The Big City

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It’s 20 years today since The Mrs. and I officially moved from Iowa, where we’d lived for all but three of the previous 18 years, to the suburbs of Madison. We are still in the condo we bought thinking we’d stay in it three years, and it occurs to me that I have lived in this place about as long as I lived in my parents’ house before I moved into my first apartment at college. Here’s some of a thing I wrote in 2009 about the role Madison played in my life before we got here. Stuff in square brackets has been added for 2020.

I grew up about hour away, but I have no memories of coming here before I was 10. Once the big shopping mall opened, in October 1970, a month in which all things seem to have begun, my family would periodically come up to shop on Sunday afternoons. Malls were not ubiquitous then; they could still amaze with their exotic spaces—sunken lounges, fountains—and stores you wouldn’t find anywhere else. We marveled at the existence of a place that sold nothing but pretzels, and I bought lots of records at the Victor Music store. My aunt and uncle moved here in 1972, which meant that summer vacations with my cousin were now trips to the big city. He was pretty good at navigating the bus system, so we moved easily from their house on the west side to downtown and back. It didn’t take long before I became a connoisseur of the State Street scene, although I’d like to see it back then with the eyes I have now.

But you didn’t have to visit Madison to feel steeped in its culture. Most of the TV we watched came from Madison’s three network affiliates and its PBS station, and I read the Wisconsin State Journal every day. Places you’d never seen became familiar thereby. You knew about Rennebohm Rexall Drug Stores before you ever set foot in one, and Manchester’s Department Store, and the Strand Theater [all of which are gone now]. You knew the names of major streets like Atwood Avenue, Pflaum Road, and Mifflin Street long before you knew where they went. And you knew Madison’s local celebrities, from mayors to sports stars to characters famous and infamous.

It was the mid 70s before Madison radio became as influential to me as Madison TV. I discovered Z104, an automated FM rock station, shortly after it threw the switch in the fall of 1974, and I listened a little to WISM, the AM Top 40 station, although its signal at home wasn’t especially good, and to WIBA-FM during its days as a free-form rock station. [And to WISM-FM, the future Magic 98, where I would one day work and hope to work again, if they ever call me back.] It didn’t take long before a gig in Madison radio began to seem to me like the best of all possible careers—if Chicago radio didn’t work out. When it came time to go to college, I desperately wanted to attend the University of Wisconsin. But it didn’t have the kind of broadcasting program I wanted, so I ended up at another school, which turned out to be the right choice after all. I found radio jobs in Iowa and in Illinois, but I hoped I’d get to Madison someday.

Finally, in 2000, out of radio entirely, we were able to make the move. I remember a conversation with The Mrs. in which I said that even if the job I was taking turned out to be a poor choice, at least we’d be back in Wisconsin. (After it turned out I was right about the job being a poor choice, being in Wisconsin was less consolation than I hoped it would be, although it must have helped a little.) We’ve been here ever since, and while the thought that either of us might be able to advance our careers elsewhere occasionally flits across our minds, we never take it seriously. This is where we belong, and it’s where we expect to stay.

Back to music stuff tomorrow, I promise.

One thought on “The Big City

  1. mikehagerty

    Parallel lives again.

    While I was born in a big city (Los Angeles), we moved when I was nine to Bishop, California, a town of 3,500 in the Eastern High Sierra of California after my dad died. My Mom’s side of the family had been in the area since 1940, and if you count extended family (my grandmother’s best friend who everyone called “Aunt”), it was since 1920.

    Bishop was 270 miles from Los Angeles, but was one of the first rural areas after World War II to get Community Antenna TV—what we’d now call cable. My dad was part of the crew that ran it up the Owens Valley.

    So Bishop saw Los Angeles TV, and that same cable also carried up every FM signal on Mt. Wilson in L.A. Nobody at the cable company said a word about it—-but if you put an FM radio within three feet of your TV, suddenly there’s KNX-FM, KMET, KLOS, KRTH and more.

    Several hundred copies of the early edition of the Los Angeles Times was put on a bus in Downtown L.A. every evening, arriving in Bishop at 4:30 a.m. and, as small as the town was, it was on everyone’s doorstep by 6:00.

    Reno was actually closer than L.A. by 70 miles, so we got one Reno station on the cable, KOLO-TV. And while we’d go back frequently to L.A. for visiting friends and shopping, that usually required an overnight stay, and it was more fun to stretch it into a long weekend.

    Reno was close enough at 200 miles (it and Bishop share a main street, U.S. Highway 395) to go in the morning and come back in the afternoon, so we did. And that’s where I discovered the then-new Park Lane Mall. Your description of the mall with sunken spaces and fountains triggered the memory, JB.

    Mirabelli’s Music City was the best record store you were going to find without going to L.A. They had everything. And, in 1970, when I was 14, an FM album station, KGLR, opened studios in Park Lane Mall…so I started poking my head in there. The jocks were cool, and very encouraging when a year later, I was on the radio myself in Bishop, and the Sales Manager, a guy named Bob Glassburn, was very encouraging.

    As fate would have it, though I always vowed to return to L.A. to live, it never happened. But I did go to Reno, to KOLO-AM, in 1977. And our Sales Manager was Bob Glassburn.

    I intended to spend a year in Reno on my way home to L.A. I spent seven years. Reno’s not where I belonged, but it absolutely played a huge part in my life during some key years (age 21-28). It’s where I switched from jocking and programming to news, from radio to TV, from Ford to Honda (maybe that’s not really relevant).

    Now I live on the other side of the Sierra, 122 miles from Reno, but a stone’s throw from all the places at Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Foothills where I’d spend my free time those seven years. Like you, it’s where we belong (my wife came here for college in 1982 and would never dream of leaving) and where we plan to stay.

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