Back on the Air

In 2006, after nine years out of radio (apart from the occasional sports broadcast and voice-over gig), I took a part-time job with Mid-West Family Broadcasting in Madison—and 10 years ago this week, I went on their air for the first time.

I started at 93.1 The Lake, a deep-cuts classic rock station that encouraged us to talk about the music in detail, pretty much the perfect gig for a gasbag such as I. But the deep-cuts incarnation didn’t last long after I got there. Armed with research that said people perceived us as too cool for the room, a new program director tightened up the format and our presentation. It still sounded pretty good, though, right up to the day in 2008 when the company dumped the format.

By that time, I had begun doing weekend shifts on Magic 98. Even before I got there, I was sure I’d be a good fit for Magic, if only on its long-running Saturday at the 70s feature. My trajectory was from weekend guy to weekday fill-in, and eventually, to regular afternoon guy for five months in 2013. (I gave up that job for good and sensible reasons, although it still makes me sad today.) Magic has given me the opportunity to do a lot, on the air and off, and I get to work with some of the best people I’ve ever met.

In 2010, I started working on the company’s country station, Q106. I probably wouldn’t have pursued that gig had it not been an opportunity to work for John Sebastian, a bona-fide broadcasting legend who landed in Madison briefly after years of programming big stations in major markets. No program director ever did more to make me a better jock. Even with a different boss, working on Q continues to be a blast.

In 2012, I was asked to fill in as a news anchor on WTDY. Never mind that the only training I’d ever had in news was how to change the paper on the AP wire. The highlight was the day I anchored on WTDY’s morning show, hosted by John “Sly” Sylvester, who had become one of Madison’s top personalities since our days at UW-Platteville. (It was Sly who pushed me to apply for the gig at The Lake, where he was doing afternoons at the time.) It was fun for four months, until the plug was pulled on the news-talk format.

In conjunction with the WTDY gig, I found myself as an occasional substitute traffic reporter for all of the stations in the group, a job I still do occasionally. You sit in a studio listening to the scanner and watching traffic cameras and Internet travel time data, and you boil down as much as you can into 20 or 30 seconds. Our group provides morning traffic reports for the local CBS affiliate, which resulted in one of my favorite career moments, when one of the anchors introduced me as “Saturday at the 70s Jim Bartlett.”

Although I briefly held one full-time position with the company, I suspect that being a part-time guy suits me best. Doing lots of different radio tasks along with my writing and teaching keeps me from getting especially bored. It’s also because after many years in radio, I have learned that it’s better not to stand too close when they’re making the sausage. And it’s partly because, as I joked to one of my colleagues years ago, “If you got to know me better, you might not like me as much.”

I do not try to predict the future. I gave that up a long time ago. And so, when I did that first shift on the Lake, a Sunday night 10 years ago this week, I didn’t try to project myself forward in time to guess where it might take me. I have simply gone along for the ride, and for a decade now, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.

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