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A brief history of history of the local tape culture at WMSE, foreword by Keith Brammer (of Die Kreuzen)

Posted on April 1, 2013

To give the WMSE cart collection some context, we’ve reprinted the foreword accompanying the “Play / Pause / Stop from Cassette to Cart” 3CD collection. This out-of-print compilation was released by WMSE to raise funds for the station. This is what Keith Brammer had to say:

The funny thing about what’s become known as “alternative” music – whether that term refers to electronic, garage, folk, goth or none-of-the-above – is that it’s become so ubiquitous that most music fans under the age of 35 can’t remember a time when it was even vaguely obscure. Sure, there are still bands that are more popular than others, but the days of being absolutely unable to hear a certain song or artist (having, instead, to make do with reading about them in some small-press or foreign magazine) are largely gone, thanks to MTV, file sharing, and approximately 500,000 websites entirely devoted to whatever type of music you might be a fan of.

But if it weren’t for those days, Milwaukee wouldn’t have WMSE. It filled a void: Not a void that many people other than those working at the station may have been aware of at the start, but a void nonetheless. And it was something that, over the years, many listeners responded to, either by supporting the bands MSE chose to play, by donating money to keep the station on the air, or – perhaps most importantly for the city as a whole – by taking advantage of the platform WMSE provided to promote their own bands: Bands that would go out and play around the world, all the while spreading the word that, by God, Milwaukee was not a suburb of Chicago, rather, that it was a city with its own identity, ideas and values. I can say definitively (and from experience) that there would have been no large-scale punk scene (and, therefore, no “alternative” scene) were it not for WMSE.

But let’s return to the beginning. When WMSE started in 19790, its power (or lack of) was such that if you didn’t happen to live on the East Side, it was damn near impossible to pick up. Where I grew up in Brookfield, if the weather conditions were just right, you could hear Downstairs Dan Hansen playing a Sex Pistols song, or Mark Krueger spinning some interminably long (but entirely fascinating) Krautrock disc late at night on MSE.

Otherwise, you were stuck with AOR, and its incessant diet of REO, Styx, and Boston. Jesus. However, by the time I had moved to the fabled East Side in 1980, WMSE had jacked their power to 1,000 watts: Not as powerful as, say, mainstream stations like WQFM or WLPX, but, then again, they weren’t really in competition. WMSE’s audience were, by and large, the type of people you’d see sitting next to you at an Iggy or Ramones show, who couldn’t really give a damn about hearing The Who or The Doors for the 97,000th time. We wanted to hear the bands we were going to see: The Ama-Dots, Oil Tasters, and Couch Flambeau. Flambeau, in particular, managed to carve themselves a niche that exists to this day, largely through MSE’s repeated airings of their early cassettes.

The synchronicity between the station and it’s audience was exceptionally uncanny. Milwaukee’s music scene has always been a schizophrenic, but WMSE matched (and occasionally exceeded) it. MSE’s brilliance stemmed from its unpredictability: What would you hear when you switched it on? Original station manager Bob Betts’ stentorian voice intoning a promo for the station? Mary Bartlein’s championing of Andreas Vollenweider? or Paul Host playing yet another obscure new wave single? The point is, it didn’t matter. I’m sure there were people who chose exactly when they were going to tune in, but neither I nor most of my friends were among them. We listened when we could, and were quite frequently, introduced to something entirely new and exciting as a result.

What did matter was the fact that every DJ on MSE loved whatever he or she played – a characteristic that continues to this day – and , naturally enough, that enthusiasm translated to listeners. The early DJs may not have been professional in the strictest sense of the term – the sobriquet “messy radio” was a fairly realistic description of the station’s relative disregard for the already-rigid conventions of broadcasting – but hey, everyone was working on a purely volunteer basis, and what were a few missed cues or unbleeped “fucks” between friends? Of course, not everyone felt this way, and there were run-ins with various members of the establishment. But cooler heads (namely, Betts and current station manager Tom Crawford) prevailed.

Naturally, as WMSE got more professional, the need for funding increased. The fact that the station was housed in a ground-floor level office in one of the school’s dormitories – a room not much bigger than your average efficiency apartment – rapidly began working at cross purposes with the stations’s increasing popularity with bands both local and national. While it was possible to fit two guitars and a snare drum into the control booth, that was about it; not exactly an ideal situation. It was obvious that a bigger space was needed, and in November of 1997 construction commenced on a new, more elaborate studio (a former garage on Milwaukee street) financed by both MSOE and a particularly generous and resourceful patron of the station. In order to help foot the bill for this monumental endeavor the WMSE brain trust took a page from public TV stations everywhere and the Membership Drives that we all know and love were born. Possibly the greatest thing about these self-effacingly relentless fundraisers – one of which may well be going on as you read this – is the realization that Milwaukee (a notoriously frugal city) loves the station enough to donate thousands of dollars per year in order to keep it operational; something that’s more unique, especially in the world of independent radio, that most listeners might realize.

As a result of this show of support, it wasn’t long (March of 1999, to be precise) before the studio moved into it’s new digs, and less than two years later WMSE settled their accounts and became a self-supporting entity. As well as giving them autonomy from office politics, it also meant that they finally had the space, as well as the equipment, to invite bands into the studio to do live broadcasts. For many bands, this was the only promotional tool they had, but-provided they didn’t suck – it kicked ass. Everyone from underage students to home-centered parents could hear what Milwaukee’s finest sounded like live, and the response from both bands and listeners was tremendous. Additionally, appearing on MSE almost certainly meant an increase in attendance at whatever show you happened to be promoting and and/or playing, nothing to sneeze at when you considered the downturn in attendance once the drinking age hit 21, and dance clubs (as well as video stores) began springing up everywhere.

And with the 2005 launch of the MSE Project – a program spearheaded by current promotions director Brent Gohde in which bands are encouraged to utilize the aforementioned space and equipment, as well as the expertise of engineer William Cicerelli, in order to record music (for either broadcast or distribution) free of charge – it seems that WMSE has reached a plateau of sorts, one which provided not only a platform for musical creativity, but a means of production (and promotion, for Milwaukee as much as its bands) as well. Despite the unassuming origins of the station, this everyman-style approach to music manages to dovetail nicely with WMSE’s original intention to provide a genuine, active alternative to Milwaukee’s often staid music scene.

– Keith James Brammer (Die Kreuzen)
reprinted with permission

4 Comments

  • Brad warsh says:

    I found wmse in 1985, and diligently taped the punk nights on Thursday’s. It had everything that I wanted to hear, and everything I didn’t know I wanted to hear. I am a better person for being exposed to all of it. D.R.I. To Oil tasters, raw bad-ass music changed my life.

  • Dan Soiney says:

    Just found this! Makes me realize how much I miss those late nights in the booth picking random carts and discovering a surprise every time.

  • Julie LaBomascus says:

    I discovered WMSE in 1981 after I moved into the residence hall across the street from the station. Listening to WMSE not only changed my musical tastes forever – it expanded them. I so missed the station after having to moved back to my hometown almost a year later. Long may it air.

  • I remember listening to “The Monk Of Punk” show when I was going to UW Milwaukee in 1984ish. I heard stuff that was blowing my mind all the time. I had come from the Chicago area and was raised on the radio there. WMSE was a breath of fresh air and I have recently discovered the station again through the magic of the website streams and archives. Just discovered MKE punk too! Awesome!

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