Some places come and go, while some places become icons. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. Join us as we revisit beloved and well-worn local staples with fresh eyes, and explore how they might figure in the city’s future.
I moved to Milwaukee in 1996, but it wasn’t until years later that I felt like a Milwaukeean. Some of that simply came with time—stick around anywhere long enough and you’ll eventually feel at home—but part of it had to do with giving up, tuning in, and learning to love WMSE.
To explain: I was, and in many ways still am, fiercely skeptical of belonging to a group. If “membership” in a group or community requires, say, dressing a certain way or listening to a certain type of music, I’ve always taken a hard pass. Punk culture with all its implicit rules has always annoyed me. Veganism has baffled me. Even self-avowed “nerd culture” has sometimes seemed too narrow. To this day, I worry about people who stick political signs on their lawns or plaster their vehicles with bumper stickers.
I used to see WMSE that way. By the time I arrived in Milwaukee, the beloved independent radio station was nearing its 20th year on the dial—91.7FM, to be exact—and was already deeply woven into the fabric of Milwaukee and Milwaukee music. People loved it. To my newcomer sensibilities, however, it seemed like an impenetrable cool-kids club. Membership meant singing the praises of the station at every turn, going on and on about that chili thing, and, yes, sporting an WMSE T-shirt or bumper sticker.
So, in the parlance of our current times, I resisted. I sniffed at the “listener-supported” endeavor for reasons that only made sense to me. I rolled my eyes at the notion of creating a “community” via a radio station. I shook my head at the chili thing. I made jokes about the Blues Drive. Oh, and I secretly (or maybe not-so-secretly) wanted to be part of the club.
It’s fitting that WMSE began its life as an outlaw. In 1978, students of the Milwaukee School of Engineering began manning the station illegally, playing an eclectic mix of music and getting by as a five-watt unlicensed FM operation. WMSE went legit just two years later, but its outsider status—as well as its claim to fame as one of Milwaukee’s most stubbornly independent radio stations—has remained well into the 21st century. With a never-ending schedule of non-commercial programming, volunteer DJs, and a calendar stuffed with events ranging from the insanely popular Rockabilly Chili Fundraiser to the recently revived Friday Night Freak Show, remembering a time without WMSE can be difficult. In the mid ’00s, Die Kreuzen’s Keith Brammer took readers back to those early days with an essay on the station’s early importance and impact:
When WMSE started in 1979, its power (or lack of) was such that if you didn’t happen to live on the East Side, it was damn near impossible to pick up. Where I grew up in Brookfield, if the weather conditions were just right, you could hear Downstairs Dan Hansen playing a Sex Pistols song, or Mark Krueger spinning some interminably long (but entirely fascinating) Krautrock disc late at night on MSE.
Otherwise, you were stuck with AOR, and its incessant diet of REO, Styx, and Boston. Jesus. However, by the time I had moved to the fabled East Side in 1980, WMSE had jacked their power to 1,000 watts: Not as powerful as, say, mainstream stations like WQFM or WLPX, but, then again, they weren’t really in competition. WMSE’s audience were, by and large, the type of people you’d see sitting next to you at an Iggy or Ramones show, who couldn’t really give a damn about hearing The Who or The Doors for the 97,000th time. We wanted to hear the bands we were going to see: The Ama-Dots, Oil Tasters, and Couch Flambeau. Flambeau, in particular, managed to carve themselves a niche that exists to this day, largely through MSE’s repeated airings of their early cassettes.
Maybe that’s what turned me off to WMSE in my early Milwaukee years: a sense of ownership and Milwaukee history I didn’t yet possess. But as the years went on, I relented. I started listening to the station, started homing in on favorite DJs and shows (The Tom Wanderer Radio Experience; Paul Cebar’s Way Back Home), and, most importantly, started getting over myself. The importance of WMSE quickly became apparent: the programming independence, the personalities, the celebration of Milwaukee music both old and new, the awesomeness of Local/Live. My band eventually ended up playing live on the station; a few years later, I ended up co-hosting a show, too. Without warning, I suddenly started feeling like a Milwaukeean.
Not that those full-disclosure connections are the reasons for my current WMSE love. The station could pull the plug on our show today (I’m amazed this hasn’t happened) and I’d still tune in tomorrow. No, for me, WMSE represents everything good and weird and contradictory about Milwaukee. It’s unique. It’s messy. It’s a perennial underdog. It’s tied to the past but focused on the future. It’s its own thing.
It’s also always there, waiting for you. Tune in in the morning and hear the down-home sounds of The Chicken Shack. Tune in in the middle of the night and enjoy the craziness of Those Hip-Hop Guys or The Wax Addicts. Just tune in. All you have to do is move your radio dial to the left, listen, and join the club.