Milwaukee, I love you

Milwaukee, I love you

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I am a sentimental guy. A big feelings rambler. And you encouraged me to be on the air for eight years. Thank you, Milwaukee. 

This Friday will be my last day on air at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee before I move to Nashville and become the assistant program director (APD) and afternoon host at WNXP in Music City, USA, and before I go, I would like to give one more long-winded, heartfelt goodbye. 

I started at 88Nine in 2013 as an unpaid intern. Before that I’d gone to UW-Madison, where I got degrees in History, Political Science, Integrated Liberal Studies and Gratuitous Drinking. Basically the only practical thing I’d done was join the college radio station, WSUM, where I was Music Director and had a show called “Hi-Fidelity in Low Resolution” and a show called “Tom Waits and Tom Waits Play Tom Waits.” I’d aspired to be a Music Director in real life, even though the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association told me that iHeart Radio was going to reduce the position down to one position and I might as well go into sales. But with my fifth year coming to an end in Madison, I knew I had to apply for jobs.

Justin was Music Director at WSUM at UW-Madison.

I applied at NPR, WPR and, weirdly, I almost became the driver of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, because I thought it would be a funny story. After being roundly rejected at every end and with graduation approaching, I knew I would have to move back to Milwaukee and move back in with my parents. But I had one last shot. A radio station that launched while I was in college and played a lot of music that I played on my college radio station had an internship program. I’d never had an internship. I worked three jobs to pay for college and the idea of an unpaid internship seemed classist to me, which I still stand by. I applied even though they said they didn’t hire kids who had already graduated. It was my only shot. 

I remember getting the call when I was crossing the road on my way to a Latin American history class. I was listening to Tom Waits’ “On the Nickel.” Tom has just growled out the line, “The world keeps getting bigger when you get out on your own.” Bawling and broken, I walked into the classroom ten minutes early and my phone rang. It was Jordan Lee, saying he’d broken protocol and would take me on as an intern even though I’d graduated. 

Bad move. I was exactly what they feared in hiring a college graduate with no other opportunity. On the first day I told Jordan, “I want a job at 88Nine.” He gave me a red hot look and said, “Get in line.” So I did. I was hired to work on Thursdays and Fridays from 2-4PM. I started coming in every day at 8AM.

After about six months, I remember being at Romie’s bar way out in Franklin with a friend and saying, “I need to make something where 88Nine listeners will want to keep me around.” I had come into this job loving new music and loving telling stories so I wanted to tied all that together. I came up with a weekly web article called “5 Songs We Can’t Stop Listening To.” The idea was to have DJs contribute and to write a bit myself and publish every week. It became clear pretty quickly that the other DJs were busy and it would just be me. I was fine with that. I started publishing every week and loving it. The audience loved it, too. 

Then our Program Director left. After nearly an entire year as an unpaid intern, I had put myself in the right place at the right time. I wrote the job description for the job that I had been doing and, after interviewing several other candidates and almost not hiring me, 88Nine took me on full time. We also hired a new program director who took an interest in putting “5 Songs” on the air. 

June 1, 2014 was the first time that 5 Songs hit the air. I talked for one minute about Hamilton Leithauser’s “Alexandra.” 

“Hamilton Leithauser is a crooner” I said smokily, like I was in a Vegas night club with him. “Like Sinatra or Dean Martin and the Rat Pack serenaders of the 1940s. He bears a black tuxedo in the video for the song. The album’s cover is a black and white portrait of Hamilton smiling over his shoulder, presumably in front of a Vegas crowd. But the crooner persona really comes forward from the delivery. Like Dino, he is singing a lover’s lament, but it’s a bit tongue in cheek. He’s suffering, but not too much. He is still having a great time. In this lament, he is telling Alexandra, “Hey, I’m drinking, smoking and carrying on, but at the end of the night, I’m thinking about you, babe.” 

It was a lot for some people. I remember hearing someone on staff saying “Why is that intern on the air” and someone else say, “Well, it’s a polarizing segment.” Radio is not built for a DJ to express their feelings. But why not? That’s what they do in songs. Music is about eliciting feelings that are larger than life. I felt that I should reflect that feeling. So I have. And, let me say this, I think that a song is one of the only places where men are encouraged to express their feelings, and I wanted people to know that I am a man with big feelings too. 

Occasionally, 88Nine would have artists come through and perform in our space. In the time between sound check and going on stage they would be sitting around. I had a song to write about, and I wanted to talk to them, so when the band Spanish Gold was here, sitting around, I asked one of the band members to come into the studio and tell me about a song he couldn’t stop listening to.  It was two birds with one stone, and it was great insight into a bands musical taste. That started a floodgate. 

Justin with Juiceboxxx.

I started to interview everyone who came to Milwaukee. I interviewed Tame Impala, Death Cab For Cutie, Glass Animals, and members of the Milwaukee Bucks. I’d built relationships in the music industry and I thought I’d try to interview people who weren’t coming through Milwaukee. I remember spending almost a whole day trying to make a complicated ISDN line connect with My Morning Jacket in their studio in Louisville. After about three hours I asked them one question. Both band members answered and when I said “Thanks! Have a great day!” They said, “That’s it?” 

Some bands loved doing a one question interview. I remember Portugal. The Man saying, “Thank you for not asking me about being from Alaska for the millionth time.” But I also felt like I should do more. The only thing was that I wasn’t great at talking to people. I’ve always had social anxiety and the idea of filling time with a complete stranger, especially a famous one, was even more terrifying. However, it was good for the job. A big driving factor in my life is wanting to be good at my job. So I said yes to every opportunity that came up. Every interview no matter what. When I was terrified I just prepared more. When I finally secured a 10-minute interview with David Byrne after four months of persistent asking, I prepared four pages of questions. I figured out what worked. I threw in jokes. I tried to meet them where they were. The key to any conversation is listening. 

Then I got a call to interview Thom Yorke. He’d just done the score for the movie “Susperia” and hadn’t done a radio interview in years. The record label, Beggars Group, wanted someone who would make him feel comfortable. So they asked Rita Houston, the radio legend from WFUV in New York. She wanted to do it but had a little health problem at the time and wasn’t sure if she could make it. So they wanted a backup, and they called me. Of all the people in all the world, they chose me, and it remains to be one of the big honors of my life.

They flew me to New York, to the famous Electric Lady Studio in downtown NYC. In the interview, since we were talking about movies, I asked him what would be a movie that people wouldn’t expect him to love and he said, “You know, I really love ‘The Hangover.’” And we both laughed so hard we blew the mics out for a second. Of course, I asked him about a song he couldn’t stop listening to and he said, “This Time Around” by Jessica Pratt. After the interview, I walked out of the room and took a deep breath. Then, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Thom Yorke. He’d run out of the studio and he had his phone open. “I thought we could listen to the song together.” He said. So me and Thom Yorke stood together in between studios, his hand on my shoulder and we listened to Jessica Pratt’s “This Time Around” through his clogged up phone speakers. 

After that it was game on. I interviewed RZA, The National, Phoebe Bridgers and Moby. But I also wanted to do more. 

Justin and The National’s Matt Berninger

Over the years I had fallen in love with the stories that I’d heard from Milwaukee musicians about Milwaukee’s musical history, which is a subject no one talks about. People tell all kinds of stories about Nashville, LA and New York’s musical legacy, and it’s not like Milwaukee doesn’t have one. We are home of Violent Femmes, Liberace, hell, we invented emo. So “If not us, who?” I thought about telling Milwaukee’s musical history. 

One time, shortly after I’d got hired, I met up with Andy Nobel at Fuel Cafe in Riverwest. Andy is a surly record store owner who knows more about Milwaukee’s musical history than anyone. “So what’s your angle?” he asked me, suspiciously. Not thinking that I just wanted to know old stories and celebrate Milwaukee’s musical history. I told him I had no angle other than just that, which was true. Over a couple cups of coffee with some heaping spoonfuls of hostility, kind of as an offhand comment he said that this band had, “kind of, accidentally written Milwaukee’s first hip-hop song.” I wrote it down and put a star next to it. Over the next year in editorial meetings I brought up the story of Milwaukee’s first hip-hop song, but we had no where to put it. The story was too big. It felt like a podcast. An investigative journalism podcast about uncovering the story of a song.

Our Content Director, Nate Imig, suggested we bring in Tyrone Miller — who has been a part of the Milwaukee DJ community for decades — to co-host. We found out that there was a band who wrote Milwaukee’s first hip-hop song years before another hip-hop song was recorded in Milwaukee. It was the band The Majestics, who were still performing after 50 years, now as the incredibly named Chocolate Ice II. In the early 80s a record producer named Marvell Love started a record label in Milwaukee called New World Records. He wanted Milwaukee to be the next Motown. Marvell did his research and went to a music conference in the midwest where they talked about this new genre of music coming out of New York called “hip-hop.”

Marvell came back to Milwaukee and pulled some kids into a studio to record an R&B song and he said that they also had to put a song on the other side that was in this new style called “hip-hop.” So they sat in the kitchen, wrote the song, recorded it, and “Class A” by The Majestics became Milwaukee’s first hip-hop song. BUT that wasn’t how Tyrone or any of the Milwaukee DJs saw it. Hip-hop is a culture, and nobody listened to “Class A” when it came out. But everyone listened to “A-Tac on the Wax” by a young kid nicknamed Peachy, who would go on to change his name to Speech, and release “3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days in the Life Of…” a record that has gone four times platinum and contains the song “Tennessee” which is on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

We told the whole story. Leaving it up for the audience to decide which matters, time or influence. One day I was at my desk packing up and Tyrone texted me and said, “Did you see that email from The New York Times.” I thought he was joking or mistaken. But sure enough I got to my desk and the New York Times was asking for a jpeg of the logo that they could run in The New York Times print edition the next day. On my way home, I called my grandma, my mom, my dad, and just about everyone else in my phone book. I yelled so loud in joy that people sitting outside Cactus Club, a block from my apartment, turned to see what was going on.

In the pandemic, suddenly everyone wanted to talk. There wasn’t much else to do. And they would do it on camera, a tool that just wasn’t at our disposal before. The title 5 Songs We Couldn’t Stop Listening to was clunky and musicians kept thinking they had to pick five songs instead of one, so we looked to change the name. Since I started I’ve claimed to be “from the music desk” even when that was just my little corner as an intern. I used the phrase to feign legitimacy and I manifested that legitimacy into being. On June 1st, 2020 “5 Songs We Can’t Stop Listening To” became “From the Music Desk” and I began interviewing artists for 20 minutes at a time on camera. Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes did Werner Herzog impersonations with me. Caroline Polachek explained that she is no longer a horse girl, but loved being one. And Lucy Dacus belted “I Can Only Imagine” a fan favorite Christian rock classic from her vacation bible camp days.

Lucy Dacus on From the Music Desk.

The interviews have a collective hundred thousand views on YouTube, which I’m proud of. I talk to artists comfortably, instead of constantly fearing that I’m going to run out of things to say or that they will hate me. I am still nervous before every interview, but less sure that I’m going to screw it up. I feel that 88Nine has given me the skills to be a person. Oftentimes, From the Music Desk has been my confessional.

You’ve let me cry on air. You’ve let me sing my favorite songs. You’ve encouraged me to feel big feelings and to express those over the radio, to thousands of people at a time. You’ve let me be me. 

The other day, I went to Club Garibaldi, then to Cactus, then to Puddlers, my neighborhood round. At every stop, I was greeted by warm friendly faces who were enthusiastic to talk, share and love and I thought, “I’m leaving this??”

I won’t be far, Milwaukee, just a nine-hour drive away. And if you want to hear me, I’ll be on WNXP from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. every day. I’ll still be interviewing bands and pouring my guts out about songs, just not in the 414 area code. So, before I officially sign off here I want to say thank you. 

Thank you for supporting a local radio station. Even in the year of our lord 2022 when radio seems to be a relic from the past, it still is one of the only sources of local media who truly cares about this city. Thank you for supporting local music. Thank you for wanting to listen to something new. Thank you for giving your hard earned money to something you can get for free because you believe in what it stands for. I believe in what it stands for. 88Nine’s mission is to be the catalyst for creating a better, more inclusive and engaged Milwaukee. It accomplishes that mission every day because you give a shit. Thanks for giving a shit, Milwaukee. And thanks for caring about a kid with big feelings who talks for too long on the radio. I love you. 

MICHAEL A NOWOTNY
88Nine Radio Milwaukee