Hoping you're enjoying our little birthday party, the one we're doing on-air July 25 as WTMJ marks 90 years on the air. We turned up a lot of old tape with familiar names who bring back fond memories of what this place was, and what it continues to be.
70 years have come from 720 East Capitol Drive–Radio City, if you will. It was state of the art when the offices inside came to life in 1947. A book sent to me years ago by a listener is pinned above my cubicle, one with a corner view to my rear and the Channel 6 tower to my right elbow.
This is where Gordon Hinckley came when he left Central Wisconsin for the lure of the big city. It's where Jonathan Green reported for duty in 1969 after his time with Armed Forces Radio. So many people on air and off did a job, fulfilled a task, answered a phone, typed up a story or in someway large or small contributed to what came out of the speakers all those years.
The gutty-works of Radio City in no way resemble the accompanying photos from the above-mentioned book. The front of the place now sports a giant marquee touting the wares of the three stations inside. The auditorium? That's now where the AM and FM studios sit, as well as radio engineering. We stopped needing 400 seats and live audience capability long ago, not like when there was still an in-house orchestra and shows that required such a venue. Other studios have long since been re-purposed for offices. The basement, which once held an on-site print and carpentry shop, is pretty much filled with computers now. One vestige remains: the art-deco lobby and it's mural which tells the story of communication.
The place still looks pretty good for its age–sure, the heating and the AC can get a little bucky, but what old home doesn't have such issues. And what place has such memories? I can still see Hinckely walking briskly down the hall, pants up around his armpits, always in search of free food, always there with a compliment about something he'd heard about you (he was among the first to come down to the KTI studio to say welcome aboard when I first got here). I can see Jim Irwin, sitting post-morning-show with a pile of airline schedules trying to figure out a path from Saturday's Badgers game to that night's Bucks game to Sunday's Packers affair. There are so many more: Frank Richardson, Ron Irwin, Jeff Kiernan, John Baas, Melanie Scott, Bob Reddin, Velia Alvarez, and all manner of others who've come and gone, who've all helped build the place's legacy.
Green put it best in our on-air chat Tuesday, talking about how our listeners feel like they have ownership of WTMJ, as if it's theirs. On a music station, he says, a dissatisfied customer simply punches a button until they find what they want. An unhappy TMJ user calls to complain, to tell you that whatever they're hearing is unappreciated and not what they came here for. They do it because they're invested in the place. Because they care.
It's where they come when there's a dark cloud in the sky, or one too many fire engine go roaring by. It's there for the ride in come the morning, or the scoot home later that evening. It's the home of Jim and Max, Mr. Baseball, Eddie Doucette, Ted Moore and Jack Baker. It's a what we in the business call a “legacy”, a station that stood the test of time, that people use as needed and rely on like no other. Will that change in a digital age when the cell phone, podcast and iPad are the sexy new tools of the day? Of course. Will such technology render radio useless? Only if we, the folks who tend to it daily, let it happen. It won't be the same, but radio doesn't have to become the sonic equivalent of the buggy whip.
And today, it turns 90 years old. Happy birthday, WTMJ. Here's to 90 more.