An interview with Michael Feldman
by Victoria Straughn
When did you get started with WORT?
Let’s see, what year is this? 1978 was the first year I was involved. I came here from Kenosha and was teaching school at Malcom Shabazz [an alternative high school in Madison] . It was Christmas time and I was pretty depressed … my annual Christmas depression. I volunteered at WORT, and they said I could deliver the Back Porch Pilot. So I didn’t. I came back a couple months later. I had made some tapes, some random interviews, on the [Union] Terrace and stuff, and I brought those around. I don’t know why, but I thought I’d get on air and it turned out I did get on.
I started filling in on Friday nights on a call-in show. When the woman doing the show left town, I started doing her show. We called it “Thanks for Calling” and people would call in. It was Friday night… anyone who didn’t have a date, was bed-ridden, or had serious psychosocial disorders was home. They’d call in looking for advice and get me instead.
I used to hang around with Jeff Schultz and go on his show. Jeff had a very idiosyncratic show. He was the guy who threatened to shoot a dog during a fund drive, and he actually had his dog there, but I don’t think he had a gun. You could hear the chain rattling and the dog panting and he actually said he was going to shoot the dog unless people called in. And Tom Kinney’s show, “Dark End of the Street,” … I used to go and hang around. This consisted of getting Jim Beam and a bunch of beer and passing it around the studio and playing “dead musicians.” Tom had this thing for anybody that was dead. If they were alive they didn’t get on the air.
How did your show at Dolly’s Restaurant start?
I was born in controversy. Jeff Lange was the program director at that time. They had this early morning situation where you had a different person each day doing a different type of music. He had this idea, a little mainstream for a lot of the people there, that they should have one host doing a morning show. He thought I’d be good doing it, and I said I’d do it, but I needed people around, some kind of an audience … otherwise I wouldn’t react at all. I suggested we do it from Dolly’s Restaurant, which was open all night and all day … all ways. That’s how it started.
What are some of your best memories from Dolly’s and which years were those?
It was about two years, 1979 and ’80, that I was there, before quitting on the air. I played Elvis Costello’ “Clown Time is Over. ‘
Tell a little more about that.
Start at the end and move backward?
What was happening at the station was … well, they were called the “Gang of Four,” but they had these plans to move WORT from Winnebago Street to the Civic Center. They were going to compete with Wisconsin Public Radio in broadcasting cultural events, the city/county meetings, and be an all-news kind of thing, which no one knew about except them. We had just gone through this fund raising and it was quite successful. It just kept grating on me more and more that this was happening and no one knew about it. And, I had my own kind of personality differences with some of the people involved. And I was young, I was still young then … idealistic -“I cannot work for these people anymore!” So, I quit. It never really occurred to me that you shouldn’t quit on air. You know, it kind of affects your future. I started driving a cab then, which was good because I learned how to make change and find street addresses.
There was controversy about opening the ”Breakfast Special” position to new hire. What was that about?
I had worked for a year. The show was from 6-9 in the morning at Dolly’s, and I felt like I was working in a restaurant, basically. It was fun, but I wasn’t getting paid. I thought, this is a job–five days a week. At the time they were only paying staff. No one on the air was paid. It was considered an anti-socialist gesture. So I said I’d like to be paid, at least something. So they set it up where I had to apply for my own job and I almost didn’t get it. They really didn’t want me because I wasn’t a “Company Man,” you know. They had their own people they wanted to do it, people more to their liking. But, because of the public and it was pretty much my show, they had to grudgingly let me have it. I got paid like half-time salary. I forget what it was … a pittance … not really a lot of money. It was quite controversial.
Do you have any recollections of any outrageous moments–other than the one I remember when there was a tornado about to hit in the area and you put a glass of water at the intersection of Baldwin and Willy Streets, hoping to “catch” the tornado because they tend to strike near water?
Did I do that? I don’t remember putting out a glass of water to catch a tornado … that’s pretty good. Well, Dolly’s was fun. The first hour of the show was all free association because I was still asleep, or high from the night before. A lot of people were still there from overnight, including the street people, because St. Vincent’s had the “Villa de St. Vincent’s” down there, the flophouse. So a lot of the street guys would spend the night there. And a lot of them worked there, which accounted for the silverware. Even the coffee had grease in it. You know what they did at Dolly’s? They took the potatoes from their Middleton restaurant; the potatoes that didn’t get sold became the french fries at Dolly’s. They were like “twice-baked,” twice-fried.
There was a guy working in the kitchen … I think he’d been in the Navy … he washed dishes. I was broadcasting behind the jukebox. For the first 6 months everyone thought I was just another guy talking to himself, so no one paid any attention to me. Then, finally, I brought a speaker so they could actually hear that we were doing a radio show, and people began to understand what I was doing there. I was right behind the jukebox and there was an incident. I don’t know if it was the deaf-mute guy trying to smash the jukebox, because he resented it.. he’d come in and go crazy because he couldn’t hear the jukebox … and he was a giant, about 7 feet tall. It may have been that guy. Anyhow, some incident occurred and the guy from the kitchen came out while I was on the air. I was sitting there at a little table; I don’t know if I had a guest or not, and this fight erupted. The dishwasher had the guy in a headlock, trying to pull him out the door. The guy grabbed the jukebox and was pulling the whole thing out, and they were wrestling and he was getting seriously pounded, and I said, “And the temperature is 73 degrees.” That was the stuff that happened at Dolly’s. It was an absolutely unique place, sociologically speaking.
The first hour the drunks and insomniacs, were there. The second hour, the student population started coming in before class … and other people. The third hour, special interest groups would come in, like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Women Against Rape, trying to get on the air. I couldn’t say “no.” It actually got quite annoying after a while, because I’m not interested in public service, per sc. I’m not here to … you know, “What’s your group?” They’re all worthy groups, I’m sure. It was kind of interesting for that reason, quite a cross-section.
What were your happiest moments at WORT?
I just had a lot of fun. That show was almost entirely spontaneous. We used to have a guy come on the air, an old black gentleman, who sang these old bawdy songs, alternating with religious songs, depending what mood he woke up in.
And Renate (German waitress at Dolly’s] was always fun … pretty outrageous. We would go through the language thing: she still had problems with some words and so I made it Michael Feldman worse. You know, that’s my job -to make it harder for people-especially with disabilities. And she would go off on tangents. One time she went off on an abortion tangent. It was a little heavier than necessary, about women using vacuum cleaners to give themselves abortions. “All right, Renate. It’s 7:42 a.m., time for the farm report.” We didn’t actually have a farm report.
My mother used to come all the time to be on the air. She’d take phone calls and give bad advice from “Your Jewish Mother.” I used to love it when Mom came.
We had Jerry Brown come in one time when he was running for President. And Francis Ford Coppola came on the show .. .I hadn’t seen “Apocalypse Now” and I asked him what it was about. It was the Brown campaign. They had a day on the Square for the Brown Campaign, where they had helicopters and lasers and it all bombed. They tried to do an Apocalypse Now Presidential thing for him and use all this technology. But none of it worked. Jerry Brown came in and we did this little interview and he got up and left without paying for his coffee. And the waitress chased him out the door onto the street to make him pay. And she got it.
And Soglin used to come on once in awhile.
Were there unhappy times? A saddest moment?
The unhappiest part was at the end, a lot of pressure.
And there was a big controversy about the Press Connection (an alternative daily newspaper, born out of the newspaper workers’ strike against the Wisconsin State journal and The Capital Times) when they ran that anti-abortion ad. Someone came in, opened up the paper and started talking about it. We started getting all these phone calls and it became an uproar. The Station got real upset with me because I wasn’t handling it through the news department, in a “news way,” you know. I was advocating that this shouldn’t have been in there. It was absolutely exhausting; it went on for days. You know, the things at WORT just grind you down. Everyone has their say, and you’re tired of talking about it; no one has changed their point of view. The things like that kind of wear you down.
Did you learn anything from your involvement at WORT? How did it affect your career?
It made my career possible. I would never have been in radio without WORT. You just don’t walk into a commercial station and start broadcasting, and the few commercial stations I’ve walked into, I’ve been let out.
I was at WGN [in Chicago] for a while. That didn’t work out. They teamed me up with a woman and we hated each other after Day One. So, yes, it made it entirely possible. It was kind of a fluke. I learned that I could do it, that was the main thing, and that I enjoyed doing it. It seemed to fit my personality. And, I had a chance to do it. That’s really unheard of … a chance to do radio. It really is invaluable.
Do you have any closing comments for WORT on its 25th birthday?
Yes, what a long strange trip it’s been! I had my ups and downs with the organization. It’s amusing that the same things keep occurring, so this is probably inevitable, and probably good for any organization that’s at least quasi-community. With public radio, the public doesn’t have much to do with it. They’re pretty removed from it. But with WORT, they still do. So, I think those difficulties that come every few years, the leadership crises, who’s running this, and where are we going, the station’s going to go under. It’s probably inevitable. But it’s pretty remarkable that they’ve been on the air this long and continue to thrive. It’s a good thing.
Victoria Straughn interviewed Michael Feldman in 2000 as part of WORT’s 25th Anniversary.