MilMag Interview with 88Nine Executive Director Kevin Sucher

A year after taking over the top job at 88Nine, Kevin Sucher reflects on his career and the local music scene.

Starting a new job is never easy. You have to learn the ins and outs of the role, while also navigating the murky waters of office politics. But that’s not all that Kevin Sucher has had to deal with since he became executive director of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee last April.

88Nine, or WYMS, the much-loved nonprofit radio station, has been around in one form or another since the 1970s. First, as an outlet for mainstream jazz. And more recently, as an eclectic station that plays everything from classic rock to contemporary indie pop and hip-hop. Under the leadership of Mary Louise Mussoline, the executive director from 2009 to 2016, the organization purchased a building in Walker’s Point and expanded both its programming and its civic engagement efforts. And Glenn Kleiman, Sucher’s predecessor, burnished the organization’s reputation as a champion of local musicians.

Sucher says that he intends to work closely with the board of directors to continue to shine a light on local artists while advancing the station’s mission “to make 88Nine a catalyst for creating a better, more inclusive and engaged Milwaukee.” He also intends to use his insider knowledge of the recording industry to ensure that Milwaukee becomes more widely known as a first-rate music city.

MILMAG: Let’s start with the most important question: You perform in a yacht rock tribute band?

SUCHER: It’s such an incredible part of my life. My wife and I are in a band called The Docksiders, which is based out of Milwaukee. But we play all over the country.

Did you meet your wife, Erin, through the band?

We met at a show 20 years ago. It was an acoustic trio that I played in every Thursday night, and she was in the audience.

We asked people in the audience what songs they wanted to hear, and we would fake our way through them even if we didn’t know how to play them. It was this kind of musical comedy act, and she didn’t know that she was a mark. So every time she yelled out “Play ‘Blister in the Sun’” I would play Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” instead.

She started getting frustrated after, like, the third time. She yelled at me from the audience, and I said “Hey, big mouth, if you think this is so easy, why don’t you come up here and play?” And she stood up and sat next to me at my piano. When she started singing, my jaw hit the ground.

 

 

Obviously, music is a huge part of your personal life. And it’s been a big part of your professional life for a long time, too. Because you don’t just make music, or work with other people who make it. You also produce it.

I got into the engineering side of music when the technology became a little bit more affordable and people could start making recordings, not necessarily just in a recording studio, but at home. I invested in some equipment and really dove into developing my skills as an engineer, as a producer, and as a mixer.

It’s probably my favorite part of what it is that I do.

What other jobs have you held in the industry?

I learned the tour manager business a little bit later in my story and traveled the world as a tour manager, and then as an artist manager, too. So I’ve worn a lot of hats.

And now, for the last year, you’ve been the executive director of 88Nine. What interested you in the job?

I kept coming back to the fact that I had done a lot of work outside of Wisconsin for a large portion of my professional career. We lived both in L.A. and in Milwaukee, because I have two children from a previous marriage here, and I really always wanted to be around them as much as

I could. So I had this connective tissue to Milwaukee, but all of my business was in Los Angeles or in the U.K. or Asia.

I’ve always felt like Milwaukee is on the verge of this amazing renaissance, and I said to my wife, “You know, maybe I could take some of what I learned outside of Milwaukee and see if I could be a change agent and a part of what’s going on here in our community.” I’ve always been a mission-driven person. I’ve always asked the artists that I represented to find a charitable alignment. I feel that if you’re a creative person, especially if you’ve reached a certain level of success, you should find a way to use your voice and your actions for good.

What was the application process like?

It was really challenging. My first interview was last February, and in person. I felt like a bit of an underdog, because I had no nonprofit experience and came from the for-profit world. But I felt like I had the ability to adapt and do what was necessary for the organization. I felt it was my responsibility through the interviewing process to explain that about me and talk through how I’ve adapted in other situations.

The third interview was with leadership, which was a really interesting challenge. I got to meet the seven leaders, the different department heads of the organization, who got to ask their own questions of some of the final candidates. And I love that about the board, that they really wanted input from leadership as to who they thought would be a great fit for the role and the responsibilities. And thankfully, they saw something in me.

Photo by Aliza Baran

Were you able to accomplish everything you hoped to during your first year? Or did the pandemic throw a bit of a wrench in your plans?

With the pandemic, there was a lot of triage that needed to happen. There was a lot of figuring out, “How do we level off? How can we stop taking on massive amounts of water and return to a place where we can do our best work?”

And there were other challenges. The murder of George Floyd. We are very much a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, as an organization.

Then there was the election. As a media organization, we wanted to take a nonpartisan look into how we could help promote democracy and try to get out the vote, all while dealing with the pandemic and trying to figure out how to successfully transition disc jockeys that are reliant on being around technology and equipment to working in their homes, and transitioning our in-person events into virtual ones.

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems as if the organization has continued to thrive.

I’m incredibly proud of how our team responded to the adversity of the pandemic. They did it with grace and they did it with an openness and willingness to try new things. And, quite honestly, our supporters and our sustainers and our donors were instrumental, too.

We did go through a structural reorganization toward the end of the last year. I did everything in my power to try to retain everybody on staff as long as we could, and I feel that we did the best we could as long as we could.

Our underwriting department was devastated last year. That’s no secret. Underwriting in the non-commercial world is where companies, often bars and restaurants, get the word out about what it is that they do for the community. But their budgets dried up for on-air underwriting – that was the biggest hit that we took last year financially.

How is the organization doing now?

I think we’re in a really unique position to regrow. You know, we were so saddened to lose our longtime tenant [Stone Creek Coffee]. They were such a great partner for so many years. But we have a unique opportunity to reactivate the Stone Creek space. We’re planning to bring a unique new venture to our community room space there.

I can’t fully disclose it yet, but the idea is that we are going to create something that hopefully the community will make their own, with deeper networking possibilities. We have three pillars that we talk about here at Radio Milwaukee: online, on-air and on-site. Once all three of those pillars have returned to some sense of normalcy, and we can have meaningful programs that the community can participate in, we’ll truly feel like we’ve come out of the other side of the pandemic.

What programming are you looking forward to developing more this year?

We have this program called the 88Nine Amplifier [Editor’s note: Amplifier is a more robust reboot of 88Nine’s old incubator program, Backline, and offers a cohort of local musicians eight months of mentorship], which grants Milwaukee artists $10,000 to help further their musical career. And we’ve got some incredible mentors to help teach them about the music business. We have Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver. We have Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana’s Nevermind in the ’90s, and was in Garbage. And we have Ms. Lago, one of the most talented sound engineers on the planet.

I’ve always felt that Milwaukee is a hotbed of talent. It’s just never gotten its recognition as being a music city like Nashville or Los Angeles, or Minneapolis for that matter. So, one of my goals is to help shine a brighter light on our local music community. Because there clearly are a lot of really talented people here.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June issue.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.