WMSE’s Weekend Warriors
They volunteer their time for you
The wiry whippet of a guy cues up a CD. The woman with the crinkly, cascading white hair conducts an on-air interview. The other fellow is slightly greying at the temples. His strong hands make sure the 78 performs without skipping. He smoothly takes one record off the quickly spinning turntable with one hand and no pause.
So who are these weekend warriors at WMSE who volunteer their time so readily? Some have been dedicated to this station for more than 30 years. That sort of loyalty speaks of a special kind of allegiance. Each DJ has his or her own reasons for doing what it is they do.
Let’s kick off our weekend with Dr. Fell, heard on Friday from 6-9 a.m. He enjoys woodworking and has four children who are the top priorities in his life. He freely admits to being a fan of MC Hammer.
His real name is Matthew Gramling. He has been enjoying this routine of the early morning Friday show for 10 years. The bands that he chooses to hear from are a delight to wordsmiths’ ears: Lo-Fang, Roncho, Shellac, Elephant, Souls of Mischief, Blonde Redhead and Hessismore, released on labels like Asthmatic Kitty and Red Eye Transit Records.
“I feel this [station] is one of the biggest constants in my life—besides family,” Gramling says.
The pace of the show vacillates wildly, veering radically between fast-driving numbers and slow, moody ones. There are two tunes swirling at once in the studio when Dr. Fell is in the house—both on the broadcast channel and in the playback deck, and they are loud. He flips and shuffles through CDs at dizzying speed. Small stacks grow all over the table as time ticks on. He refers to the 7 o’clock hour as the eye of the storm.
When many folks are looking to get the party started on Saturday evening, Mary Bartlein envelops her audience in transcendental new age and instrumental music from across the globe. These tunes are the soundtrack for anyone relaxing in comfy introversion, getting thoughtful and escaping the throngs of people out and about. She has been with the station for 32 years and counting.
Sometimes she flies in the door at 5:59 p.m. with a minute to catch her breath. She wears almost invisible wire-rimmed glasses and no make-up. Her eyes are sparkling blue, and her smile is toothy and wide. On long Saturdays, Mary admits she can get crabby. She puts in a full day of work, starting at 5 a.m., before arriving at the station for her 6-9 p.m. show.
The work that takes her away from WMSE is hematology, working in a lab studying diseases of the blood. Bartlein grew up in a musical family. Her youngest brother is in a group affectionately dubbed Mary’s Brother’s Band. Her father was a Dewey Gill fan. More on him later.
What brought her to WMSE was a broken heart. Bartlein never married—the guy broke it off. Then, a friend got her out of the house to volunteer at a Channel 10 auction. There she won two hours of airtime at her favorite radio station. Kismet.
She bustles around the dim studio looking for just the right song. Her voice rises in a girlish squeal of delight when interacting with unexpected visitors. Mary takes two calls in quick succession, and announces chipperly to a familiar caller, “No time to bullshit tonight, Joel!” She conducts interviews with musicians that she will then air on her program. Her most memorable took place with the influential Andreas Vollenweider in a Chicago airport. Her toughest was Henry Rollins.
A dude calls in wanting to hear, “Dio on my Birthday.” Bartlein explains that she can't honor that one—no heavy metal during her program, but wishes him a nice birthday anyway. The dude tells her, “Oh, that’s sweet.”
Dewey Gill hauls in his 78 record player and about three loads of boxes of 78s. He gets started at his own pace for his show, at about five minutes after 9 a.m. Sunday. He banters with Station Manager Tom Crawford on the air. He tells Crawford that he found some 78s recently with his grandmother’s name on them when he was record hunting. He surmises that grandma must have donated them to Goodwill, but they found their way back home to him.
Gill is tall and has the air of someone transported from the 1950s. He does not keep checking a cellphone or a Facebook account. His voice has a homespun, pleasant rumble that would work well in a voiceover commercial for Quaker Oats. He says, “I think I have a terrible voice for radio.”
Also an unofficial member of the WMSE 30-year veteran club, Gill hosted an exciting new fundraising event for the station last year. The Big Band Grandstand at Turner Hall Ballroom featured the Cab Calloway Orchestra and Gill on duty to spin records between sets. In honor of the special occasion, he donned a white, pinstriped suit.
Gill likes to read liner notes. He switches to glasses to read the little print. To help remember dates for the 78s, he writes on the margins of the record in grease pencil. Sitting down to “The Sunday Big Band Show” in the morning is like cuddling up in a favorite bathrobe, fresh cup of coffee in one hand, crossword puzzle in the other. His aura projected through the radio waves is immediately relaxing and comforting.
A red Wisconsin Badgers tee is noticeable under his sweatshirt jacket. He plays “On Wisconsin” at one point. His ideal relaxing day is not at home—it is at a Brewers game (when he is not listening to songs for shows). He didn’t have aspirations of being on radio. He started subbing at the station and stayed on. He feels an obligation to the loyal listener base—because there isn’t a local show like his out there championing this music. Lucky for us, he does.
Many of WMSE’s DJs will be at the station’s annual Backyard BBQ from 4-11 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 5 in Cathedral Square Park.