After 12:50 p.m. abruptly ends local programming, former radio hosts react

If you thought the sports radio ecosystem in Milwaukee couldn’t sustain itself indefinitely, you wouldn’t be alone.

Once 97.3 The Game opened in 2018, that made three stations with a focus on Milwaukee sports, and a fourth if you counted powerhouse WTMJ and its shows of the three major professional sports teams in the country. State.

But back when “The Fan” first transitioned to a sports chat format on 1250-AM in 2005, it marked the start of something new, offering a Milwaukee-centric morning show and programming local at times of day that could rival WAUK, a station that was growing but still relied heavily on national ESPN radio at the time, notably in the morning.

“You could tell everyone was learning the ropes as we went there because most people there, it was kind of their first big shot on sports radio,” said Ramie Makhlouf, whose first of two terms at 12:50 started this Freshman. “There weren’t a lot of sports stations in Milwaukee. Maybe it was just me glorifying things in the moment, but I felt like we were building something really good there. I remember those days very well.”

On Tuesday, the station (WSSP) abruptly stopped broadcasting local content in the early afternoon, switching to national CBS programming. After more than 17 years, the station’s on-air staff were laid off by parent company Audacy, part of a series of company-wide layoffs.

Programs such as “The Bart Winkler Show” in the morning and “The Big Show” featuring Steve “Sparky” Fifer, former Packers running back Gary Ellerson and Hall of Fame Packers goaltender LeRoy Butler, had gone missing. . Evening programming like Tim Allen’s Brewers post-game show was also off the air.

Current members of the 1,250 employees who were asked for comment did not respond.

“Corporate radio being what it is… dealing with Wall Street and shareholder ROI is difficult; you have to serve many masters in that regard,” said former WSSP program director Tom Parker. , also a former WTMJ manager who oversaw The Fan from 2009-19 before his retirement. “I can’t imagine the payroll was (so high) that it was that important, but companies are going to do what they are going to do.”

“Being on an AM-only signal in 2022, with two FM torches in Milwaukee, is doing you a disservice,” said former morning show co-host Mike Wickett, now morning show host at The Lazer. 103 in Des Moines. , Iowa, who worked at WSSP from 2007 to mid-2016.

“Before, I was really worried about the ratings. Then I realized that in our format…in a station that still didn’t have the Bucks, Brewers, Packers (game broadcasts), it Big numbers are hard to get in. Our goal was to beat WAUK and take a few crumbs on the night from TMJ.

“Then I realized that because of our connection to the fans, advertisers saw that connection more than the numbers; that’s why our local advertising was so important to us. You have to stop worrying about the numbers and ratings.”

Sports radio ratings in Milwaukee are not very high, in general

As the ratings go (compiled by RadioInsight), it’s true that The Fan drifted behind ESPN Milwaukee and The Game – which recently secured the rights to the Packers shows, starting this season. But those numbers were also somewhat negligible overall. ESPN and The Game are ranked 15th and 16th, respectively, among stations in the Milwaukee/Racine market at the July 22 taping.

“Those are three stations that are struggling for a very small audience share,” Parker said. “You had to know that between ESPN and The Game, they were going to be the ones that would last the longest.”

It wasn’t for lack of trying to follow. In 2014, the station began simulcasting on 105.7 FM, but signal strength had to be essentially cut off from the north to avoid interference with 105.7 in Appleton. The FM simulcast was discontinued in 2020 and switched to a hip-hop format.

“It was supposed to make it stronger in the southwest, but I think it made it stronger over Lake Michigan, which was unnecessary,” Parker said. “I don’t blame the technical stuff for not generating as large an audience as you would like, but it is a factor.”

Parker said the station made offers to carry professional sports teams, even though he knew it was a long shot. He felt the station was close to landing the Bucks before the franchise eventually returned with WTMJ, though a cooperative partnership blossomed with the Bucks.

This included a Bucks post-game show hosted by Fifer, whom Parker called “the heart and soul of the whole place” and even converted Parker into an avid Bucks fan.

“He was always in the trenches with the guys, supporting young producers, finding content and how to stage it, finding the audio, all the stuff that makes the station vibrant and vital,” Parker said of Fifer, who had been an assistant. the station’s program director and remains a staff member to some degree, according to a source.

“For one person they were really good, great staff to coach, and I’m just sad for the guys who are still there, especially the younger ones, producers who really don’t make a lot of money but put their heart and their soul in it,” Parker said. “I hope they find another outlet to practice this craft. Whether it’s a podcast or an audio show, you’re always telling stories, relating to an unseen audience, and that’s a special skill.”

The Fan nurtured his own talent and also held a huge toy drive

One of the things that set The Fan apart was developing their own talent pool. Fifer, Makhlouf, Winkler, Cliff Saunders, Chuck Freimund, and Josh Vernier are examples of employees who transitioned from producer to animator.

“The coaching we had was phenomenal,” Wickett said. “It was so fun to be on this station at a time when the Brewers were improving, the (Aaron) Rodgers era was starting, they won a Super Bowl while I was there. I remember when the Bucks drafted a guy with a name they still can’t pronounce. It was such a fun time for the city.

Makhlouf, who stayed with the station from 2005 until late 2018 and then left for a Minneapolis station that itself suffered massive layoffs, said he was optimistic about the future of Wisconsin sports radio. with current emerging talent such as producers Sam Schmitz and Tobi Altizer.

Makhlouf, now a co-host of the Cattles and Ramie afternoon show on Sactown Sports 1140 in Sacramento, Calif., after a brief return to the WSSP, also lamented saying goodbye to his former teammates.

“I was side by side with Tim Allen for basically six years to start my radio career,” Makhlouf said. “He taught me so much about this craft. Sparky and Gary on the Big Show, so much radio knowledge from those guys. LeRoy Butler, calling an NFL Hall of Famer a friend is amazing, and he is one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life.Bart Winkler is like my brother and the most passionate sports fan in Milwaukee to the point that it’s bad for him.

Wickett said the passion for on-air voices came through the speakers.

“You knew Sparky was crazy,” he said. “You knew Gary was crazy. You knew Doug (Russell) or Chuck Freimund or Bart, you knew they were crazy. … No shot at TMJ but when you’re the flagship of the three majors, you’re not not allowed to criticize Ned Yost or Mike McCarthy, Bo Ryan, or whatever. And our station gave you that outlet. WAUK was the first, but we were the first to be on the same frequency all day and the local morning show, and that connection is what made Le Fan so special.”

Parker added, “We were a little more irreverent, and we could be a little more outrageous, but I think we also tried to stay believable.”

Freimund, who lost his job at WSSP during the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly found a place with iHeart Radio, said Parker’s departure in 2019 was a pivotal moment when the duties of program director were transferred. to Mitch Rosen, still director of operations at The Score in Chicago.

“Under Tom Parker, post-game shows, pre-game shows, local programming, it was at its best,” Freimund said. “I knew when he told me in 2019 that he was retiring, I knew that was the beginning of the end. … Radio stations can have all the talent in the world, but you have to have the people in your front office makes good decisions and good business decisions and the business behind you.”

The station also hosted an annual golf outing and orchestrated an annual holiday toy drive to benefit the Children’s Hospital, raising over $20,000 to $30,000 in donated toys.

“I go to work and have fun and talk about things that don’t matter with their friends,” Makhlouf said with a laugh. “The only real thing I’ve done at this radio station and at my job that has made a difference in the world is this toy drive; I’m super proud of this toy drive.”

And maybe they changed the sporting landscape a bit while they were there.

“I think The Fan changed sports media in Milwaukee; maybe I’m exaggerating and giving myself too much credit,” Makhlouf said. “I grew up listening to The Score in Chicago, and I think that brought some big city responsibility to these little market teams for the first time. We put them in awkward places when things didn’t work out. weren’t doing well. It’s something not a lot of people were doing before The Fan came along.”

Freimund added: “God bless all the listeners who made this radio station and gave us jobs because that was really what it was all about. If it wasn’t for the big fans of Milwaukee, this station couldn’t have lasted 17 years. It was the great listeners who made it what it was.”

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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