Milwaukee Waves: 88Nine Radio Milwaukee Tunes Into Community

by Tea Krulos

“I was listening and Alicia Keys faded into Phish, which is a train wreck on paper, but it worked out on the air and I was like Yeeeeeeeeeahhh! No, it was more like YEEEEEEEEEAAAAAHHHH!”

I’m listening to the new 88.9FM on a Saturday night, and this is a prerecorded spot in between a jazzy, soulful number and a Beastie Boys song.

At this point in the early evening, the selections are not being made by a DJ, but what sometimes sounds like a CD player falling down a flight of stairs. Hip hop reggaeton acapella industrial country, electronic Latin tango, atmospheric emo metal, opera rap bebop acid jazz psychedelic ambient Irish funk, goth pop house punk alternarock n roll , banjo jazz flute grindcore folk songs.

“I think it’s important to have variety, people are different, they like variety.” A pleasant, smooth saxophone sounding female voice says in one of the spots between songs. About 7:45PM, a DJ signs on and begins a great mix of funk, folk, rock, and blues.

A couple weeks later and I’m awake early listening to the morning show with producer/ host Robyn Cherry and host Jay Hedblade. Cherry’s former radio work includes being a news anchor for WTMJ radio, a producer of WUWM’s “At 10” and hosting WUWM’s “Citytalk.” She seems at ease here, free to be herself, joking with Hedblade in typical morning Jockey fashion in between sets of music. In one radio spot, Hedblade speculates on the oddity of Cherry’s consuming soup at 4AM, and this is what much of their interaction is like.

One interesting feature of Radio Milwaukee’s website is the Sphere Research Project, a survey which “Will allow us to quickly and accurately capture how area residents see the Milwaukee area as a whole.” The survey features a series of questions on local education, economics, government, community, and quality of life. Your responses are then shown in sphere form.

I’m a bit disappointed to see that my own answers form more of a porcupine shape rather than a well rounded sphere. At first I’m puzzled as to why there were no questions at all about musical taste, but it seems clear the station wants a deep understanding of the City and its listeners.

Writer Luke Price recently spoke with J. Mikel Ellcessor, 88Nine Executive Director.

“We want to let people have some fun,” are the first words J. Mikel Ellcessor said about Radio Milwaukee, the new station broadcasting on 88.9 FM. “The station aims to mirror Milwaukee,” he explained, “It’s going to dig in and impact the community.”

88.9 FM is owned by Milwaukee Public Schools. The station, up until now, played jazz music. The switch to “Radio Milwaukee” went into effect on February 26. “Our principle goal is to be locally focused,” Ellcessor explained. “The station plays progressive, non-commercial music programming with a strong bond to the community.”

Undercurrents: How do you choose music for your audience?

J. Mikel Ellcessor: Milwaukee is a very diverse, multi-ethnic city. There are lots of people wanting their voices heard. We want them to be heard. We’re a not-for-profit entity, and our goal is to create music on-air, online and on the streets that gets people listening. People’s lives are diverse, and people include all different kinds of things. Their tastes don’t fit in a narrow silo of music, so we’re putting together a way for people to hear many different styles of music on one channel.

UC: Does Radio Milwaukee have community events planned?

JME: We are excited to have a presence at music events, as well as civic, community, and cultural events. We’re looking for places to show up and be visible in the public to adults and children.

UC: What prompted the change from jazz to “Radio Milwaukee?”

JME: Milwaukee Public Schools still owns the frequency. We made a management agreement with them. They were looking for professional broadcasters to manage the programming, and we got it.

UC: So, do you lease the station, or does MPS get some of the money you bring in?

JME: We don’t pay them money. We’re a not-for-profit organization, so we’re not really getting money for the schools. The money we bring in goes to finding new and different listeners. It helps us return the level of service people are getting for our non-commercial programming. When people contribute, they are opening more doors and windows into what we do. We want the community to feel good about local media. It’s not about large numbers, It’s about engagement.

UC: Have you had loyal 88.9 FM jazz listeners calling with complaints?

JME: Yes, and we expect them to complain. We hope they understand we’re going to be music reflecting how fast people’s lives move these days. If people are talking about it, it’ll be on our station. We will have community voices interspersed with the music. We take people talking and fold the community voice into the music. Representation in the media is a weak spot in our society. It doesn’t have the rhythm of the American population. We can get close to the people and give them a sense of community.

UC: How is Radio Milwaukee going to be different from 91.7 FM, WMSE?

JME: 91.7 is awesome. Ever since I got into town I’ve been driving around listening to it. WMSE is a collection of connoisseurs, allowing deep explorations of music and sound. For a couple hours you can dive into what a DJ is playing. Radio Milwaukee is based on the idea of blending things. Each selection will have excellence and community voices rolling through. WMSE and Radio Milwaukee will complement each other. We’re both below 92 on the FM dial, so people will have to scan by them to get to us, and we’re happy about that. When some stations at the below 92 end of the dial grow, they all start to grow.

J. Mikel Ellcessor is a former top executive at WNYC, National Public Radio’s flagship station. Listen online and participate in the Sphere Research Project at

NOW HEAR THIS is 88Nine’s launch party. It will be held at the Miramar Theatre, Wednesday April 4, 5-10PM with performances by Fever Marlene, Black Elephant, and De La Buena. The event is free, donations accepted at the door.

91.7 WMSE: A name since 1897… kind of…

Interview by Luke Price

Yes, looking at WMSE’s website, there is a history of engineers in the radio field dating back to 1897. While early accomplishments were more science class than music, WMSE began broadcasting on 91.7 FM in 1981, celebrating their 25th anniversary last year.

“We’re not professionals, we’re music lovers,” explains Mike ‘Buzz’ Bereiter of 91.7 FM, WMSE, “We’re looking to offer something no one else is doing.”

With programming changing every three hours, WMSE showcases intertwined mazes of music. WMSE also offers a place for musicians to showcase their music.

If there’s a genre of music, it can be found on WMSE at some point during the week.

“People are creatures of habit,” explains Bereiter, “they’ll know what to listen to, and they’ll get the timing down.”

Undercurrents: How do you see Radio Milwaukee affecting WMSE? M

ike ‘Buzz’ Bereiter: I don’t see it as an “us versus them” situation. They have their own ideas, and they have a different way of doing things. No one else was doing what we did when we started.

UC: How does WMSE choose what to play on the programs?

MBB: DJs pretty much just bring in old and obscure music. We have DJs willing to try new things musically. We’re different from the commercial stations. The commercial stations let the coasts dictate the programming. WMSE is all about not being restricted. Having more noncommercial stations in Milwaukee is encouraging. People should keep on listening.

UC: What do you see happening in Milwaukee for local music?

MBB: In the past ten years, there were a lot of things lacking. There was absolutely some great stuff happening, but there wasn’t to the degree there is today. Now, there are more people out there making great music. We’re starting to see an insurgence. We’re seeing musicians being very ambitious, especially with touring. It’s great to see these bands getting out of the rust belt. It has helped immensely.

Mike ‘Buzz’ Bereiter heads the music department at WMSE 91.7 FM.

Listen online WMSE hosts their Fifth Annual Rockabilly Chili Contest Sunday, April 1 11AM-4PM at the Harbor Lights Room, O’Donnell Park, 909 E. Michigan St. Admission is $3, $1 per bowl of chili. Over 30 restaurants will participate. There will be music from DJs Johny Z and Dietrich.

Reitman Travels Full Circle to 89.7 WUWM

Milwaukee icon Bob Reitman started his on-air career in 1966, first hosting a poetry program and then “It’s Alright, Ma, It’s Only Music,” a title gleaned from a Bob Dylan song, both on WUWM. After a career that’s included the last 27 years as half of “Reitman and Mueller” on WKTI, Reitman returned to his roots, spinning his favorite records and picked up where he left off at WUWM in January. “It’s Alright, Ma, It’s Only Music” airs Thursdays 7- 9PM and rebroadcasts Saturdays 9-11PM. You can listen online at

UnderCurrents on 89.7 WUWM’s “Lake Effect”

UnderCurrents Managing Editor Tea Krulos and Art Editor Coth were honored to be guests of interviewer Bonnie North on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” on March 21. You can listen to the interview at Click on Lake Effect and find the March 21 show

Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2007