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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Milwaukee radio: a retrospective


Despite our inability to pronounce all the letters in our fair city's name, Milwaukeeans have generally been considered good communicators. Radio in Milwaukee has produced some innovation, some great history and a number of people who have gone on to national prominence.

We noticed in the "Are You Old School?" comments on Milwaukee history, people mentioned radio stations, some going back 30-40 years or more. We thought it would be nice to expand on some of Milwaukee radio history and even provide some audio clips from previous eras. So get those knobs a-tunin', and we'll walk down Memory Lane...

The first radio station in Milwaukee was called WAAK, and began broadcasting "from high atop" Gimbels (now the Ivory Tusk Building) in 1921. All radio back then was on the AM band, and there were no formats. Programming was an eclectic blend of mostly news, talk and various kinds of music. Kind of like WMSE is today.

Tracing The History of Stations Still With Us

WTMJ, still the city's most listened-to station, also began in the 1920s. On the 1020 AM frequency, the station started broadcasting in 1927 and switched to 620 AM a year later. Call letters often stand for things... in this case, The Milwaukee Journal. The format was "full service" for most of its lifetime, which meant a mixture of news, music and talk shows. WTMJ has also carried the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers games for most of the teams' histories. The station's format now is officially news/talk. You usually just hear music on WTMJ when it's being discussed on Jonathan Green's "Green House" afternoon show and during Bill "Big Unit" Michaels' show on nights and weekends ... and that's usually Rush and AC/DC. 'TMJ is also host to Charlie Sykes and new late night talker Mark Reardon.

WEMP began at 1340 AM and now is at 1250. The station, which is owned by Entercom, programs a Christian radio format now, but has broadcast oldies, sports, country and news since its inception in the mid-1930s. WEMP was the station everyone tuned into to hear Earl Gillespie broadcast those Braves games from County Stadium during their heyday in the '50s.

WRIT The original WRIT was one of Milwaukee's premier Top 40 stations in the 1960s. When WEMP switched frequencies, the 1340 AM dial position became WRIT and the station took off with a rock 'n' roll format. The original WRIT-AM went from Top 40 to all news in 1972 and then experienced a series of changes before the call letters went away. The original 1340 AM station broadcast from the same building on McKinley Avenue in Milwaukee that WKLH-FM, WLZR-FM, WJMR-FM and WJYI-AM (the current occupant of the 1340 frequency) use today. The WRIT call letters were resurrected in 2000 when the oldies station at 95.7 FM flipped from WZTR.

WKTI began as WTMJ-FM, then became a pop/rock station in 1974 with the current call letters. The station was to be called I-94, so call letters had to be chosen to reflect the "I." As Jack Lee and Jonathan Green both recall, in a meeting of managers it was determined that the station would be W_ _ I ... but they were having trouble filling in the middle two letters. Jack Lee, who at the time was the manager responsible for the FM, wanted the call letters WWWI. If you try saying that fast five times, you can understand why the DJs didn't like it. Finally, one of the sales managers had a wife named Katie ... as in, "KT"... as in "WKTI"... and that's how the call letters were determined.

Calling itself "nonstop stereo rock," it was automated until 1981, when everything went live. In 1982, Bob Reitman and Gene Mueller teamed up for the morning show, and they've been there ever since, still hanging at or near the top of the ratings. Although recent departures of longtime staffers Danny Clayton and Leonard Peace have broken the trend, WKTI has a remarkable record of staff longevity. Lips LaBelle, who does afternoons, has been at the station for 18 years.

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Talkbacks

rreitman | Sept. 18, 2009 at 9:17 p.m. (report)

Anyone have OC White airchecks? rreitman@wi.rr.com

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Pangborn21 | June 18, 2008 at 1:50 a.m. (report)

Oh Roger you old cuss, no you're not. HA HA HA. How have you been?

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Pangborn21 | June 18, 2008 at 1:46 a.m. (report)

WAWA - home to Dr. Bop - and remember O.C. White? Two great voicesthat would be doing urban radio and hip hop if they were still with us. Two great men.

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Brian Stevens | May 10, 2007 at 6:08 p.m. (report)

Great job on the history. However, another set of calls you forgot were WAMG which was when the station was "Magic 103.7." WEZW flipped to Magic in March of 1995, but it wasn't until sometime that summer whe the new call letters took effect. Later, they stayed through their "Rythum and Romance" days. The calls didn't change until Kiss FM came on board in the summer of 1998. Also, don't forget that the WEZW calls supported both a Beautiful Music Format, and later, a Soft AC Format. I think that the early "Magic" days, when Dan and Jane temporarily moved form WMYX over there was an extention of that format. When Dan and Jane went back to WMYX, Glen Hanson and Carrie Whendt did mornings until Rhtyum and Romance when Greg Valentine took over the morning show. I hope that helps.

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doby | Jan. 3, 2007 at 11:29 a.m. (report)

How is it possible to review the histoy of milwaukee radio without mentioning station WAWA, or for that matter Dr. Bop, the icon of radio DJ's of his time? ? ? His airchecks are priceless and hopefully not lost forever.

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