What's next for 96.5 FM after parting ways with morning show co-host Carole Caine? Duane Dudek talks with the station manager Annmarie Topel.

Both WKLH-FM (96.5) and Carole Caine should feel flattered.

The outcry, after morning show co-host Caine’s contract was not renewed, means that listeners feel strongly about both of them.

But the station believes that some of the more persistent public attacks since Caine left the station June 29 may be organized or even mounted by competitors.

There is a website called SagaWatchDog dedicated to finding fault with station owners Saga Communications. It’s unclear who is behind it.

“I can’t imagine a much more harmful move than letting your longtime morning drive heritage personality walk away from your most important station in your largest market,” read one item, about the Caine fracas. “Milwaukee is not just Saga’s largest market, it’s their largest headache.”

That’s a reference to a lawsuit against Saga after its stations here allegedly used ratings data without subscribing to what is now A.C. Nielsen. Some believe that in want-of-a-nail fashion costs related to the lawsuit settlement led to budget cuts that led to Caine’s departure.

One reader whispered in my ear that the station scrubbed a photo of Dorene Michaels, who replaced Caine as morning show news reader, wearing a Drink Wisconsibly t-shirt from the website of sister station WHQG-FM (102.9), where she worked previously.

I only mention this because Michaels has as much right to Drink Wisconsibly as you and I.

The e-mailer later wrote she was repeating things she saw on other sites.

Her lament seemed heartfelt:

“I don’t have a hidden agenda. I just really enjoyed Dave, Carole and KB and feel a loss, as pathetic as that may sound. They are my age, I’ve listened since the beginning.”

Heated comments on my blog about the topic included an accusation of manufactured identities.

And even I got caught in the guilt-by-association undertow over a banal tweet, when having my car serviced, that the dealership’s Wi-Fi wouldn’t let me stream WKLH.

The station took the dealer’s word that this never happened. I should have taken a screen shot.

The incident became such a thing it almost ended my conversation with Annmarie Topel before it began. Topel is vice president and general manager of Milwaukee Radio Group, a Saga subsidiary which operates WKLH, WHQG-FM, WJMR-FM (98.3), WNRG-FM (106.9) and WJYI-AM (1340).

So we moved on to other topics.

None of which were Caine, the 29-year WKLH veteran whose dismissal remains a no comment zone.

Caine replied to an interview request on Facebook saying:

“…Once the dust settles… If anyone is even interested then. We will see.”

Topel offered Caine an obligatory “We wish her well.”

Both sides are so adamant about not talking about Caine’s departure that it can only mean they are negotiating severance and non-compete issues as we speak.

This dark cloud of negative publicity has obscured a silver lining for the station.

WKLH has climbed a full share point in the past year and a not insignificant .3 of a point among total listeners since it rebranded itself as Hometown Rock after calling itself Classic Rock for 30 years.

Did a surging Clear Channel-owned WRIT-FM (95.7) pick up WKLH’s demographically disenfranchised older listeners? If so, that might help explain how it became the top ranked station in June.

WKLH was a still strong fifth ranked among total listeners.

“We have made changes on WKLH to grow the audience,” said Topel. “And contrary to what some are saying we didn’t get out of the classic rock arena. We shifted the music a bit more into the Eighties from the Sixties. And repackaged it to give it a fresh fun look. And it worked quite well.”

But the devil is in the demographics.

The goal was not “to lose listeners” or “ignore our fifty or sixty year old listeners” because “that’s a demo with money.”

“Our goal is to have broader appeal” and change the “texture and tempo” of the music. The music the station had been playing “didn’t provide the texture and tempo we were looking for,” Topel said.

The listenership at Saga’s hard rock WHQG is as high as 70 percent male “depending on which book that you look at,” Topel said. By comparison WKLH, she said, “has a nice balance of men and women.”

In fact in May, Caine and morning show co-host Dave Luczak had more female listeners than male. The July ratings released next month will reveal whether they stuck around following Caine’s departure.

In her absence “we do play a bit more music in the mornings,” basically to give Luczak a break, said Topel. She described Luczak, who joined the station in 1983, as the morning show’s “puppet master.”

“He is the inventor,” said Topel. “He props up everything. Pulls the best out in people. He has a certain intuitive rhythm” about whether “to go left, right or ahead. When to end a segment. Or when to let it it take its crazy course.”

Sans Caine, the morning show “is going to reinvent itself” and “grow somewhat organically.” It’s going to remain “guest intensive,” Topel said. “We’re going to allow it to kind of grow and find its footing.”

And she challenged the idea that morning radio shows are old technology.

“Local and live” is what differentiates morning local radio from streaming services or syndicated formats, Topel said. “Anybody can play music. But what separates you from the competition” is a personal connection, “and that’s where Saga makes an investment.”

“We believe,” Topel said, “in morning shows.”