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Monday, Dec. 31, 2007

No More Classical Radio

Milwaukee Loses WFMR

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Icons are born because of the sparks they set off in us, the rich color they dab onto our spirit. They become a part of us, part of our identity. When we lose them, we also lose a part of ourselves.

That’s how I view this year’s loss of Milwaukee’s only classical music radio station, WFMR, a true Milwaukee icon. And I know others feel the same. This loss is a sad commentary for a city that is trying to hail its quality of life.

The loss of classical radio may seem insignificant to many people. In the big scheme of things, what’s the loss of another art form? But all the losses in the arts simply add more casualties in the battle to keep the nation’s cultural life from draining away.

The arts are a nation’s soul. In Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., classical radio stations have been sacrificed for more lucrative formats. Some people feel the loss, of course, but I dare assume most people probably shrug off the loss as no big deal. I fear that reaction in Milwaukee.

It is a sad reality to face, especially when you realize that in a small way WFMR helped place our city above many others of its size because of the richness of its cultural life. We have our own symphony orchestra, ballet and theater companies, plus scores of smaller performing groups. And, by Jove, we have our own classical music station—or, at least, we had.

Boutique Radio

WFMR may not have been a classical radio powerhouse compared to those in some major cities: WQXR in New York, KDFC in San Francisco or KING in Seattle. It could never have competed in size and signal power with them. Yet once upon a time it stood against the best of them artistically and creatively. WFMR was a charming boutique on the radio dial, befitting a vibrant and proud city that emphasized its culture and heritage.

Tragically, in recent years WFMR’s creative energy and programming quality had declined so dramatically that in the end it was relegated to being “better than nothing.” I don’t know how many times I heard those sad remarks. That says so little about a once-proud classical and jazz radio station. How sad to reach a stage in the creative life to be regarded as being “better than nothing.”

How I lament that thought. How I lament the loss of a radio station that formerly sparkled for its talent and creative programming. The voices heard behind the microphone were distinct and alive, and the music was programmed with a seamless flow. I like to call those days the station’s glory days, the 1970s and ’80s, when WFMR soared. I don’t say this because I was fortunate enough to be part of the station then, on morning drive. No, not at all. I was only part of a dedicated group of music programmers and hosts who created the station’s fine sound. Together we made it what it was. We knew our stuff and held our own against the best of them in the country.

We were Milwaukee’s classical music and jazz ready reference. All you had to do was pick up the phone and ask any staff announcer. We had most of the answers on the spot, and if we did not, we took the time, individually or collectively, to find out. Even when callers whistled something they had heard on the station, or elsewhere, we had the answer. I don’t ever recall disappointing a listener by saying we didn’t know the answer, or could not and would not find out.

The Magic Fruit?

We were stumped, however, when the sales department came to us with a sponsor’s vague request of a Mozart composition—“something about fruit”—to be used for his commercial music bed. What in blazes was this Mozart fruit music? It took us a few days of running around and howling like mad to find the answer. We resolved that the blasted music had nothing to do with fruit, unless, of course, Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute had something about “fruit” we didn’t know.

When I started at WFMR in the early 1970s, the station broadcast from atop a Downtown high-rise at Sixth Street and Wisconsin Avenue. That sounds impressive; it was anything but. We were on the 22nd floor and the elevator stopped on the 21st. The air studio, music library and offices were jammed into a dusty cubicle we called the “basement in the sky.” I expected Marconi to pop his head in at any moment. My first morning on the air, in the middle of a live newscast, a storm blew in the on-air studio window—that is, the foreign object that doubled as a window pane.

Conditions improved once we moved to the studios on Capitol Drive. Now we could interview artists and celebrities without fear of getting their britches dusty. And many made a point of stopping by: prominent composers, conductors, musicians and actors. Vincent Price lit up the place. During a live interview on my program, Price was brilliant and entertaining, yet gracious and unassuming, an actor with such command of the English language that he made my mouth water. Class permeated the studios that morning, along with the rich pastries from the La Boulangerie.

Throughout those years WFMR was immersed in the city’s artistic life, promoting the arts groups through fund-raisers and other activities. Who can forget the live broadcasts for the United Performing Arts Fund, when almost every radio and television personality in town pitched in on the air to help out? Of course, the arts community did its share to promote the station as well. I remember a fund-raiser for WFMR held Downtown at Caf La Boheme, when we packed the place. We were part of the city’s artistic life. We helped each other.

Other former staffers, I’m sure, carry their own memories of WFMR. How could anyone have walked away from that radio station without memories? I carry a treasure myself, although bittersweet after four different stints, the last one from 2002 to 2004, when the management waited until I finished my show on a Friday—and on my way out the door told me not to come back. Thanks a lot, folks.

WFMR will always be a part of me, because I was a part of it, especially in its glory days. We who shared the microphone, and our devoted listeners, all made the station what it was. In turn the station brought out the best in us. I know all of us, in our own way, feel the loss of WFMR, the loss of an icon.

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