On Milwaukee Air

Although things had been going well for me in Albuquerque, our income was increasingly unsteady. That was due to the financial situation at the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Paychecks were delayed and that made the staff nervous. Which means that Hannelore started exploring moving on. We didn’t want to rely solely on my earnings, should the Symphony fold.

We went on a job-search trip to Saint Paul, MN, and Milwaukee, WI. Several months before, at a symphony marketing conference, Hannelore had met David Snead, head of the Marketing Department at the Milwaukee Symphony. He’d suggested she come visit if interested in a job with him. She had also learned about an opening at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

What would I do, if she got one of those? We weren’t much concerned. Both cities, bigger and more culturally rich than Albuquerque, had what seemed to be major classical music radio stations. And, given my recent discovery of multiple ways to earn income as newscaster, reporter, and jazz history and Italian teacher, we believed I’d find something.

Re: the Twin Cities, I had been in touch with KCMP, an established non-commercial classical music station at St. Olaf College. I drove to Northfield, MN, to see if there could be some future for me there, part-time, substitute, something like that, having called ahead.

The manager seemed very interested in having me join the staff, although he didn’t mention a specific job. He showed me around the station, of which he was very proud. Justifiably. It looked substantial and well furnished, larger and with more studios than any version of WNCN. It certainly was a far cry from KHFM. I told him about Hannelore’s and my plan to look into possibilities in Milwaukee, promising to be in touch again, once we’d made up our minds. It was great to feel wanted.

Hannelore had an interview with the marketing/PR director at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and, while not getting an immediate offer, unlikely in any case, she was uncertain if she really wanted to work there.

Our short visit in Minneapolis and Saint Paul didn’t tell us much about what it would have been like to live in the area. We had to rush to make Hannelore’s interview with David Snead in Milwaukee.

Obie w name

I had also been in advance contact with WFMR in Milwaukee, a commercial classical music station, and station manager Obie Yadgar. He’d suggested coming to see him at the station if and when we were in town. While Hannelore was meeting with David and his staff, I drove out to WFMR, which seemed quite far from downtown, 21 miles. There was trouble finding it, but eventually it was visible in the middle of an almost rural neighborhood.

The building was free-standing and small, on the same scale as KHFM. There were about four offices, on different sides of two hallways, a large control room, a small utilitarian studio, a record library; also a small kitchen and a bathroom.

I’d not sent Obie an audition tape, so he auditioned me on the spot, giving me a program guide and sitting me in the small studio in front of a mike to ad-lib introductions to music and performers listed on a page. No challenge. He went into another room to listen and, in about three minutes, stopped. “That’s great,” he said. “I wish we had an opening. But we don’t. If you move to Milwaukee, would you be interested in something part-time, maybe on weekends?”

“Sure,” I replied, trying to not sound shocked or delighted at how easy that had been.

“OK. I can get you on the air on weekends.”

I tried to be cool and minimize enthusiasm.

“But, here’s something important,” Obie continued, becoming very serious. “I must ask you to not tell your wife about the weekend shift until you arrive. Call me, of course, to let me know your decision, but don’t say anything to her about the offer until you’re actually on the way.”

Yeah, that was odd. But what the hell, I’d honor the agreement.

Hannelore was offered the job of Marketing Director of the Milwaukee Symphony, and we moved in mid-October, 1990. I called Obie when we were on our way. I learned upon arriving why he wanted to maintain some secrecy. The weekend guy had friends in the orchestra, and Obie didn’t want him to know he was being dropped until I was actually on hand. Obie had been nervous that Hannelore might tell someone at the Symphony.

We settled in at the end of November 1990. I was 57. That wasn’t too hard.

Since a weekend shift at WFMR was certainly not serious income, I began looking around and found that there was also a full-time jazz station: WYMS (Your Milwaukee Schools). It was owned and operated by the school system and, as a “justification,” always broadcast school board meetings.

Station manager Roger Dobrick and program director Bill Bruckner, learning of my Albuquerque, RAI, and New York credits, were suitably impressed, and I was added to the stand-by list of program hosts without an audition.

My first attendance at a staff meeting was unforgettable. Not due to the meeting itself. It was January 16th, 1991, and I was listening to the news on my car radio en route. As I was parking, the latest story said that the U.S. had just started bombing Iraq. The beginning of the first Gulf War. I sat there, tears streaming down my face. Another Vietnam War loomed. More young Americans to be killed in a place where they didn’t belong. I sat there for a few minutes before going to the meeting and told everyone the news. They seemed less disturbed than I. That’s all I remember from that evening.

(More about WYMS below.)

WFMR was not the most stable place to work. Not because of anything I did or didn’t do. Management. Ownership changes. Here we go again.

When I joined, the station was owned by Capitol Classics, Inc., with Bob (Robert) Caulfield as station manager and co-owner with his wife Angela, who, evidently, was quite wealthy. After they divorced in 1991, they sold WFMR in 1992 to Harris Classical Broadcasting, headed by Randall Harris and his brother-in-law David Bishop.

You know what that means. Immediate staff changes. Nearly all of the on-air people were out, Obie included, except for Craig Haebler. The change was a major shock and disappointment to core WFMR listeners, especially those for whom Obie was an icon. As morning show host, he’d built a solid following with his friendly sound and very pleasant voice. Also he was famed for the kind of verbal shtick common to many radio personalities, such as regularly saying something like “Let’s heat up the samovar and brew some strong tea.”

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Jazz host Ron Cuzner stayed on until, I think, 1995, when Harris created “smooth jazz” radio station WFMI (more below about that station). Cuzner’s The Dark Side had long been a local fixture with a major following. I’d listened a few times but never got much sense of what he was doing, hearing so little, working during the day. His peculiar speaking style annoyed me, though, with long, seemingly random pauses between words or sentences. Certainly, even more than Obie, he was another of those truly distinctive radio personalities, like those mentioned above, e.g., Bill Watson.

Spring ’92, Bob and Angela threw a going-away party, a lavish affair at Shorewood’s elegant Hubbard Park Lodge on the Milwaukee River. They gave us gifts, too. Mine: a wrist watch which, as of this writing (July 2017) still runs perfectly.

Never having been full-time at WFMR at that point, the watch reminded me of the inexorable movement of broadcasting life. Given ongoing writing work (details later), I didn’t feel much bereft and certainly this was no big shock. But wait! Soon I’d be back again.


The new owners bought low-cost syndicated classical music programs, self-contained with announcements included. They were produced on very small tapes called DATs by a now-defunct radio station in San Francisco. The announcements could not have been more elemental: “Richard Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils, Chicago Symphony. Fritz Reiner.” No “this is,” “performed by,” “conductor,” etc.

Craig’s job was to oversee and program the tapes in a computer-driven system which was part of the package, the tapes becoming the essence of WFMR programming. Craig also pre-recorded commercials, station breaks, and other announcements which he inserted into the system. There were no regular drive-time elements such as weather forecasts, time-checks, or anything else that distinguished one part of the broadcast day from another. Nearly complete automation.

Each tape had a tone to signal the next event to take place, so, when the musical selection ended, the signal triggered something else, such as a recorded station break. When that ended, a new tone signaled the DAT to continue.

Have you ever known any computer to work perfectly without regular human contact? Although during the day, Randy or David, or some other staff may have been at their offices in the station building and could have possibly taken over if there were problems, they’d have to be seriously listening and notice problems, instead of talking to each other or being on the phone or concentrating on their work.

It didn’t take long for difficulties to appear. Harris was committed to the same quality of sound the station had always had—clean, crisp, undoctored high fidelity. Other stations, pop ones, for example, had processing systems to make the sound louder and stronger, usually eroding quality and tending to make all levels of music equal. Harris didn’t want that.

However, the new WFMR computer system had a fail-safe feature. It was geared to recognize silence after a lapse of five seconds, at which time the system responded as if to dead air, even without a tone cue. Then it would segue to the next event. Duh. With a long pause between symphony movements, for example, or if the music was exceptionally quiet, the fail-safe kicked in.

Listeners already turned off by the change in programming were even more alienated. But if they called the station to complain, early mornings, evenings, weekends, usually no one was on hand to even answer.

Randy soon realized the problem and asked Obie if he’d like to return for a morning show, which would have to incorporate some of the DATs, but supervised. With weather forecasts, time-checks, the standard stuff. Obie declined. Randy asked me. Sure. Why not? I’d have a chance to do some programming and I’d be paid. Eventually Randy did away with even more use of the DATs, finally dropping them altogether in 1995, I believe.

Cutting down on the DATs meant that more programs on WFMR would originate there. Which meant the need for a program director. I think that I was asked if I’d be interested. If so, I’m sure I would not have been. A full-time job would have seemed too constricted with so much enjoyable stuff going on otherwise: filling in on WYMS, writing for weekly Shepherd Express and Footlights Magazine, creating/voicing  commercials for the Milwaukee Symphony, and hosting Symphony pre-and post-concert talks (more about all of that follows).

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Steve Murphy was hired as Program Director and morning show host. I stayed on to fill in where needed. Craig had afternoon drive-time and there were weekday evening shows with Allison Graf. Craig had his own signature phrase, by the way, signing off at the end of his shift, “I’ll be looking for you in the rear-view mirror.” By then, I was only on the air substituting.

Allison called her program Music by Candlelight, beginning it by lighting a match next to the microphone. Allison had a very gentle, appealing voice, never overdoing it or trying to sound breathless or sexy. She did her own programming but had a limited knowledge of classical music. Once she sweetly said something like, “Isn’t this a lovely Spring evening? Let’s sit back and enjoy something beautiful. Here is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I’m sure she was soon shocked when the riot-provoking portions stabbed and slashed.

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In 1996 there was a hit movie about classical music: Shine. It was nominated for seven Oscars, and actor Geoffrey Rush won one for his portrayal of Australian pianist David Helfgott, who, despite having suffered many mental breakdowns, for a while became a celebrated concert pianist, especially playing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. So much so that a CD performance of it was issued. I heard it and, like some other people, thought it sounded rather amateurish. When WFMR got a copy, David Bishop asked me if I’d be willing to broadcast it. This was at a time when all of us chose our own programming. I told David politely that I thought it was embarrassing for Helfgott and for WFMR and I’d prefer not to air it. David didn’t question my refusal. I mention this to show how well he and Randy and I got along.

In 1994, I proposed a weekly Broadway musical cast-recording show, The Best of Broadway. Randy and David thought that was a fine idea and no big risk, my having offered to produce and host unpaid. It certainly didn’t last long. They’d hoped to sell it to sponsors and weren’t having any luck. When Randy heard one show where I featured Rodgers and Hammerstein flops, i.e., mostly unfamiliar songs, he asked me why I didn’t present something people would know and love. Within a few months they decided to drop it.

Then I proposed the show to WOKY, which was featuring “oldies,” i.e., pop music of the ’40s and ’50s. This was similar in content to a then-very-successful syndicated series on several U.S. stations called “Music of Your Life,” aimed at previously young adults. Thus I was connected to the same kind of music that I’d hosted about 40 years before on WOND. Of course, those recordings on LPs were new. (See far above: “The A.C. DJ. ‘J’ also means Jazz.”)

WOKY was happy to have the show in 1995 and 1996. And Randy generously allowed me, still on the staff, though irregularly, to tape the programs at WFMR when a recording studio was available. I gave up the project in ’96, wanting to concentrate on other activities.

In August 1995 Harris added another station, WFMI , likewise commercial, to broadcast smooth jazz. It was in one on-air studio, a former office in the same building with WFMR. Another office was turned into a record library. The sales staff was the same for both stations.

WFMI never did much in the ratings any more than did WFMR, so it’s no surprise that Harris was glad to sell them both. Yep. Ownership change number 3. Lakefront Communications, a.k.a. Milwaukee Radio Group, a subsidiary of Saga Communications, Inc., bought them both together in May 1997. And changed WFMI’s content to “modern adult contemporary.” I have no idea how that sounded; I never listened.

One good thing about this new ownership: the on-air staff remained, unlike other regular alterations in much of broadcasting. Steve, Craig, and Alison remained, and I continued substituting on WFMR until moving to Pittsburgh in the fall of 2000.

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On one afternoon Tony Randall was an on-air guest when I was hosting. Randall was in town to appear with the Symphony narrating old standby Peter and The Wolf. Hanni had made sure that he’d appear on the station with me. We talked about what music he liked, with Craig finding the CDs in the FMR library so we could play some of the music. Then Randall would talk about why he liked that music or how some of it connected to his life. Although I was the interviewer, all I had to do was follow wherever his conversation went. At one point we discussed his recent re-marriage, his first wife having died in 1992. Three years later he’d married 25-year-old Heather Harlan when he was 75. They’d just had a baby, his first, and he was raving that it was a wonderful thing at his age to be a father for the first time. What else we talked about I don’t remember but he was certainly having a good time. So was I. So was all the staff hovering outside the studio’s glass walls.

From Wikipedia: At midnight on June 26, 2007, ironically on the 51st anniversary of its original sign-on, WFMR ended its classical music format when it flipped to a smooth jazz format. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WFMR_(defunct)