MilMag Interview: Kristin Brey Says Put Down the Rage Juice

Kristin Brey is back home to make you laugh, demystify politics and policy and wean talk radio audiences off of intentional inflammation.

“I believe in doing hard things. And I I think if I was doing something that was easier, I would get bored.”

It’s hard to see Kristin Brey becoming bored anytime soon. The 36-year-old creator and host of “As Goes Wisconsin” is working on what seems a Sisyphian task in these divided times: Turning down the temperature of political discourse in our state. 

Brey is a Madison native who returned to Wisconsin in 2020 after two decades on the coasts pursuing acting and a nearly accidental tech career. While holed up in her parents’ home in Wisconsin Rapids during the early pandemic, she turned a fledgling interest in short video explainers of news topics on her home state. Think John Oliver meets Charlie Berens. 

The concept caught on, and by last fall Brey had moved to Milwaukee and parlayed “As Goes Wisconsin” into a host of part-time gigs: a weekly guest spot on “The Steve Scaffidi Show” on WTMJ-AM, a regular video column for the Journal Sentinel and hosting “Connect MKE” on WVTV (CW18). 


 

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In June she left WTMJ to bring “As Goes Wisconsin” to The ‘Sha, a talk station that more squarely aligns with her center-left politics and is part of a growing network of similar stations called Civic Media.   

That sounds like a busy summer, even without the wedding planning. In August she married Michael Sampson, an entrepreneur who currently owns Swarmm Events, which puts on the Shamrock Shuffle bar crawl, and who finished sixth of seven candidates in the spring mayoral primary. (She has a zinger for that.) 

Our mid-September conversation was punctuated with a round of beers and plenty of laughs.  


As Goes Wisconsin” airs from noon to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday on 540 AM, The ‘Sha (WAUK). 


Let’s start with the mission statement of As Goes Wisconsin. What is this all about? 

I feel like humor, especially when it’s not mean-spirited, can lower the temperature of these conversations while the talk shows and the rhetoric is just so angry. The goal really is to create a media, whether it’s social media or the radio show, that is using humor to talk about Wisconsin news in a way that is certainly opinionated, but not so partisan that if you listen to it and you don’t agree with what I’m saying, you would say, “This is not for me. I’m not gonna listen to this.” 

I’m not sure anyone would listen to me and think that I’m not pretty left. The goal is less about finding the middle than it is talking about things in a way that is less blaming, less finger-pointing.

Why is this your passion? 

I love smart comedians, who make complicated things less complicated, who use humor to explain things. I think there’s a lot of power in that as far as reaching people who otherwise might find this stuff boring. I did two stories today: One was an update on the nursing strike, and the other was this FCC thing that’s fallen through to get more broadband in different parts of Wisconsin. It becomes very easy to focus on the low-hanging fruit of the headlines: Ron Johnson did this, Mandela Barnes did that, Joe Biden did this – Political things that aren’t that consequential but make headlines, vs. 80,000 families that thought they were potentially going to get broadband, not getting it. And the reason they’re not gonna get it is because of some murkiness between the FCC denying approval to a broadband company that had won. So it’s like, how do you talk about that, and not make you fall asleep? It’s what John Oliver does so well.

So there’s, like, a journalistic soul here, even if it comes across more as entertainment in some ways. 

I think that is true. It’s OK to just do things for the pure entertainment, like doing just standup comedy. I love making people laugh. But I really love the blend of presenting information in an entertaining way. Because I like learning and stuff, right? I’m not an expert in anything. I like the challenge of repackaging information and I like this sense of feeling like I’m helping. 

There’s always been a part of me that is a ham and likes to be on stage and likes to have a certain amount of attention and entertain people. But it is a balance between that and wanting to do something that actually matters. It that means a lot to me is when I get a comment like I helped them vote for the first time, or I gave them information that they feel like no one was talking about this story, and we talked about it. That matters more than, I made you laugh. That’s also great, but it comes back to wanting to do stuff that matters and I think the avenue to do that, I like having humor involved in it. 

When I came back to Wisconsin, I realized that there are just less people who are doing that here. Moneywise, it may not make sense to ever have a show like “The Daily Show” that’s just for Wisconsin because the market’s not big enough. So to go on The Mic and do the thing that I think is really fun and creative in my home state, a place where a lot of people appreciate it, it feels great.

Your resume reads like someone trying to find the right outlet for this kind of world view and the right channel to create this content that doesn’t really exist. Is that fair? 

I don’t know. I grew up performing. I knew I wanted to be an actress, so I moved to LA, and soon realized – especially then because it was kind of before YouTube started to become a thing – how much other people were in charge of your success to a certain extent. Like, you could work hard, you could be talented, but even just getting cast in something, that something then being successful – it’s largely out of your hands. It’s the director, it’s the marketing, the producers. No matter how good an actor you are – if the show was a hit or not, if the show gets picked up or not – it’s not really up to you. 

And so realizing how out of control you were in your life, I was like, maybe this isn’t what I want to do. So then when I was around 20 I started going to a community college in Santa Monica. And I was good at school, and I really had never thought about doing anything besides being an actor, and all of a sudden the world kind of opened up. So then I transferred to Berkeley to do this interdisciplinary studies thing combining public health, women’s studies and public policy. My senior thesis was on the effect microfinance has had on maternal mortality. And I thought that I was gonna work for, like, International Planned Parenthood and help with family planning in different countries, stuff like that. And then as I got closer to graduation, I was like, I don’t want to go to law school, I don’t want to get my masters of public health. So I just decided to go get a job in tech, because at least I would have some business skills. It was kind of like taking a local job. I never was interested in tech, it was more what I liked about the jobs – managing people, especially young people who were just coming out of school and largely felt as lost as I did. And I was good at it. I kept getting promoted or getting more money or poached into a different company. 

I worked in tech for like seven years, until I was 31, and when I quit it became, like, where do I fit? Because I liked the entertainment side, but I didn’t want to be an actor. And so that’s why I like standup kind of felt like it could be a right fit. I taught myself how to make the videos. I felt like I was onto something with short-form content with my show before “As Goes Wisconsin,” which was called “Below the Fold.” And then I had this idea for a documentary, which was ridiculous because I had never made a documentary, but I went home to try to film enough interviews to get a trailer to try to raise money to film the rest of the thing. And that was March of 2020. I came home, everything shut down. Since I had been making the short videos, I just pivoted and made the short videos about Wisconsin and for the first time, like they started taking off immediately versus everything I made prior to that. So all of a sudden I’m making funny political content in Wisconsin, and there were people who wanted it. Right away I got a grant to keep doing it for the rest of the year, and as that momentum came, it just became obvious that there was something here. I didn’t want to go back and do the grind in LA or New York anymore.

And now “As Goes Wisconsin” has become a radio show. How does that tool of talk radio fit into that mission? 

Well, I think what’s exciting right now is there is a home for it – and really, now I know what it actually is. And we can still, ideally, make content on top of just the radio show. But it felt like a vehicle that was more tangible than just, “What do I want to make today?” and it’s in a format that more people recognize. I never wanted to just be politics. “As Goes Wisconsin” started out around voting, but I try to have a mission of informing people. I think like a magazine or newspaper, we kind of need to talk about sports, we kind of need to talk about the feel-good stories. That’s different than what would be possible doing just the short video. As Civic Media is acquiring radio stations across the state to have this network of actually trying to tell stories across media markets, that feels a little bit more like you’re bringing people together. Like, listeners in Wisconsin Rapids may not necessarily hear about some of the stories in Milwaukee, so they have a judgment on the stereotype of Milwaukee. But they could listen to the show and feel like, “Oh, that’s something I can relate to,” and vice versa. An audience Milwaukee can hear more about like cranberry farmers in Wood County.

Modern talk radio is not exactly known for being a great forum for exchanging ideas. Were you wary coming into it? 

I wasn’t, because Civic Media is in the fortunate situation of having a long financial runway, so we can focus on being mission-based instead of immediately having to seek profit. And that vision is that politics has become super nationalized, and the way that you can lower the temperature is like talking more about local issues. It’s kind of, I think, taking radio back to where it was before conservative talk radio. Like, you have local stations that have talk shows, some high school football-type shows, things like that. So often in the media race, on both sides, there’s money in firing people up and getting them addicted to that rage juice. What I am excited about is I feel like there is room right now to not have to do that. There’s less of a feeling of any kind of top-down pressure to be a certain way. 

So, is this progress toward that metaphor of lower-temperature kind of conversations about public issues? 

I think so. I mean, it’s yet to be seen – it’s still pretty new. I’m still trying to figure it out, and everything’s growing. It’s like working in a startup right now, we’re adding stations all over the state. Things are turning on, the next step is getting people to actually listen. 

Thinking about the big picture, can this problem of polarization be solved? 

Yeah, I honestly do. Because I think there is exhaustion on both sides. And I do think that there’s a way to bring light to issues, talk about things from both sides and not hate each other. But maybe I’m just an optimist.

Your first take on this kind of content had a newspaper reference in the name: “Below the Fold.” There’s a little bit of that front-page approach to “As Goes Wisconsin” too, right?

What I want “As Goes Wisconsin” to be is definitely news and politics and places for candidates and politicians to come talk about stuff that’s happening. Also sports, also feel-good stuff like our Wisconsin in the Wild segments when Wisconsin shows up in pop culture. To be fair, doing a daily show with just Wisconsin news, there are slow Tuesdays where it’s like, we could talk about stuff that happened and it’s like “Is this interesting? I don’t know. It happened, it’s in Wisconsin,” instead of the low-hanging fruit of being another show that just talks about national politics. If we do talk about the national topics, it’s like, how does it relate back to Wisconsin? 

So far all of the guests – politicians, candidates for public office – you’ve had on your show so far have been Democrats. You describe the show and your leanings as center-left, but the guests haven’t really represented that so far. 

Jane [Matenaer, producer of “AGW”] has reached out to everyone. Everyone we get on, we are certainly reaching out to their opponent. No one has said they would come on yet. They just haven’t even responded to us. And I am actively trying to find center-right and conservative voices who want to come on the show and just talk. I know my bias; my circle of people that I have met since moving back to Wisconsin tend to have a certain politics. But I would like to have more voices on there than just left – moderate, center-right, even conservative. Not necessarily conspiracy theorists, short of that. 

It’s a challenge, not just for me, but for the Journal Sentinel, for journalists in general, for professors. We played a clip today, Ron Johnson was like, the left has infiltrated everything – laws, college, religion. If you subscribe to that mindset, that you can’t trust any of our institutions because they’re run by people who think you’re wrong, then why would you ever play there? It’s the responsibility of media outlets to tell the truth, but how do you tell the truth when that is isolating to a certain segment – and that segment is the most important to reach? This is beyond our startup radio show. 

When I was on with Steve – who’s definitely more conservative, although he’s looking more and more moderate these days – our dynamic was really fun. Boomer/millennial, male/female,  righter/lefter. And yet, we had so much fun together, a really good rapport. Their loss that they didn’t double down on that more, because I think that’s an example of what could happen. We don’t always have to agree about everything, but I learn a lot from talking to people that I don’t agree with. Sometimes I read things and it’s like, how does this make sense to anyone else? And to be able to talk to some who can explain calmly why this makes sense to them, I think it’s beneficial for more people to hear that conversation. The show that Steve does is not a scorched-earth show. I think that is why he and I have become such good friends, because he feels like I do, that there is middle ground, there are both sides. 

I didn’t spend enough time there to find my voice, like how I wanted to frame things there knowing that the audience is a click to the right of me. And, I wasn’t sure, am I the quintessential token liberal on here that is the punching bag, or are they actually invested in, interested in having more women on, more younger people, more left? So I think I never really knew how to present myself. There were times where I would hesitate and think, how do I want to say this? And then sometimes I had a knee jerk reaction, I would just say it. But yeah, had I not gotten this opportunity and spent more time there, I might have figured out my place. I sometimes got texts like “Kristin is a libtard,” and it is intimidating to have real-time feedback from a faceless audience who’s telling you how wrong you are, even though there’s thousands more people listening who are agreeing with you, they’re just not texting. I think that’s what I keep going back to whether it’s my show, social media, the media in general: There are a lot of people who are listening and paying attention, just consuming and not contributing.

I think a lot of people still listen to TMJ in general; a lot of people grew up with it, who would just have it on in the car. They have the morning news, they have the afternoon news, a lot of the sports, and then for their talk shows they have Jeff [Wagner] and Steve. A lot of people who text in sound really right. I think I had people who would tell me that they heard me on there who are certainly not. One of my favorite stories is, Mike and I were leaving Boone & Crockett, walking across the street to our car, and all of a sudden I hear “Kristin Brey!” And I turn around and it’s these two women, my age or maybe a little bit younger. They’ve just gotten off the Pedal Tavern, so they’re hammered. I don’t have my glasses or contacts in, so I’m like, do I know them? And now I can tell they’re getting very nervous that I’m walking over to them and they were not expecting that because I think maybe they just called my name wondering if it was actually me. And I say hi and they’re like, “We listen to you every morning, I follow you on social media, like I love you, blah blah blah. We grew up listening to WTMJ, we don’t really agree with a lot that is said there, but we still listen.” And I thought that was so interesting, and it also showed the power radio still has in Wisconsin. A lot of people in Wisconsin still listen to radio, whether that’s the legacy of WTMJ or just kind of the habits in general. 

What do the texts and calls look like now, on your show? 

Literally on my drive over here, I was stopped at a red light and I went to my phone and I had a random person who just Facebook DMd the “As Goes Wisconsin” Facebook page, saying, like, “I just found your show. I feel like you do such a great job. And I feel like I kind of found a new home with what to listen to,” and stuff like that. That’s always great because sometimes talking into a radio mic is the most delayed gratification I’ve ever had. Because like with standup, you know immediately: Was this funny or not? And even with social media, it gets posted, people like it, people share it, people comment – there is a dopamine hit that happens a lot faster of, is this resonating? Vs. the radio right now, as we’re building an audience who is motivated to engage with us in real time, it’s a lot of me talking to Jane. But it doesn’t mean people aren’t listening, and I have to remind myself that.

At some point when I was listening, you said that you were going to lengths to explain the show’s website was going to have links to some links some of the stories you were talking about, and that’s really different than just whipping up your audience and then punching out for the day. You really go out of your way to give people resources, like, please read the story. Because one criticism of broadcast is that it can be in one ear and out the other; oftentimes there’s no record of what you said.

The New York Times did an article about this – that the space that the most egregious “Democrats cheat” rants is happening and like continuation of that is on talk radio. It’s these small, or sometimes big, stations that just put it into the ether, and there’s no one fact-checking that in real time. And people are listening and then callers call in and they repeat what they’ve heard. And as a host are you going to fact-check callers who are not necessarily right? No. My biggest fear is saying something very confidently and being very wrong. And it’s also about giving credit where credit’s due because I am not a firsthand reporter. Everything I do largely is a reaction to or a resharing of a repackaging of the actual reporting. So by potentially getting getting traffic and attention to my original source, that makes me feel a little better – that I’m not just stealing people’s shit. 

Do you every feel kind of like Sisyphus pushing the boulder here at all? 

I believe in doing hard things. And I I think if I was doing something that was easier, I would get bored. There’s a great Ira Glass quote, and I’m gonna butcher it in this moment, but it’s all about your talent catching up with your taste. Anyone who ever tries to do creative media work, or any type of creative work, you got into it because you have very good taste. And you have this vision of what it’s going to read like or sound like or look like. But when you’re first starting out, it doesn’t look like that, or sound like that. And you’re really hard on yourself because you have good taste. And it takes doing the work to have your talent catch up with your taste. And I think where we’re at right now with the show – and creating the content on top of the show – we’re definitely there. And I also think we’re fulfilling the vision of creating a network of radio stations across Wisconsin that balances out conservative talk radio spin with accurate, real information. That is not an easy thing to do, and so in days where you can only see like the litany of things [pauses] like, my brain goes to all of the tasks that need to get done and wanting to replicate myself so that like one of me can focus on just the show, the other me can book the guests and edit the video content and write the blog post and do the other things. So when all you can see is the big picture, sometimes it feels like a big boulder, and then you step back and you’re like, I just have to get through tomorrow. It’s like balancing those two things: Just doing a good show tomorrow while knowing what it could be and, like, hiring the right people and working toward this bigger vision of what could be something great. 

Last fall was a weird time because I was doing my videos trying to piecemeal together money, and then within basically a month I had a meeting with (Journal Sentinel editor) George Stanley, [WTMJ general manager] Steve Wexler and [WVTV CW18 Creative Services Manager) Steve Garczynski, and all of them happened, part time. All of a sudden I had a radio, TV and like print/social media thing. It certainly is a lot. 

Where are we at on the issue of equality and representation of women in the spaces you work in – radio and media generally but also politics?

It’s hard because by working part time at the Journal Sentinel and as a fill-in on TMJ, those were the only traditional media companies that I’ve worked for. So much of what I’ve experienced is self-taught. I just started doing shit and someone liked it. And so opportunities opened up. And so I don’t want to speak for women who have gone up the ranks and done a more traditional media path. But almost everything I’ve ever worked in is a male-dominated industry. And, at least for myself, I always felt heard or at least I felt like I could charm my way or didn’t really take it personally if someone talked over me, I just talked over them louder. I don’t know if it’s media, I don’t know if it’s local media, but there’s certainly still misogyny there. And I think it comes back to hiring and hiring managers. Because I think there is still something to be said that you hire people that you like, you hire people that you connect to. When you project what you want this person to be like, when you’re interviewing, and it’s a small version of you, it’s a lot easier to be like, “Yeah, I want this guy.” Especially in media, because if you have everyone who kind of looks the same in the room when you’re deciding what stories to do, what people to bring on, and there’s no one to push back, especially with no authority to push back, on maybe we should cover this. And so I think it comes back to hiring and hiring in positions of power, so that there is someone in the room to think about this. It comes back to having people with a diverse background and diverse view of the world to try to get more diverse people hired and also better select the stories that are being told.

How do you see this election shaping up? 

Well, we’ve already seen, it’s so negative. I don’t even watch that much basic cable, but it’s even on Hulu and everything. You can’t be in a swing state and escape it. I think the unknown is how much women, especially Republican women, will care about where we are in the state and access to health care. I think that there are a lot more Republican women who may still vote, but I think there’s some who may not. Because I think that is a bigger deal, especially in this state. Like, I went looking at the map at Old World Wisconsin, all these excavated buildings that have existed for 200 years, to find a building that was as old as the abortion ban. I wanted to make the joke but I never posted it: This is what the buildings looked like when this law was made. I only found one: an 1840 Finnish farmhouse.

How’s it holding up? 

It’s still there, but it’s very small! I’ve been in Wisconsin long enough to know that to make any kind of predictions about Wisconsin politics is a stupid thing to do because it’s always really close and it’s about turnout. And it’s not an unrealistic thing to think that there’s a world where Ron Johnson and Tony Evers win. 

You’ve been here in Milwaukee for two years now. Was there a moment where you were like, OK, I am a Milwaukeean now?

This is like a really cliche, bandwagon answer. But it’s when the Bucks won. There was something so special about last summer and that emotional buildup. Like, whether it should have or not, the mask mandate ended, the Nets series started and all of a sudden we were all released into the wild for the first time in over a year. Mike and I watched maybe two games at home; like, we were out there watching it. We got to go to one game in each series, including game 6 when they actually won it. 

You were there? You are a true Milwaukeean!

Yeah, it was the commitment that we made and how much I felt it, but I think it was also how much I absorbed of Milwaukee, because I hadn’t been here a year yet. And so I completely get it if someone calls me a bandwagon fan. That’s fine. I’ve heard it. But there was something about last summer in the grit and underdog-ness of Milwaukee and people who live here and like how much people outside of Milwaukee talk shit about Milwaukee, whether it’s in the state or out of the state, and how there’s so much cool stuff that’s happening here that’s not on anyone’s radar, right? And so there was something about the team – it was just like, this. Is. Awesome. I don’t want to live anywhere else. And so I don’t know if I can fully claim I am a Milwaukeean yet, but I will go hard for this city. I chose it. There was something about Milwaukee, between the diversity between the vibe that was here, there was just something that felt like this is where I’m supposed to be. The joke that I usually say was, well I figured if I couldn’t meet anyone in Milwaukee I could always date guys in Chicago. 

OK, shifting gears a bit here. Tell me about your now-husband’s mayoral run. 

He has a pretty thick skin about it. He always wanted to try to run, he saw it as a great opportunity. I think he realized that to run in such a big campaign, he needed a lot more money and a lot more people and a lot more of a strategy. But I think everything he wanted to get out of it he did, as far as, like, Chevy’s number. He’s talking to him and Lafayette and a lot of these people. He’s now part of the conversation, and I think his opinions are heard in a different way. He genuinely cares about Milwaukee and cares about the service industry specifically in Milwaukee and sees things and actually wants them to be better. I’m sure people assume that he’s running out of ego, and he really wasn’t. I think that’s why I married him, right? He wants to be part of the solution and help create things for the city. And yeah, he has a very good sense of humor about it, that he can get 10,000 people to show up for a bar crawl, but he could barely get 500 people to vote for him.

What were some lessons that you took from your time in Hollywood? 

With that, and the tech jobs and sales, or just trying new things like this, I think the biggest lesson is hearing no and getting up and doing it again. From 2003 to 2007 I probably went on 600 auditions. I booked like eight.  

Wow. How do you go to the 599th? 

Having an agent and a manager, they’re consistently booking commercials. So you’re not doing the legwork of cold-calling, trying to get yourself in the room. So if you do have that, I took that part for granted. I was working as a hostess in a sushi restaurant. But if you tell me a movie that was filmed and cast and put out between 2003 and 2007, I probably auditioned for it. Sin City, “One Tree Hill,” “Friday Night Lights.” I auditioned for “Skin,” which was Olivia Wilde’s first role. On “Friday Night Lights,” I was originally submitted for the sweet quarterback’s girlfriend who actually was cheating on him. But I felt like that character wasn’t very interesting, so I asked to go in for Tanya, who was sluttier and edgier. And I got called back and read more for it, and the feedback to my manager was like, she’s just really good, we just don’t buy her as being slutty enough for this. So I’m like, thank you? A lot of times I was too tall, a lot of times I didn’t look young enough because like I was 16 and I looked 22. And so I think that was a big thing of being told no and just being like OK, on to the next one.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s November issue.

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)