Photo by Kat Schleicher
When you went back to hosting “It’s Alright, Ma, It’s Only Music” with your son Bobby Reitman III on WUWM, did it feel like you were going back to your roots?
Yeah, full circle. I started out where I am now, WUWM, and I was about to go back to UWM to get a teaching certificate. At the same time, all these albums are coming out and nobody was playing them. All the FM stations in the country were just tax write-offs playing elevator music. It was really an opportune time. And if we were successful back then, it was because there were a lot of people that wanted to hear these groups like the Jefferson Airplane. So we got ratings at WUWM.
Do you and your son ever argue over what might be considered good music?
No. I let him do exactly what he wants. I know he’s played some things that I don’t “get.” But it’s not that I approve or disapprove. You know, it’s his choice. He’s a musician, and he’s done a great job. Once in a while, not very often, he’ll play something where I’ll kind of cringe, but I’m sure I do the same to him.
Did your dad ever try to push you into one career or another?
He tried to push me into Lake Michigan. Twice. No, I’m just kidding. The neat thing about my dad was he didn’t. He let his kids make their own decisions. When things were really changing so quickly, I don’t think my parents were real pleased with the counterculture. But it never fractured the family. I had long hair, which I’m sure they weren’t real thrilled with. It was a real generational split. The Vietnam War split families down the middle, but it was never irrevocable. And I ended up going to the Olympics [to broadcast]. He was pretty proud of that.
A lot of Milwaukeeans remember you from your years working with Gene Mueller on WKTI. What sticks out in your mind from that time?
We were so lucky because going to an Olympics was something I never dreamed about in my wildest dreams. I think we went to six of them. But the thing that really helped us was that Cabbage Patch Doll thing. On the news at night, you’d see people busting through the doors and hitting each other to get these dolls. So we thought we would announce that B-29s would fly over County Stadium, and we would drop them. They should show up with mitts and hold their credit cards up so we could take pictures. About 17 people showed up. One or two networks picked it up; it was in over 100 newspapers around the world. It just caught fire. We never could have planned that. That got us a lot of attention. Like 20 years later, this woman comes up to me, first one that admitted she was there. I said, “Bless your heart for believing us.”
She wasn’t mad?
I think it took her 20 years to get over it.
Can you remember the call letters you’ve announced?
Probably, because I put all the bumper stickers into a frame. I was fired seven times and hired eight. Nah. Just about though.
You once broadcast for 222 hours and 22 minutes straight (then a Guinness world record). What offers a better hallucination: staying on the air that long or going to a Bob Dylan show?
That 222 hours thing was a very unusual, unforgettable, unique, strange experience. After a couple of days, when you wake up, you’re still sleeping. You don’t come out of it, even when you’re awake. In a certain way, it is like a Dylan concert in the sense that the experience changes you. I was going through a divorce at the time, and I wanted to show somebody I could do the impossible. It didn’t work, but we’re still good friends.
Will you ever fully retire?
Are you more in love with music or with radio?
Only when I can’t do it anymore. I always tell these guys, “I need a canary in the coal mine.” Because I want to know before anybody else does if it’s not working any more. I don’t want to be a burden or not be as effective as I could. People can be nice and say, “You’re sounding good,” and you’re not. I don’t want that to happen. Hopefully I’ll know. It is getting harder to carry the vinyl up the steps these days.
Oh, music. I mean, radio is an incredible vehicle to play the music on. It’s an intimate, warm means of communication. It’s personal. People that come up to me, I think they’re a little shy. They shouldn’t be because it completes a circuit. So radio is a great medium, but the music is what’s important.