Since May 4, WMSE has been in the throes of its Spring Membership Drive. Over the span of one week, the listener-supported station that’s been “the big sound downtown” for 37 years has been trying to raise a total of $91,700 as part of its semi-annual pledge drive. On top of awesome events like that station’s Rockabilly Chili Fundraiser, Friday Night Freak Show screenings, and Rock And Roll Bowl competition, the semi-annual Membership Drives are part of WMSE’s quirky charm that help solidify 91.7’s “local institution” status.
Listening to each week-long drive is a treat. Between the exhausted energy of the on-air personalities, the literal bells and whistles of volunteers taking pledges, the wacky prizes, an overwhelming aura of community and generosity permeates broadcasts. Each show has a goal and once they’re hit, you can’t help but feel as if the station and, along with it, Milwaukee as a whole are going to be okay.
In effort to get a firsthand and extended glimpse of what “The Mighty 91” is like during a Membership Drive, I spent 24 consecutive hours at WMSE and was part of every show between 3 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Wednesday. Here’s what happened.
3 p.m. to 6 p.m. — “Tuesdays With Marty”
Arriving a few minutes into the first show on my foolish station experience, I find spirits to be high. Studio A is packed with volunteers and on-air personalities. The eponymous DJ Marty Dempsey and Station Manager Tom Crawford lead an energetic pledge drive complete with bell-ringing, “double bubble” drops (to reflect a generous $2,500 match challenge from one supporter), and and all-around fun atmosphere between classic rock songs.
I drop in around the beginning and end of the show to talk about the dumb thing I’m about to do, and I unload my belongings in a small reserve studio that’s to be my home for one entire day of my life. The lively show in the crowded studio is a great way to start this endeavor, but I know it probably won’t last through the night.
6 p.m. to 7 p.m. — “Local/Live”
While I know duller times are in store, it won’t happen during Local/Live. Erin Wolf and Cal Roach let me into the studio to chat a bit before Tigernite plays and in-station session that’s full of new songs. I’m stuck indoors, but I can imagine hearing these songs at various summer festivals soon. The phones continue to light up with donations, volunteers take pledges, and the station is still alive with coffee-addled energy and the scent of food supplied by Hue. “This isn’t so bad,” I think. But I know things are likely to get worse soon.
7 p.m. to 9 p.m. — “Midnight Radio”
The deceivingly-named “Midnight Radio” is up next. No, it’s not named for the time slot, rather it references the show’s fearless leader, the affable Bob Midnight. He makes me feel welcome on his show in my two segments on the program and keep my toes tapping with his rock and roll and Americana playlist. In between Midnight Radio pop-ins, I settle into my new home at Studio C and knock out some work while I eat a little bit. you’re not supposed to eat in the studios, but fuck it. I live here now.
It’s going okay so far, but Bob plays a song by Sarah Shook & The Disarmers about midway into his show. At that moment, they were probably on stage at Club Garibaldi and I was missing it. I didn’t mind where I was, but between the Shook show happening and the beautiful weather outside, I was starting to be struck with where I wasn’t. Midnight Radio did okay on pledges, but it was well after peak commute time, so I figured a drop off in donations was natural.
9 p.m. to 12 a.m. — “Fresh Direct Radio”
After Bob’s show ends and the studio clears, I meet a new host, Nelly, who hip-hop listeners are beginning to know as “DJ Loop.” I enjoy her outstanding mix of old school rap and her casual on-air delivery. Unlike many of her counterparts, she brought her own laptop and mixer. As we discuss the best time for me to come on, we realize the station is empty. For the first time in my six-plus hours at the station, there are no volunteers. I notice a phone light up and jump in as a makeshift volunteer. I take song requests, field a solicitation from the owner of a record label, and (after some difficulty) enter in the show’s one and only pledge of $10.
I’m just four shows into my dumb adventure and I’ve already seen shows with four drastically different hosts, formats, and listener bases—all coming from the same frequency and even the same chair. It’s glorious and almost unheard of in modern radio. Once it becomes apparent there probably won’t be any other pledges, I leave Nelly alone and retire to the tiny studio next door to write about important stuff.
12 a.m. to 3 a.m. — “Mondo Radio”
While taking a work break to eat some food and grab some tea, I happen upon a Mondo Radio host (and former/hopefully future Milwaukee Record contributor) Tom Michalski, along with a friend he got to help him take phone calls. I let him pick out his records and settle into the studio once DJ Loop’s show ends.
Meanwhile, I get my pathetic sleeping arrangement in order: a pillow and two thin WMSE blankets on the floor, with my hoodie partially blocking one window to limit light infiltration from the adjacent studio. It’s going to be a long night. I’m honestly not even tired, but I know if there’s a small chance to sleep, it’s between an early drop-in on Mondo Radio and a late cameo on the following show. If I bookend it, I could get about four hours of uncomfortable sleep that could be the difference between success and failure.
As I’m readying my set-up, I notice Mondo Radio—which, admittedly, I’d never listened to before—is really good. Tom’s a natural, his voice is smooth, and he’s very organized. He’s found a mix of songs with the word “You” in them, since he says the WMSE drive is about you. It might be about you, but I have to try to get some sleep while the station is still relatively empty. I do a fast interview on Tom’s show that only somewhat hurts his momentum. Then I ask him to tell the next DJ I’ll be awake at 5:30 a.m. I struggle to fall asleep on the floor of cold Studio C, but somehow managed about four hours.
3 a.m. to 6 a.m. — “The Insomniac”
Before my alarm goes off, I’m awoken by the pummeling bass and rattling garage rock guitars coming from next door. There, musician-turned-author-turned DJ Steve Nodine is living it up on his show, the aptly-named “The Insomniac.” As I began to realize where I am, what I’m doing, why my back hurts, and recall how dumb this article concept is, Nodine (whom I’ve never met before) looks into my studio. We make an introduction with a level of awkwardness only reserved for someone who was sleeping at your workplace can offer and he instantly makes me feel welcome.
I go brush my teeth in a public bathroom—and once again wonder why I decided to do this again—and eat some fruit before joining him in the studio. Like almost every DJ, “The Insomniac” does the show for free. He took this unsavory time slot because it was the only one available, but he’s made the most of it. He says he has regular listeners in Europe and that many of his calls and requests come from locals just getting home from the bars. Though he realizes his listenership is low, he seems to put a great deal of care into his show, what he plays, and how he conducts himself on the air. Eventually, I go on for easily my worst segment of my many bad WMSE appearances of the day. I’m more than halfway into my self-assigned ordeal, and I’m feeling it. That is, until an unexpected surprise wakes me up.
6 a.m. to 9 a.m. — “Digital Dumplings with Analog Soup”
Near the end of Steve’s show, we get a call asking, “Do you know you guys have been off the air for 10 minutes?” We didn’t know that! The stream is still up, but evidently, there’s an issue with the transmitter or something. Tom Crawford is called and Steve soldiers on as usual. Along the way, Digital Dumplings host Scotty Lucey shows up for his show, as does WMSE’s Ryan Aschebrook, and a volunteer named Bob. Despite the wrench tossed into the gears, the shows continue and everyone remains shockingly calm considering the situation.
The issue gets fixed near the end of Lucey’s show, meaning he and Aschebrook need to make up for lost pledge time as the number of listeners start to build again. They manage to move a few Sylvan Esso pledge packages and I catch up on work. I enjoy a cup of coffee while listening to the beloved electro-pop project’s “Coffee” being played but a few feet away. I woke up to confusion and crisis, but I’m starting to settle in to my surroundings again. I go on mic for a few minutes before the show ends and it goes fine…when adjusting for Tyler Maas radio standards.
9 a.m. to 12 p.m. — “Way Back Home”
By the time local music staple, world music authority, and weather forecast scatter Paul Cebar takes off his porkpie hat and jumps on the airwaves, the station is crowded again. Some generous local business provided donuts. Cheery volunteers (who likely didn’t wake up on a floor) and motivated staffers bring a renewed energy to the station that was both figuratively and literally silent only hours before. At that moment, I’m at peak exhaustion. I arrange two chairs into a makeshift bed in my Studio C apartment and try to sleep. I fail, but decide to sit in the darkened room in relative silence before I have to go on-air near the end of Cebar’s show and for the entirety of two others. Eventually, a band plays in-studio but I don’t recall their name or much of what was happening around me.
12 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. — “The Disclaimer”
With me already being at the station, I pinch hit for Matt Wild on The Disclaimer. We talk about this ongoing “adventure” and other similarly foolish stunts I’ve attempted in the past. I’m gassed, but I try to stay alert. Some spicy fajitas donated by Cafe Corazon that I enjoyed before the show help my sanity more than they could ever know. The Disclaimer goes fine (listen below and see if you agree). One more show to go.
12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. — “Squid Inc.”
My last show poses the biggest challenge. I’m supposed to be on all 2.5 hours of Squid Inc., the show I “co-host” (or try not to ruin) once a month. Luckily, local treasure Abby Jeanne buys me some time and drastically ups the quality of our show with a short in-studio performance to start things off. Eventually, I come on air and find out that we haven’t pulled much music for the Local Lunchbox segment and other songs fitting our just-selected theme: Love.
At this point, it would’ve been tough to care about what was happening. However, in seeing everyone else there (most of them not being paid a cent) unified behind one noble and singular cause, I perk up and muster whatever energy I have left to grab a bunch of music, bring enthusiasm to my commentary, and help raise whatever funds I can for the station that can always use some support. Squid Inc. narrowly hits its pledge goal for the show, bringing the total earnings during my day-long stint up to $10,545.51.
As the co-owner of a small, independent media company myself, it’s tough to justify businesses asking for donations. But WMSE isn’t a normal business. It’s an undeniable part of Milwaukee’s creative fabric, a boon to local music and other area establishments. It’s been a part of the city’s daily routine for 37 years and counting. It’s a special source of community that strives to offer something for everyone through its eclectic playlists, the strange and charismatic cast of characters they allow on the air, and through its method of seeking membership support twice each year. After 24 weird, tiring, fun, and inspiring hours at its home base, my belief in WMSE and Milwaukee were both reinforced.
The drive goes through 6 p.m. Friday. Donate today.