There’s a place in Milwaukee where motorcycles, engineering and music work together like gears on a Harley.
Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) cranks out a steady crop of the world’s best engineers, including many in the motorcycle industry here in Milwaukee and around the world. In the local music scene, MSOE has its own radio station that rides a steady road with Milwaukee’s motorcycle community.
WMSE 91.7 FM is currently committed to local biker culture through its support of the upcoming Mama Tried Motorcycle Show the weekend of Feb. 19 through Feb. 21. When I recently visited WMSE – AKA "the Mighty 91" – Milwaukee motorcycle enthusiasts Scott Johnson and Warren Heir were talking on-air about Mama Tried, motorcycle racing and the local scene.
This year’s three-day Mama Tried event features Flat Track Friday indoor racing at the UWM Panther Arena, the motorcycle show itself Saturday and Sunday at Milwaukee Cold Storage at 124 N. Second St. and ice racing Sunday at McKinley Marina on the Lakefront.
Motorcycles custom culture, DJs and WMSE come from as diverse backgrounds as the music they play. While there is definitely a stereotype of biker music, such as mostly classic and Southern rock, according to those in the know at WMSE, there are many other genres and performers in the culture – including Lenny Kravitz, Melissa Etheridge, Shirley Manson, Angie Stone and Prince when he made that custom Honda 400 part of his "Purple Rain" persona.
"I don’t think anyone listens to a song and decides to go out and buy a motorcycle," said Tom Crawford, long time and legendary WMSE station manager. "Maybe they did back in the sixties with 'Born to Be Wild' and all that, but songs can define the rebellion and what it means. Back then, the bikers wore colors and were known as degenerates, criminals and juvenile delinquents like those in the movies."
There are several WMSE DJs with ties to motorcycles, cars or just about anything with an engine, according to Crawford. Shows like the Saturday Morning Car Tunes Gear Head Show, the Blues Jam, Jerry’s Attic, Dewey’s Garage or Crawford’s Rock Ride reflect some of that interest, but their roots in the local biker culture are real and run deeper than music on a playlist.
For example, the Gear Head Show with Dietrich from 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. Saturdays on WMSE is like easy listening for guys like me spending their mornings driving between hardware stores, junk yards and the occasional rummage sale. Mark Dietrich has spun tunes at WMSE for about 15 years while also keeping listeners informed on the latest drag races, car shows and any other gear head events.
Whether it’s hot rods or custom motorcycles, Dietrich believes there are close connections between the two cultures. "There’s a mechanical aspect that if it’s got an engine and wheels, you’re going to want to mess with it," he said. "Some people are just more inclined to cars, bikes or both."
Dietrich also noted strong bonds between the music of motorcycles and cars with bands like the Stranglers, the Hondells or the Hornets, as well as local bands like the Uptown Savages or the Nelsonics. "There’s the rockabilly thing with the looks of greaser punks with the hair slicked back, the bomber jacket and cigarettes rolled up in your sleeve,’ he said. "That whole juvenile delinquent image works for both cars and bikes."
The WMSE studios at Krueger Hall on Milwaukee Street have an authentic personality and work ethic to match. The conference room table is made of concrete, rebar and metal sheeting while vintage and current concert posters and album covers grace the walls.
Many of those posters were created by WMSE DJ and visual artist Erik Von Munz, who I visited after his Vinyl Variety Show on a recent Thursday afternoon. Von Munz doesn’t ride yet, but "grew up in a gear head family" where his father rode a BSA and his two brothers are bike builders. "The thrill of being a motorcycles rider with the wind in your hair going at speed are the same feelings you get from loud and fast rock and roll," Von Munz said. "That’s why they match up so well."
The DJs at WMSE volunteer their time on-air at all hours of the day and night, and are as dedicated to their music as Harley riders are to the Bar and Shield logo. "I’m realizing that a lot of motorcycles riders listen to my show," Von Munz said. "That’s indicated by how fast the tickets went for the Flat Out Friday giveaway."
Bikes and brews: Wisconsin Harley-Davidson in Oconomowoc presents its Third Annual Bikes and Brews Beer Sampling Extravaganza and Festival on Saturday, March 3 from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. Tickets include a commemorative pint glass, all the unique beers and ciders you care to sample, and food ticket. Delight your palate with an array of over 50 different beers and hard ciders, as well as your ears with several bands – all playing for a good cause. Limited availability VIP package provides a t-shirt, VIP lanyard and special early entry. Designated driver packages and special room rates are available at Staybridge Suites.
Stay warm: February is Moto Month at the Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee including motorcycle-themed Bike Nights, Mama Tried promotions, a Bloody Mary brunch and special artist nights while showcasing artist Mathew (Boo) Hintz.
Mike Morgan rides retro, whether on his 1976 Harley Aermacchi 250 or Heritage Softail. Mike has been a motorcyclist since 2001 having ridden in Sturgis, Daytona Beach, the California coast, New England and everywhere in between, including in the last three Milwaukee Harley Anniversary parades.
Mike worked in communications and marketing at Harley-Davidson for more than 12 years, writing and editing all kinds of content, including award-winning media kids in 2009 and 2012. He had ridden the Harley several times before Brewer games at Miller Park, and ran in one of the last sausage races at the old County Stadium when he was Communications Manager for the Stadium District Board.