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A conversation with queer media pioneer Bobby Rivers

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A black-and-white vintage photo of a man wearing headphone and talking into a radio microphone while reading off a card he's holding in front of him.
Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project
Rivers at the radio mic during his WQFM days.

We kick off season two of Be Seen with a profile of Bobby Rivers, a national television host, entertainer, interviewer and actor who began his career in Milwaukee and eventually landed in New York City hosting his own show on VH1.

From starting his career in the 1970s interviewing Bette Davis at WQFM to eventually sitting down on national television with celebrities like Paul McCartney, Meryl Streep and many more, Rivers has had an incredible career, both in Milwaukee and beyond.

In this episode, Rivers reflects candidly on the good and bad times he experienced in Milwaukee, including the racism and homophobia that caused him to leave, and how he would often work coded messages into his broadcasts as an open nod to the LGBTQ+ community.

Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project curator and Be Seen co-host Michail Takach wrote an extensive profile of Rivers for the project's website and published in Our Lives Magazine. Read an excerpt below and visit the history project's website for the full article.

This episode contains strong language.

 A faded black-and-white photo of a man wearing glasses and smiling next to a woman wearing a blazer.
Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project
Rivers and co-host Ayers in 1984.

Bobby Rivers: Milwaukee's queer media pioneer

By Michail Takach

"There was a big pile-up on Astor Street last night," said the radio announcer. "Fortunately, no cars were involved." Across Milwaukee, listeners "in the know" appreciated this reference to Astor Street, a popular late-night cruising ground near Juneau Park. But they also wondered: How in the world did this guy get on the air?

When Bobby Rivers first arrived on Milwaukee airwaves, mainstream listeners weren't quite sure what to make of him. He was frantic and fast-paced, sassy and sarcastic, outrageous and outspoken, hip and happening, and sometimes heavily queer coded. Working the 6 a.m. - 10 a.m. morning show on WQFM, Rivers' humor was no match for showmates (first Mark Allen, then Paul Kelly) who lacked his pace and edge.

"WQFM is number one in Milwaukee with the 18-34 age group, according to Arbitron, and the Rivers-Allen team is one of the reasons why," wrote the Milwaukee Sentinel in December 1976.

Rivers remembers it differently. "When I started, I was so nervous, you could hear the paper rattling in my hand," he said. Over the years, Rivers has interviewed some of the biggest stars: Dolly Parton, Meryl Streep, Anne Rice, Shirley Mcclain, Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul, Paul McCartney, Sally Field and many, many more, while working in the entertainment industry from coast to coast. And it all began with an unlikely decision over 50 years ago.

Breaking into the business

Rivers took a part-time job ushering at Milwaukee's Performing Arts Center. He was surprised by how hard it was to get hired in his field. His Marquette University advisor told him he didn't have the voice for radio or the face for TV. "You have to be blonde just to get a job in radio," he was told. But Rivers didn't listen.

While working part-time at the Pabst Theater box office, he got a job writing weekend newscasts at WRIT. "The station manager actually said, 'We need more diversity in the hiring quota,' and that's how I got hired."

After applying at WQFM five times, he finally got hired as a morning newsman — after listing "origami and performing frontal lobotomies" among his hobbies on the job application. Program director Joe Santoro called him immediately and put him on the air. "I didn't know a lot about rock music, but I listened to the station a lot, and I thought I could fit in," said Rivers. "It was a cast of characters like WKRP in Cincinnati."

A local producer wasn't so sure. He told Bobby "do something about your face."

Fans, meanwhile, couldn't get enough of Rivers. When WQFM program director Bill Stedman fired Rivers in July 1978, vowing to "better reflect what Milwaukee is into," the station saw the biggest flood of protest mail it had ever received. Over 1,000 listeners signed three separate petitions urging the station to keep him.

Rivers renegotiated his contract and remained until February 1979. He also became an extremely popular host for public events. When the local Gimbels department store hosted Darth Vader, the "Great American Mime Experiment," and a Disco Contest in 1978, Rivers was there. When the stars of the Welcome Back Kotter television sitcom appeared at the Centre Stage Theater, Rivers was there. When Mayfair Mall hosted a Village People lookalike contest to celebrate the Can't Stop the Music movie, Rivers was there.

"I had to figure out how to fit in," said Rivers. "I hadn't realized how racially polarized Milwaukee was. I remember covering the Bicentennial, Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, Gary Gilmore, President Ford, all kinds of heavy news. And yet, was I supposed to be an on-air personality or just a newscaster? I didn't know. The station didn't know. Nobody knew."

Rivers integrated arts and culture into WQFM programming in unique ways. Carol Channing, in town for a Hello Dolly revival, offered up soundbites that Rivers ran on the air. Rose Marie and Rosemary Clooney, in town for another revival, offered him inspiring career advice: get to New York City.

Liberation, meet frustration

"Milwaukee was so liberating, and yet so frustrating at the time," said Rivers. "This huge gay scene was booming in Milwaukee, and yet the rest of the world only saw Milwaukee as Happy Days" (referencing the popular TV sitcom).

"I remember the first time I went to a gay bar, the first time I danced with another guy, the first time I was invited back to someone's house. All this happened in Milwaukee. Yet I still felt like an outsider. I was never in a long-term relationship in Milwaukee. I wanted one, but it was a different time. White men I liked couldn't explain bringing a Black person home. Black men I liked were always in other relationships."

"Milwaukee never failed to surprise me when it came to the gay scene," Rivers added. "You'd go out and dance to one 20-minute Donna Summer remix after another. If anyone finds a photo of me dancing shirtless with a tambourine, I hope someone burns it! My first gay bar was the River Queen. It had a jukebox, and someone put on a polka song. So, I'm watching these big burly Wisconsin men doing the polka together, and thinking, 'This is gay life?'"

Rivers on the cover of 'Milwaukee' magazine, 1984
Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project
Rivers on the cover of 'Milwaukee' magazine, 1984

"I remember going to Wreck Room for the first time, nervous, scared, no leather jacket, but surrounded by men in leather. So I order a beer, and the two guys in leather next to me were discussing pie recipes. 'I like to make my Apple Betty with a graham cracker crust,' said one to the other. Suddenly, I wasn't so scared anymore."

"I remember going to the M&M Club — and I'm still surprised nobody made it the basis of a sitcom — and the whole Friday night fish fry routine. I loved 219. The bartenders were all such hot guys who paid attention to you, even if you weren't so hot looking yourself. This Is It was a quiet, dark, sleepy little lounge where you went to talk. The Baron had that bi-level dance floor and all those lights. Park Avenue had a special place in my heart. That was the absolute best nightspot, because the people who were in touring Broadway shows would come there. Gay night or not, it was like a New York club, and people just could not stop dancing. I remember slow-dancing to 'Let's Stay Together' by Tina Turner with a man. I was over the moon!"

"Gay bars were the place to go. Knowing gay people became a fashionable thing. There were discos open seven nights a week! Learning about Milwaukee's gay culture, I decided to do a little 'coded' humor on the radio and see if they'd get it. And they did!"

"I remember Paul Lynde coming to town," Rivers continued, "and there was this thing about him that still fascinates me. They knew Paul Lynde was gay, but they cast him as a family man with wife and kids over and over. While he was doing a sold-out summertime show in Milwaukee, playing the family man, he showed up at 219. It was like a scene out of the Marx Brothers, how many handsome men came out of his limousine, and the last one out was Paul Lynde in a caftan asking, 'Is there a gay bar in this town?' Well, I got press seats to see the play, but I also got Paul Lynde to do a 10-minute radio interview. Just by thinking fast on my feet."

"So my career was taking off, but my dating life was so doomed. One night, I took someone on a date to see Terms of Endearment. Afterwards, we went down to Bradford Beach, and I think I'm going to get a kiss out of this. Instead, he started sobbing uncontrollably. His mother had been diagnosed with the same illness that Debra Winger had in the film. So, I'm holding him in the front seat, as he cries, with the windows rolled down. A police officer rolls up and asks what's the problem. "We just saw a film that touched us deeply," I explained, "She's going to get the Oscar for sure." That was the end of the date!"

"And look at TV now. Nowadays, you can't swing a cat without hitting six queens who want to redecorate your kitchen."

The dark side of fame

"Nobody really knew this, but I did receive a lot of hate mail," said Rivers. "Letters with no return address. Letters with swastikas on them. I didn't get letters when I was on TV, but I did get voicemails. After all these years of working hard, and taking care of my family, and making the black and gay communities proud of me, and being worn down romantically by this solo act, I also had to deal with homophobic comments. I had a great friend who came out with me, and while we were seeing Bruce Springsteen at Alpine Valley (an outdoor music venue southwest of Milwaukee), someone yelled 'Bobby Rivers, what are you doing with a woman?' It was relentless."

"This all started at the radio station," he said. "When I came in early to write the news, he was already on the air, and he would say 'it's almost 6 a.m., that means Bobby Rivers will come in here swishing any minute now.' I was there to hear it. He had no idea that his own brother was gay and that I'd met him at one of the bars. He was afraid to tell his own brother, and now I understood why."

"There was nothing like GLAAD to help you back then," said Rivers. "If something happened, you were on your own. You always had this sense that you'd be found out eventually. There were a few other Milwaukee media people who were gay, but the public didn't know. I would hear rumors about very well-liked, very Midwestern anchors, and I couldn't believe them. But they were true. Most people just didn't make themselves known. I wasn't really recognized as being out, but then again, I was on radio at the time, so people didn't know me when they saw me."

"I felt like I was on a treadmill to oblivion," said Rivers. "Although the experience was tremendous, I couldn't see myself playing three songs and breaking into a commercial for the rest of my life. I was at the dentist, and the hygienist was carrying on about how great it must be to be on the radio. We compared salaries, and I was making less than she was. It was time to quit."

Read the complete article here.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee