My Ten Favorite WMSE Programs

Posted 5/3/2011 by cal

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It is pledge drive time for the best radio station in Milwaukee.  If you listen, you should really give WMSE some money.  Set up a monthly payment plan; are you really going to miss five or ten bucks a month on your credit card?  Isn’t it worth that much to keep this Brew City institution alive?  And if you don't listen, what's wrong with you?  It’s not just a treasure trove of incredible music you won’t hear anywhere else; these DJs, most of them unpaid volunteers, put their hearts and souls into playing music for us.  After all these years, they’ve become like old friends (even if it’s kind of an odd one-way relationship).

Some of you know this feeling already, and as you glance down this list, I know what you’re thinking: how could Buzz and Grant and Faux Eyes and Melissa and Cosmo Cruz and Alien Andre and Rich Mars not make this list?  Where’s the Chicken Shack and Five & Dime Show and the Mad Kids and Team Metal and Why My Head Hurts?  Answer: they’re all tied for number eleven, because I can listen to every one of ‘em front to back and never feel like changing the station.  On commercial radio, even disregarding the commercials, I’m lucky if I can get through three songs.  WMSE plays almost exclusively good music and way more of it than anybody else.  Wondering what shows you’d enjoy?  Just tune in, give it 15 minutes and see what happens.  That’s what I’ve done for the past 15 years or so; read on for my current ten favorite shows.

[note: one of the cool things about WMSE is the archives.  If any of these shows sounds intriguing, click on the title, and then click the "archive" link on that page to stream recent installments of that show.  Endless hours of musical goodness await.]

10. Digital Dumplings In Analog Gravy (Wednesdays 6-9 a.m.)

I had no idea that was the name of the show until just now, but that’s what the WMSE website says (note: portions of the WMSE website are curiously out-of-date; for instance, this show's page.  They’re better DJs than webmasters over there).  Scott Lucey puts together a flowing mélange of sounds every week, easing you into your Wednesday like a wee-hours club DJ making spontaneous mixtapes.  He’s always discovering new sounds and not giving up on them, so something he plays that drifts at the edge of your consciousness for a few weeks suddenly becomes your favorite song after a while.  He’s been known to throw in a healthy dose of Prince now and then, a lover of beat-driven pop of all shapes and colors and eras, and if you don’t hear some Björk at some point, you must’ve tuned out for few minutes; your loss.

9. The Blues Drive with Sonia (Fridays 3-6 p.m.)

Sonia isn’t on this list just because she’s the only Blues Drive DJ that plays all blues any more.  It’s more because she’s the DJ that made me love the blues.  When I realized back in high school that I didn’t care for Stevie Ray Vaughan (all right, who threw that?), I figured I must not like the blues.  Thanks to Sonia, I learned that there’s a lot more to it than “If the house is a-rockin’, don’t bother knockin’”.  Sonia plays lots of local blues that nobody else plays, and she’ll often throw on an unknown CD she hasn’t even heard just to give it a shot.  It’s always a thrill to hear how excited she gets (in her way) any time anything having to do with Hot Tuna occurs.  She may be the most low-key DJ on the station, but her passion for the music is obvious, especially when she conducts an interview; it’s clear that she lives and breathes this stuff, and it’s infectious.

8. BTS.WRKNG (Mondays 9-midnight)

In a curious twist of 91.7 magic, it was punk rock that got me into techno.  The Rude Boy was the can’t-miss slot on Monday nights that first made me a WMSE fan for life, but in the mid-90s, electronic music was the antichrist as far as I was concerned.  Still, sometimes I would accidentally leave the radio on for a little while past nine.  John Goelzer’s got one of those mesmerizing radio voices, and after…who knows how many months, perhaps years, he hypnotized me into becoming a traitor to all things punk and admitting he plays awesome music.  He’s got a sixth sense for spinning tracks that could make you dance or soothe your nerves depending on what you’re looking for; either way, those three hours fly by.

7. The Tom Wanderer Radio Experience (Thursdays 3-6 p.m.)

Tom Wanderer plays two kinds of music: stuff you haven’t heard in forever, and stuff you’ve never heard.  It’s pretty rare that you’ll hear anything digital over Tom’s airwaves; he’s a slave to the vinyl, even playing nothing but 45s once a month.  In keeping with the old-school attitude, he offers all kinds of great info and trivia about the music he plays, which runs the gamut of all things rock and roll, but my favorite moments are when he dusts off these obscure psychedelic curiosities from way back when and lets the weirdness flow.  Personally, I enjoy pledge drive time at WMSE even more than regular programming, but few DJs get into the spirit like Tom; be sure to tune in this week for his generosity-inspired antics, as well as a ton of great music from the edges of the rock and roll universe.

6. Rockleidoscope (Tuesdays noon-3 p.m.)

Erin Wolf is the most tireless champion of local music on WMSE; long before the Local Lunchbox (weekdays at 1 p.m.) was invented, her show was often half full of MKE music already.  She’s the definitive indie rock (emphasis on ROCK) guru; I’d take three hours of Erin-programmed radio over Pitchfork any day to keep abreast of the cutting edge.  If there’s a hot new release out, local or national, you will almost certainly hear it here first.  Her show is also your best bet to keep informed about all upcoming local shows, hear interviews with up-and-coming artists, plus the always-entertaining guest appearances by Stripwax creator Jeff Moody.  Basically, if you’re not listening to the Rockleidoscope show, you don’t know what’s going on.

5. Dr. Sushi’s Free Jazz BBQ (Tuesdays 9-noon)

Confession: when I tune into Dr. Sushi, I have about a five-percent chance of knowing what’s coming out of the speakers, and that’s just because he occasionally plays King Crimson.  But there’s a 97% chance I’ll dig it, whatever it is.  I rarely listen to the whole show, because I feel like if I were to allow myself to get sucked into Dr. Sushi’s world, I’d never get out again.  I think I enjoy it more just popping in a few times every Tuesday and going, “WOW, this is amazing,” and then walking away.  It’s not like Shazam ever recognizes what he’s playing; why should I?  Dr. Sushi spins a lot of jazz, naturally, but there are no hard-and-fast boundaries on his show; if it’s freaky and you can’t tell where it might go next, it might pop up on his show.  Also, his daughter is an even better DJ than he is…

4. The Girlina Show (Thursdays noon-3 p.m.)

No, it’s not all female artists. (But so what if it was?)  Dori Zori’s is the quintessential lunchtime show.  She exudes fun, with her voice and the music she plays.  If I had to recommend one show for folks looking to try out WMSE for the first time, this would be it.  It’s three hours of upbeat, life-affirming radio, gems from the 80s and 90s as well as the awesomest new stuff, and yes, more woman-centric than most other WMSE shows.  Dori isn’t afraid to play pop music that you might hear on other stations (gasp!), but relax: only the good stuff.  If you can’t dig what Dori’s spinning, you need to take a class on how to enjoy yourself.  It’s always a blast to tune in when she brings in music geek CJ Krawczyk for a rundown of what’s hip.  Plus, the end of Dori’s show is where you can catch AV Club Milwaukee Editor Matt Wild and WMSE Promotions Director Ryan Schleicher talking about what’s going on in Milwaukee; what more could you want?

3. The Shape Of Rock (Tuesdays 6-9 a.m.)

First of all, Craig Mertes starts his show with Buckethead, and that’s a good indicator of the direction things will go from there.  He’s the only DJ I know of who plays Primus and Isis and Earth and Jesu and all those hard-to-classify heavy, droney bands at the fringes of punk and metal and math- and post-rock.  Those of us who are obsessed with the Hydra Head/anticon./Ipecac continuum, who flock to anything that sounds like it could be on Dischord, who consider Fog’s Ditherer one of the most underrated albums ever made, Craig takes care of us.  But there aren’t many genres he won’t play, especially if it’s a local artist; after all, even bluegrass and hip hop contribute to the shape of rock, right?  If you want a Brew City primer, just listen to WMSE on Tuesdays.  Craig doesn’t turn me onto a ton of music that I’ve never heard; he just plays music I love almost exclusively, and on Tuesday mornings, that is just what I need. [note: the link above is to Craig's blog; from there, click on "Listen Online!" for archives of his show.  Seriously, do it now.]

2. The Jules Show/Radio Drill Time (Thursdays 6-9 p.m.)

Two different programs, both amazing, and with plenty of crossover; Radio Drill Time often plays out like station manager Tom Crawford taking one of the many motifs of The Jules Show and stretching it over three hours.  This is sort of old-school WMSE, like one of Spin magazine’s “Essentials” blurbs in audio form: on the last Thursday of the month, Crawford takes one specific genre and geeks out on it for a whole show, exposing a moment in time and transporting us all into it.  Even if his choice for the evening isn’t exactly your bag, stick around anyway--you might learn something.  Tom will not only blow your mind with his knowledge and obvious passion for the music he plays; he will make you suddenly realize the coolness of something you’ve never heard, even if you thought you hated that kind of music.  The point is never to allow the roots of underground music to be forgotten, a monthly reminder of WMSE’s essential makeup.

On all the other Thursdays, Jules digs deep into all things non-commercial radio from the past four decades or so.  You’ll hear a lot of post-punk and other 80s outsider music, a lot of moody electronic stuff, dub/reggae excursions and selections from the Zappa universe, all slung together with the naturalistic flow that comes from decades of DJing.  I’m constantly shocked by how much music Jules plays that I don’t know, given that it’s all right up my alley, and how well she integrates all the wildly different styles into smooth, dynamic sets.  There’s an intriguing, unique mood to The Jules Show unlike anything else on radio.

1. The Jing Jong Triple Play (Fridays 6-9 a.m.)

I remember the first time I heard Dr. Fell on the radio.  “This kid is baked,” I thought (lesson: never trust your first impression).  Then, after some under-caffeinated ramblings, he proceeded play a half-dozen amazing songs in a row which I could not even identify by artist, couldn’t even guess.  From that day forward, it was much easier to get out of bed on Friday mornings.  Then one day I heard Mr. Bungle on the radio for the first time since I personally played Mr. Bungle on my own college radio show back in the 90s; that was it.  For the first time since The Rude Boy, I’d found my absolute must-hear show.  The Triple Play was a secret musical society I had to indoctrinate myself into.  Of course, this was years ago; it almost makes me sad that, now that I’ve listened to Dr. Fell religiously for so long, I’m familiar with half of what he’s bound to play.  But he still introduces me to a few new favorite albums every year.  Nobody navigates the musical spectrum from goofy to sad to pissed off to just plain crazy like Dr. Fell.  He’ll have you laughing out loud one minute, headbanging the next, and it will all be in service of a seamless, harmonious mix of tunes no one else would ever think to put together.  The greatest challenge in radio is how to be weird and smooth at the same time, and Dr. Fell is the master.


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