I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Platform for Milwaukee Music: WMSE

by Thomas Michalski
Feb. 19, 2014

Since 1981, WMSE FM has been Milwaukee’s listener-supported Frontier Radio station. Their army of volunteer DJs spin a variety of sounds not found anywhere else on the city’s airwaves, from free jazz to techno to reggae and beyond. Over those 33 years, a vast array of Milwaukee artists and countless touring acts have passed through the station’s studios to record live sessions, each adding to a massive body of astonishingly eclectic music, one that’s grown even more rapidly since they launched the Local/Live program 10 years ago, welcoming a different Wisconsin artist to perform a longer set each week. To learn more about live music on WMSE, we caught up with the station’s Promotions Director Ryan Schleicher.

Hearing live in-studio performances, just as part of the fabric of the station’s regular programming, is something that sets WMSE apart on Milwaukee radio. Has it always been a priority?

WMSE has been recording live music in our studios and in the community since our start the early 80s. Our Play/Pause/Stop set was a collection of a lot of early live recordings that were done straight to cart and were later converted to be put on CD, but Local/Live in particular has been going strong since 2004, airing every single Tuesday night with the exception of some holidays and a few cancellations.

The sheer diversity of music heard on Local/Live from week to week is rather impressive. Is that something you consciously strive for?

Part of our mission has always been to represent Milwaukee music that isn’t being represented anywhere else. There’s a couple more stations offering a little bit more local music now than when WMSE first started, but the scope of just how much, and especially what types of music, is still really minimal anywhere else on the dial in Milwaukee, so it’s very important to the station to cover the entire spectrum of local music.

That includes new bands and young bands too. It must be an especially fun experience for those who’ve maybe never had the studio treatment before.

For the bands that haven’t put out any recorded material, it’s kind of an eye-opener because it’s the first time they really get to hear what they sound like, since our genius engineer Billy Cicerelli does a great job of capturing someone’s true sound. He doesn’t add a ton of effects to make it sound better than it really does, so it’s kind of an education for a lot of new bands.

And every group that comes through walks out with a free, high-quality recording? That’s no small thing to an independent band.

Especially now, with Bandcamp and SoundCloud, a lot of bands are just releasing their WMSE sessions as digital downloads, but even before that, back in the day, bands would use it as demos to get it into clubs. They’d take their tape down to Cactus Club or wherever and say, “here’s my ‘MSE recording”, and that kind of gave them a stamp of approval right away.

Can they do anything with the recordings post-performance, or are they kind of set in stone?

You can actually buy the individual Pro Tools files for only $50, and if you think how much you’d have to spend to go into any other studio, with set up time and everything else, you’re talking hundreds and hundreds of dollars. But here, in maybe three hours from the time they get here, it costs them 50 bucks for files which you can go remix, remaster, add overdubs to, whatever they want. Plus the money just goes to the studio fund for gear upgrades.

Of course that gear is getting more and more advanced. Do you foresee technology allowing for even more live music over the WMSE airwaves?

Technology is making it so much easier, because we aren’t as limited to our studios. Pro Tools is so advanced now in how it integrates with soundboards that live remote recording is much more feasible, because you’re not just relying on just a stereo out. It’s full channel outs that you can mix for live radio and for the room that it’s being played in at the same time. We’ve already done a few sessions like that with MKE Unplugged. We can go simply to bands instead of bands having to come to us.

The 13 th volume of your Live at WMSE compilation series came out last year, featuring the likes of King Tuff and Martha Wainwright. What do anthologies like that mean to the station’s mission?

It’s a calling card, in a way, as well as something we can offer during membership drives that’s music-centric premium, and one that’s affordable for most donors. Even there, so much of it is local stuff too; there’ve been a couple comps that have primarily national acts, but one of the things WMSE has always believed in is seamlessly placing local music alongside national and international music, so that you can gain some perspective on just how good some of our local artists really are. Those compilations are a reflection of that and it really speaks to the creativity of the city.

Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/