Although I grew up just an hour away from Madison, I didn’t listen to legendary Top 40 station WISM every day. Its signal, on AM at 1480, wasn’t especially great where I lived, and it went away entirely at night. But when I visited my cousin in Madison during the summer, we’d listen, and if I was ever coming to town at any other time, I’d listen, and on music-buying trips, I’d always pick up a WISM music survey. Plus, the voices were inescapable: in that era, nobody on the Madison airwaves was more familiar than Jonathan Little. It seemed like he was on dozens of commercials we’d see on TV or hear on other radio stations.
In the seven years I’ve worked for Mid-West Family Broadcasting, I’ve always been conscious of the WISM heritage, even though the call letters are in another city with another company and 1480 belongs to our Spanish-language station now. It’s in our DNA at Magic 98, which is the former WISM-FM.
When I first started working at 93.1 The Lake, we ran a show from 12 to 1 weekdays called “Lunch With Little,” on which he’d play classic-rock tracks and tell first-person stories about the artists. The first time I filled in on the 10-to-noon shift I signed off by saying, “As somebody who grew up listening to Madison radio, I have been waiting all my life to say this: Jonathan Little is next.” (He’s around the building now and then, although I didn’t meet him until earlier this year.)
So anyway: Bill Vancil (program director of WISM and WISM-FM and creator of Magic 98) is being inducted into the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame this week. As it happened, another prominent WISM alumnus, Charlie “Rock and Roll” Simon, night guy from an era when night guys were major stars, was planning to come back to Wisconsin for the induction. So Pat O’Neill, Magic’s program director (and longtime morning guy, a Madison radio institution hisownself), decided to put together a WISM reunion show with Charlie and Jonathan.
The show came together rather quickly over a day or two: Charlie, Jonathan, and Pat in the studio live for three hours last Saturday night, playing the hits and telling stories, with montages of old WISM jingles and clips from old WISM shows. It was tremendous. The response from listeners was tremendous, too. The Mrs. and I were two of them, in the car on our way back to town that night, and when we got in I said, “We gotta go over there.” And so we did—the last two or three breaks of the show took place with she and I lurking in the back of the studio, me with a big stupid smile plastered on my face because I couldn’t believe where I was, or what I was hearing.
Clearly there are many, many of us who remember those guys and that station with incredible fondness. It’s when radio was Radio—with the second “radio” capitalized, larger than life, as were the people who inhabited it. Today, loyal listeners still love what their favorite stations do, but people in general use radio differently now, and those of us who are on the air every day inhabit a different space in our listeners’ heads than Charlie and Jonathan did in the 1970s.
But we remember. They’re in our DNA. We’re standing on their shoulders.
(It’s a pretty good bet we’ll be putting highlights of the reunion show on the Magic website in the near future, or maybe the whole thing. I’ll provide the details as I learn ’em.)