Monday, December 11, 2006

Bob Reitman's 40 Years

"Knockin' on retirement's door -- Reitman is knocking on retirement's door after 40 years on local radio"

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Bob Reitman's daily conversation with listeners ends Wednesday, when the 64-year-old Reitman wraps up 26 years as the lead guitar on the WKTI-FM (94.5) morning show.

In the 40 years since he began talking into a microphone at one station or another on Milwaukee's FM dial, he's played out much of his life in public. Still, like everybody, there are things he hasn't shared, and won't share now.

What he's more than willing to talk about are the twin passions that have shaped him: poetry and rock 'n' roll and, especially, the blending of the two in the songs of Bob Dylan.

To look at a life that's been broadcast on the radio since the 1960s, it's helpful to break the story down into its five decades, a period where the evolution of FM radio paralleled Reitman's career:

The '60s

The setting: Bob Reitman came of age in the very first wave of rock 'n' roll. "The guys a year ahead of me didn't get into it, because it wasn't cool, because the freshmen were into it," he recalls of his days at Whitefish Bay High School.

As he moved into his 20s, poetry became important to him. "One of the big things for me back in the '60s were poetry readings at the Avant Garde Coffee House, that was critical."

It was there that "a guy came up and told me his friend was running that show and was leaving town and would I like to do the show." That poetry program, "Sense Waves," on WUWM-FM (89.7) started Reitman's broadcasting career in 1966. He was soon doing a music show on WUWM, "It's Alright Ma, It's Only Music."

As the decade progressed, he made the move into commercial FM radio at the old WZMF, then in a free-form style where deejays were their own program directors.

Influences: While Bob Dylan is the broad canvas of his influences in the 1960s, Reitman points to one song that shows the merger of poetry and the music: "Chimes of Freedom."

"I remember the girl upstairs in my apartment building was a beatnik. I was sick, I had a cold or something, and she brought that down and said, 'Why don't you listen to this?' I mean I'm just listening (to) this song and all of a sudden these words come out, and I've never heard anything like it," he recalled. "Stopped me cold, I mean, I froze in my tracks. It was like a revelation."

He reads from the lyrics: "Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail, the sky cracked its poems in naked wonder."

A quote: "It was the crucible, because that's when I went to WUWM and then we went from there to 'ZMF, that all happened in the '60s. At WUWM, we got ratings. That's because there was a significant amount of people out there that wanted to hear that kind of music. They weren't getting it from top 40."

The '70s

The setting: Starting off the decade at WZMF, he moved on to the old WTOS and then to WQFM, as FM rock radio moved steadily from that unencumbered style to the strict formats of modern radio. His visibility was rising, with Reitman earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for an on-air stunt, staying on the air at State Fair Park for 222 hours and 22 minutes in 1976, while he was at WQFM.

Influences: While there are musical forces that shaped him in the 1970s, from Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album in 1974 and Bruce Springsteen's 1975 concert at the Uptown Theater, Reitman points to the birth of his daughter, Jessica, in 1972.

"That was beyond words. We spent a lot of time together because her mother and I got divorced when she was about 3. So we spent at least three days a week together until she was 18. The great thing about having children is getting to see the world again through the eyes of a child.

"Her mother, Lois, was instrumental in Jessica's growth as a person. Her mother and I have remained friends all these years. Jessica showed me that even if you come from a broken marriage, if both parents are really close to the kids, and they both love that child, then the kid will be OK.

"That was more important for me than being a disc jockey or anything, was being there for her and trying to be a good father."

A quote: "That whole decade went from free-form radio of the '60s into formatted radio in the late '70s. It was painful to watch it. It went away an album at a time, almost a song at a time. If the ratings would drop a little bit, they would panic, and start pulling albums out of the library, or marking only certain cuts that could be played on the albums that were left in there."

The '80s

The setting: WQFM fired Reitman in early 1980. He took a few months off and traveled the country, returning to Milwaukee. He was picked up later that year by WKTI-FM, where he was partnered with Gene Mueller two years later. Producer Gino Salomone joined the team, adding a third personality to the mix. (WKTI, like this newspaper, is owned by Journal Communications.)

Reitman and Mueller did a cameo appearance on NBC's "Cheers," hosted a pioneering broadcast from the Soviet Union well before the end of the Cold War, and got national attention for a bit during the height of the Cabbage Patch Doll craze.

In that legendary stunt, Reitman and Mueller announced during the holiday season in 1983 that a B-29 would drop 2,000 of the hot Christmas toys over County Stadium. Shoppers were told to show up in the parking lot with a catcher's mitt on one hand and a Master Card in the other. Two dozen people showed up.

"That was lightning in a jar. That was something we did on the air. We made it up. We did it and we were done with it - went on and did the rest of the show and forgot about it. The phones started ringing around noon, and it ended up being on two of the network news programs, over 100 newspapers all over the world, Sports Illustrated. It was ridiculous, but it was the antidote for the poison that was going around."

Influences: Professionally, it would be Dallas Cole, then WKTI's program director.

"Dallas knew how to teach me to do morning radio, and he also brought a guy over named Gene Mueller," Reitman said. "It didn't take long to realize that this guy was a genius. He just filled us up and we were receptacles. We went with the game plan, and it worked."

A quote: "The thing that I loved about doing the mornings with somebody like Gene was the spontaneity, the seat-of-your-pants kind of radio. We were never held on a short leash. Nobody ever came to us and said, 'Don't do this.' It wasn't out of control, but there were enough double entendres that I felt worked because the older people would get it and it would go over the kids' heads."

The '90s

The setting: While the morning show continued on through the decade, Reitman began to focus on his health, after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the disease that had killed his father in 1988, six months before the birth of Reitman's son, Bobby. A third child, Johnny, was born in 1993.

Influences: Again it's Dylan. You can't get through a decade of Reitman's adult life without him. And in a decade of personal changes, including another divorce, the music obviously helped him get through it.

"After a series of albums that were maybe not his greatest, 'Time Out of Mind' blew me away," Reitman said.

A quote: "The cancer gave me the chance to go on the air and tell guys to get this thing checked because I caught it early and I'm cancer-free for seven years."

The '00s

The setting: The show changed dramatically in 2002 with the addition of former WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) anchor Amy Taylor to the team.

"The dynamics of the show change when somebody else comes in, and I think Amy brings us to a whole new level," Reitman said. "I think it's good. I didn't get to work with her long enough to get to know her as well as Mueller and Gino. It takes a while."

But for Reitman, who was wrestling with personal problems that he doesn't want to go into, he focuses on a sunny September morning in 2001, when a plane slammed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

"That was comparable, in my mind, to the Kennedy assassination. We were on the air, we watched the second plane go in. It was rough times for me at that point.

"The only thing I could think of doing, and what I did, was I got in my car and I drove out to Holy Hill. Not to pray, but to go somewhere that was stable, something I could look at or feel that was stable, because it was so terrible.

"Mueller took over, you know how good he is, and he and Gino stayed there all day. I couldn't. I couldn't do it. And I couldn't do it because I wasn't as emotionally strong those couple years. It was a tough time in my life."

Influences: There are two of them, both intimate. The first is his mother, Alicia.

"She went through the prostate cancer, she lost her husband, my dad. She went through it again with me, and we won, you know, we came out OK. She's helped me through a number of divorces. I think the world of her, I take her out to dinner once a week, talk to her every day. It makes me really happy that she's 88 and I'm going to be 65 and we're still really close. There's years, you know, when you're in your 20s, you're off on your own. Maybe you come home for Thanksgiving, maybe you don't. But as you get older, maybe your parents get smarter."

Then there's his wife, Nancy. He met her the week after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"This darkness that I've alluded to, a person that really got me out of that and basically made me believe, I guess, I could love again, was my wife, Nancy. I told my mom if I ever mention the 'm' word, shoot me. That really was a monumental thing in my life. I had basically given up in terms of any kind of relationship."

A quote: "During my toughest times, doing that show gave me solace, it gave me comfort. Which you would think would be maybe the last thing I'd want to do, is go on the radio. But, in fact, that was one of the only things I could do. Eventually I got better, and now I'm fine. But radio, thank God, was a source of strength for me."

Epilogue: The end of Reitman's run in the mornings comes with a few years left in this latest decade of his career. And he's not exactly signing off for good. A new version of his old WUWM radio show, "It's Alright Ma, It's Just Music" debuts Jan. 25 in the 7 p.m. Thursday slot on the public station.

Reitman will again be playing records, real records, of the music that's been so important to him.

And, yes, he'll be playing more than Dylan.

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