First Listen: Fonz-FM Milwaukee

100.3 Fonz FM Fonz-FM 1290 WZTI MilwaukeeThere are two things to know about Fonz FM, the AM/FM-translator combo that recently rebranded from the True Oldies Channel.

The name is brilliant, prompting the sort of excited reader reaction that I last experienced during the November volley of CBS/Entercom format change. Like Tuscaloosa, Ala.’s Nick 97.5, it was the rare format change that generated TV coverage. I wish I’d come up with the name myself, but I’ve never had to launch an oldies station in the city where “Happy Days” took place.

Then, despite the name, the music is largely ‘70s with some ‘60s, which is where True Oldies Channel had evolved to as well. Fonz FM isn’t specializing in the pre-Beatles music that would have been playing at the Arnold’s Drive-In of the TV show. I’ve heard “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” but even that song could have prompted some real-life derision around the jukebox at the time.

By design, Fonz FM is for people who grew up with the TV series “Happy Days,” not the people who lived it. Because if you were a child of the ‘50s, Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” represents a time when pop music had, well, you know, gone downhill. Because I am not making a “jumped the shark” joke. Nope. Uh-uh.

That’s the nature of the format. When Oldies/Classic Hits stations counter-program, they go for the most recent era no longer being served by the mainstream Classic Hits station. Milwaukee’s very successful Classic Hits station, WRIT (Big 95.7) hasn’t backed away from the early ‘70s, or from ‘70s pop, like some stations. It still even plays a few “Come Together”/”Brown Eyed Girl”-level timeless ‘60s songs. But it also does all-‘80s hours. And it plays some provocations like Guns N’ Roses, “Paradise City” that might have bewildered any of those first-gen rock ‘n’ rollers who couldn’t get past “Light My Fire” either.

In the mid-‘00s, when the pre-Beatles format underwent a boom in the pre-FM translator era, Classic Hits FMs were moving into the early- and mid-‘70s. It was easy for a station like WSAI Cincinnati to deride its FM rival WGRR for the likes of “My Life” and “Dreams”; those were soon-to-become-powers that didn’t yet feel like good-time oldies. (Now the issue is “Walking In Memphis,” which plays on WRIT, and many other Classic Hits stations, but feels like a Soft AC record to me.)

But if a decade ago the pop ‘70s were the music being counter-programmed, they now represent counter-programming. And there is certainly an opportunity for WZTI to play them in Milwaukee, Wis. I might have named that station WZUU, for the market’s 70s CHR FM; (the AM half of the combo was, at one time, WZUU-AM, a reader notes). But the Fonz is certainly the more broadly appealing concept for non-radio geeks.

Fonzie 100.3 1290 WZTI MilwaukeeI enjoyed Fonz because it was my childhood music. I’d also be interested in a station that played first-generation rock ‘n’ roll and exploited the “Happy Days” legacy. I wasn’t there for pop music’s first decade, but neither were a lot of people watching “Happy Days.” You’d have to cherry-pick that music carefully. I looked at a top 40 survey from the original WRIT, one of Milwaukee’s two big AM rockers in 1963, and after the top two, “Louie Louie” and “Surfin’ Bird,” there are certainly songs that have disappeared for cause. But “Happy Days” covered roughly a decade. There’s plenty to pick from.

On the infinite dial, there are certainly places to hear pre-Beatles. Sirius XM ‘50s on ‘5 includes the early ‘60s and, like “Happy Days” itself (which starts in 1955), it includes the some pre-Elvis MOR and some of the holdover pre-rock music that took years to entirely spend itself out. Veteran PD Rich “Brother” Robbin’s Richbro Radio is playing “Mr. Bassman,” as I write. (Ironically, Robbins became famous helping break the music on today’s Fonz, but pre-Beatles has become his station’s calling card.)

Here’s Fonz FM in middays on March 12:

  • Abba, “Take A Chance On Me”
  • Sly & the Family Stone, “Dance to the Music”
  • Nilsson, “Without You”
  • Beatles, “Here Comes The Sun”
  • Jan & Dean, “Surf City”
  • Jim Croce, “Bad Bad Leroy Brown”
  • Ides of March, “Vehicle”
  • Wings, “Let ‘Em In”
  • Diana Ross, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
  • Starland Vocal Band, “Afternoon Delight”
  • Aaron Neville, “Tell It Like It Is”
  • Bee Gees, “Jive Talkin’”
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”
  • Steve Miller Band, “Fly Like An Eagle”
  • Chicago, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”
  • Diana Ross, “Touch Me In The Morning”
  • Elvin Bishop, “Fooled Around and Fell In Love”
  • Doobie Brothers, “Listen to the Music”
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  1. NuRoo2 says

    Interesting read as always. But I’m surprised you feel that a song as determinedly bright and upbeat as “Walking In Memphis” “feels like a Soft AC record.”

    1. Davis says

      There are plenty of adjectives one could use to describe “Walking in Memphis.” Make no mistake, however, “bright” and “upbeat” are NOT among them. That record practically defines soft AC in 2018.

  2. dr. akbar says

    On the sample hour of music, only “Surf City” and “Tell It Like It Is” represent the music played on the original Top 40 stations of Milwaukee – WOKY and WRIT. But both songs are bonafide hits from the pre Seventies era and give the station the sound and feel of an Oldies station to a generation that grew up on those songs. My hunch is those listeners will stay through the other songs, simply because their Oldies fix has been satisfied. On a side note, WRIT 13~Forty remained competitive with WOKY for probably longer than they should have. 250 watts at night on a graveyard frequency is tough when you’re going up against the Mighty Ninety~Two’s kilowatt coverage.

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