Monday, March 13, 2006

Thank God for WMSE! Happy Birthday!

This week WMSE radio celebrates 25 years on the air. What a jewel WMSE is! What a sparkling jewel in Milwaukee's buried treasure of gems! (This is my continuing thing about Milwaukee: its chock full of wonderful gems of culture, but its so afraid and unsure of itself that it keeps them hidden, like its afraid they'll be labeled as "different." On the other hand, I love Milwaukee's beer-and-brats charm, but someday it's going to realize that the two can co-exist, and wonderfully so).

I've lived a lot of places, and have only run into a few radio stations as wonderfully satisfiying to a music lover as WMSE. And I'm not talking about the kind of music lover who just likes that there's tunes on the radio. I'm not talking about the kind of person for whom music is wallpaper, there, unnoticed, taken for granted, and then accepts whatever dreck the president of Sony has decided we will like. I'm talking about the kind of person who hears something they haven't heard before, and runs out and learns everything they can about it so they can hear more, more, more. I'm talking about the kind of person whose list of "people who saved my life" includes musicians and songwriters. I'm talking about the kind of person who makes mix tapes for their friends as a gift, the kind of person who meets a new friend and immediately inspects their record collection to get a fix on who they are.

The thing about WMSE is that it's got that college radio immediacy, but its really not a college radio station anymore. At a college station, the DJs are there for four years, tops, and have only just begun to find a niche and a voice, and then BLAM, they're in the "real world" of commercial radio (if they even take that career path) and Lee Abrams (or whoever's designing formats these days) hands 'em a playlist, a script, and you're just a talking head. At WMSE, a lot of the DJs have been at it for more than four years. They've each got a distinctive voice that matches their particular niche, whether its hardcore punk, garage rock, freeform jazz, new age, funk and rap, oldschool country+western. They do everything, and they do it well because they are just as obsessed about music as the people (like me) who open up their checkbooks every year during their pledge drive to keep them on the air. You can't package this format and sell it around, because it has to grow organically. It has to feature local music, it has to have DJs who actively follow their particular scene both nationally and locally. It takes a lot of work to grow it yourself, which is why few radio stations that are this eclectic or experimental are not "college stations." I've only run across a few in my travels, the wonderful WHFS out of Washington DC, the amazing WFMU out of Boston. WXRT in Chicago used to be like this, but in the past 20 years they've been held hostage by "adult alternative" and have not been as groundbreaking as they used to be. 'FMU, 'HFS, and 'MSE are still groundbreaking EVERY DAY.

In fact, WMSE has kept my mind open about all kinds of music, and me and my family are richer as a result. I used to say I hate country and that rap doesn't do anything for me. That's before I started listening to the Chicken Shack (Friday mornings from 9-12) and the Boogie Bang (Saturday afternoons). I often wonder if people who aren't into rock and roll, or specifically, "alternative" just haven't listened to it on WMSE, because I want to shake people and say "Alternative isn't the formulaic slop MTV and mainstream radio want you to think it is!" I suspect people who love, truly LOVE country music feel the same way about FM106. "Honest, V'ron," I hear country music fans saying, "Give Country a chance." I have. I listen to the Chicken Shack and I love it. And Stella and I look forward to the Boogie Bang every Saturday afternoon, as we tool around town running errands. "This sounds like music that black people like," Stella says. "And I like it too!" Exactly. WMSE blurs genre and color lines. Good music is good music, no matter what the genre, and WMSE's DJs find it and show it to us. Admittedly, my two favorite shows are Buzz's Garage and The Jules Show, but that's because they're my two favorite genres: garage and progressive coolness. I can't count how many times I've picked up the cell phone and called Jules asking "Who was that? What album?" and ran instantly to my computer to either order myself a new CD or download something off Itunes. (I really should do this 100% and buy it at Atomic Records or Rush-Mor to support my local businesses as well, that will get easier when my toddler grows older).

And I really think that points to why we should all be celebrating WMSE's anniversary this week. They're not just playing music, they're contributing to a community of music lovers. They're doing their part to create a scene, a market for excellent, satisfying music that shows the rest of the world we're not just another town full of Klassic Hits-listening droids who accept whatever is handed to us by the marketing people at Viacom. That a radio station not only survives, but draws in its largest amount of membership-paying listeners with a drive time format of oldschool blues is cause for celebration.

I will wax poetic on WMSE more this week. Just this morning the DJ knew they weren't going to be going all out Irish on March 17 because that's Birthday Day itself, so he spent the morning playing Irish music. But it wasn't the same old Chieftans that everybody else will be dragging out on Friday as their token emerald isle tribute. No, he started out with the Waterboys and went from there….

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