out soon. That book comes out in another month.

OMC: But everyone expects that, don't they? You can't just walk in and become number one instantly.

EA: If we did, that would be awesome.

MB: But you have to be realistic. I always tell people this: I hope that people have the same passion that they did for Bob Reitman 25 years from now. I got a lot of e-mail from people saying they really wanted to hate us, but they're starting to listen and they really like it. That's cool. Management is committed and took me out to dinner again to tell me that.

EA: And they signed us to a contract that's not too bad.

OMC: We were talking earlier about your individual musical tastes. They're all over the place, from the Digable Planets to classic rock to Michael Buble to Rascal Flatts.

MB: Yeah, it makes a (format) like this fine for us.

OMC: Do you have any say in what music is played during your show?

A.J.: No.

MB: If I wanted to play something I could, but for me, it's always been more important to decide what I get to say than what I get to play.

OMC: How has technology, the Internet, whatever, changed the way you do your jobs?

MB: I think it's helped; there are more outlets to get the word out.

A.J. There are more voices out there. You need to change and embrace them. The Internet is a huge help.

EA: It all depends on what company you work for, too. Here we don't have to update our own Web site every day; we have people who can help us.

OMC: Is FM radio going to be a driving force in, say, 10 years? How does it fit in to satellite radio, Internet radio or the next big thing?

MB: It will be, as long as we continue to evolve. If we keep playing 25 minutes of commercials per hour ... that has to change. (FM radio is) very viable. You can turn on KTI and get a story about what's happening right here in Milwaukee.

OMC: Last question: Matthew Blades. Erin Austin. A.J., without a last name. Those have to be radio pseudonyms, right?

EA: No, Erin Austin is my real name.

OMC: Really? That's a perfect radio name.

MB: Matthew Blades is not my real name. Matthew is my name, but Blades is not.

OMC: And A.J., you're just going with the one name thing, like Prince? Are you trying to keep some privacy in your life?

A.J.: No, it's just an acronym.

MB: But it's cool, it stands for his daughters' names.

A.J.: I'm the farthest from my real name.

MB: Looking back, I would've used my real name. But "Blades" isn't that crazy.

EA: I used to use a pseudonym, but then I got married. I thought Austin is pretty kick-ass. I guess that's one good thing I got out of being married!

OMC: Sounds like things are going really well for all of you.

MB: We want to stay here. Even if they don't like us, we're not gonna leave. I like it here. We're close to our families. I would love to see Journal Broadcast take this show and syndicate this to other markets. But I don't want to go to Boise, Idaho. I want to stay in Milwaukee. 

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. 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 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.