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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

After 1250-AM abruptly ends local programming, ex-radio hosts react – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

If you thought the sports-talk radio ecosystem in Milwaukee couldn’t support itself forever, you wouldn’t be alone.
Once 97.3 The Game opened shop in 2018, that made three stations emphasizing Milwaukee sports, and a fourth if you counted powerhouse WTMJ and its broadcasts of the state’s three major pro sports teams.
But back when “The Fan” first switched to a sports-talk format on 1250-AM in 2005, it marked the start of something novel, providing a Milwaukee-centric morning show and local programming at points throughout the day that could compete with WAUK, a station undergoing its own evolution but still relying heavily on ESPN national radio at the time, particularly in the morning.
“You could tell everybody was kind of learning the ropes as we went because most of the people there, this was sort of their first big shot at sports talk radio,” said Ramie Makhlouf, whose first of two tenures at 1250-AM began that first year. “There wasn’t a lot of sports talk radio in Milwaukee. Maybe it was just me glorifying things in the moment, but it felt like we were building something really good there. I remember those days really fondly.”
On Tuesday, the station (WSSP) abruptly stopped broadcasting local content in the early afternoon, switching to CBS national programming. After 17-plus years, the station’s on-air staff was laid off by parent company Audacy, part of a string of layoffs across the company.
Programming 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 safety LeRoy Butler, were gone. Evening programming like Tim Allen’s Brewers postgame show was also off the air. 
Current members of the 1250 staff who were asked for comment did not respond.
“Corporate radio being what it is … it’s tough dealing with Wall Street and shareholder return on investment; you have to serve many masters in that regard,” said former WSSP program director Tom Parker, also a former director at WTMJ who oversaw The Fan from 2009-19 before his retirement. “I can’t imagine the payroll was (so high) that it was that big a deal, but companies are going to do what they’re going to do.”
“Being on an AM only signal in the year 2022, with two FM blowtorches in Milwaukee, that doesn’t do you any favors,” said former morning show co-host Mike Wickett, now a morning show host at Lazer 103 in Des Moines, Iowa, who worked at WSSP from 2007 to mid-2016.
“I used to really worry about ratings. Then I realized that in our format… at a station that still didn’t have the Bucks, the Brewers, the Packers (game broadcasts), it’s tough to pull big numbers. Our goal was to beat WAUK and take some scraps at night from TMJ.
“Then I realized because of our connection to fans, advertisers saw that connection more than numbers; that’s why our local advertising was so important to us. You have to stop caring about numbers and ratings-wise.”
As ratings go (as compiled by RadioInsight), it’s true that The Fan drifted behind ESPN Milwaukee and The Game — which recently landed rights to Packers broadcasts, starting this season. But those numbers were also somewhat negligible in the big picture. ESPN and The Game are ranked 15th and 16th, respectively, among stations in the Milwaukee/Racine market during the July 22 check-in.
“It’s three stations beating their brains out for a very small share of audience,” Parker said. “You had to know between ESPN and The Game, they were going to be the ones who would hold out longest.” 
It wasn’t for lack of trying to keep up. In 2014, the station began simulcasting on 105.7 FM, but the signal strength had to be essentially cut off from flowing 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 to the southwest but I think it made it stronger over Lake Michigan, which was useless,” Parker said. “I don’t blame technical things on not generating as big an audience as you want, but it’s a factor.”
Parker said the station put in bids to broadcast the pro sports teams, even if he knew it was a longshot. He felt the station was close to landing the Bucks before the franchise ultimately re-upped with WTMJ, even though a cooperative partnership blossomed with the Bucks.
That included a Bucks postgame 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, find the audio, all the stuff that makes the station sound vibrant and vital,” Parker said of Fifer, who had been an assistant program director with the station and remains on staff in some capacity, according to a source.
“To a person, they really were good, a great staff to coach, and I’m just sad for the guys who are still there, especially the youngest guys, producers that really don’t make much money but put their heart and soul in it,” Parker said. “I hope they find some other outlet to practice that craft. Whether it’s a podcast or an audio show, you’re still telling stories, relating to an unseen audience, and it’s a special skill.”
One of the elements that made The Fan stand out was developing its own pipeline of talent. Examples of staff who ascended from producer to on-air host include Fifer, Makhlouf, Winkler, Cliff Saunders, Chuck Freimund and Josh Vernier. 
“The coaching that we had was phenomenal,” Wickett said. “It was such a fun ride to be on that station at a time when the Brewers were getting better, the (Aaron) Rodgers era was beginning, they won a Super Bowl while I was there. I remember when the Bucks drafted a dude 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, then left for a Minneapolis station that itself underwent mass layoffs, said he had been optimistic about the future of Wisconsin sports radio with current up-and-coming talent such as producers Sam Schmitz and Tobi Altizer.
Makhlouf, now co-host of the Cattles and Ramie afternoon show on Sactown Sports 1140 in Sacramento, California, following a brief return to 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 business. Sparky and Gary on the Big Show, so much radio knowledge from those guys. LeRoy Butler, to call an NFL Hall of Famer a friend is amazing, and he’s one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. Bart Winkler is like my brother and the most passionate Milwaukee sports fan to the point that it’s bad for him.” 
Wickett said the passion from the on-air voices came through the speakers.
“You knew Sparky was mad,” he said. “You knew Gary was mad. You knew Doug (Russell) or Chuck Freimund or Bart, you knew they were mad. … No shot at TMJ but when you’re the flagship for the three majors, you’re not allowed to criticize Ned Yost or Mike McCarthy, Bo Ryan, or whatever. And our station gave you that outlet. WAUK was 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 The Fan so special.”
Added Parker, “We were a little more irreverent, and we could be a little more outrageous, but I think we tried to stay credible, too.”
Freimund, who lost his job at WSSP during the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly found a spot with iHeart Radio, said Parker’s departure in 2019 was a pivotal moment, when the program-director duties shifted to Mitch Rosen, still serving as operations director at The Score in Chicago.
“Under Tom Parker, the postgame shows, pregame 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. … The radio stations can have all the talent in the world, but you’ve got to have the people in your front office making good decisions and good business decisions and the company behind you.”
The station also hosted an annual golf outing and orchestrated an annual holiday toy drive benefitting Children’s Hospital, bringing in upwards of $20,000 to $30,000 in donated toys.
“I go to work and have fun and talk about things that don’t matter with my friends,” Makhlouf said with a laugh. “The only real thing I did at that radio station and at my job that made a difference in the world was that toy drive; I’m super proud of that toy drive.” 
And maybe they shifted the sports landscape a little bit while they were at it.
“I think The Fan changed Milwaukee sports media; maybe I’m overblowing things and giving myself too much credit,” Makhlouf said. “I grew up listening to The Score in Chicago, and I think it brought some big-city accountability to these small market teams for the first time. We put them in uncomfortable spots when things weren’t good. It’s something not a lot of people were doing before The Fan came around.”
Added Freimund: “God bless all the listeners who made that radio station and gave us jobs because that’s what it was really about. If it wasn’t for the great fans of Milwaukee, that station wouldn’t have been able to sustain 17 years. It was the great listeners that made it the thing that it was.”
JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or jradcliffe@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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