Last week Friday I was fortunate to spend time in the radio booth with Sonia, who hosts “The Blues Drive” every Friday afternoon on 91.7 WMSE (“Frontier Radio, anti-established in 1981”), a radio station owned and operated by Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach.
The WMSE radio station website carries this bio page on Sonia:
Sonia is WMSE’s resident authority on the blues and blues history. She has written articles on the history of the blues and blues musicians for many magazines and brings this knowledge to her weekly playlist. Sonia has also interviewed many of the greats on her show such as BB King, Philip Walker, Taj Mahal and on and on and on. This show proves time and time again to be a unique listening experience in the living history of the blues.
I asked Sonia, “Why the blues?”
The first music she remembers listening to was her parents’ records. She heard Andrés Segovia (the Spanish virtuoso guitarist) playing Bach – “the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard” – and recognized, as a four-year-old, that “music has the ability to be sublime and cathartic for a listener.” Her brother had records from the Columbia House mail-order music club, so she listened to his music. As a teen, Sonia attended concerts at the Oriental Theater, Summerfest, and the Jazz Gallery, where she encountered acts like the Kinks and Lou Reed. And also as a teen, she heard B.B. King, whom she describes as “an ambassador” for the blues. (All of this background information, and more, can be found on the WMSE website blog feature “Get To Know Your WMSE DJ – Sonia.”)
Sonia has turned her passion for blues into an artistic outlet that has endured in Milwaukee radio for nearly 25 years.
In addition, for the past 12 years Sonia has regularly taught a course on blues music through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Continuing Education. To find new topics each time the course runs, Sonia focuses on a certain instrument (piano or harmonica, for example) or the music of a certain region (Delta blues) or gender (women of the 1920s and ’30s) or playing technique (fingerstyle blues). This past June her course was titled, “Coffeehouse Blues: The Folk Blues Revival” (Sonia’s course description is on p. 6).
During the Spring 2013 semester, Sonia will be teaching English 360: The Art of Poetry. A Voice without Restraint: The Poetry of Bob Dylan for the U.W.M. English Department, where she holds her primary teaching position.
How did Sonia get started in radio?
“I attended the University of Hawaii-Manoa from 1984 to 1987. I received a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. My Master’s thesis was a collection of short stories, entitled, What They Were Desperate For. My boyfriend at the time called to tell me that WYMS [a radio station at that time owned and operated by Milwaukee Public Schools; the call letters stand for “Your Milwaukee Schools”] was running ads for women DJs. There were very few women in radio at that time.
“I had been accepted into the Ph.D. program at New York University. But it was a very expensive school. So I thought I’d come back to Milwaukee to be a lecturer [at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee] for a year, but I was unable to go to NYU and stayed in Milwaukee. I wrote a letter to WYMS and was accepted as a DJ. There were several women at the station then. We were called the ‘blues angels.’ I played blues for a while, but I also did a Jazz show at WYMS.
“I worked with Manny Mauldin, who said that he was the first Black DJ in Milwaukee. Mannie celebrated his 50th year in radio during the time that I had my show at WYMS. We did the shows from Manny’s basement at 37th and Fond du Lac. It was damp, cold, dim. Water-damaged LPs. We had a remote set-up, recorded reel-to-reel.
“I began with 3-6 a.m.; then 2-5 a.m. From 1988-1994 I worked my way back in time from the middle of the night to evening: I worked 1-3 a.m., then 11-1 a.m., and finally 9:00 p.m. till midnight.
“While I was at WYMS, I had become friends with Jon Klotz, who went by the name J.K., who had a 9 a.m.-noon show at WMSE. He needed a sub. In 1990 he asked if I’d apply to WMSE to be a sub. I took a year, then applied in 1991. Never heard back. My application had been filed away. Tom Crawford, the station manager, finally discovered it and called me immediately.
“I went through a six-month training program, even though I already had several years of radio experience, and substituted for other disc jockeys’ shows for four and a half years before getting my own show. I subbed for Dewey’s big band show, Pamela Means and Jasper Toast’s folk shows, Hal Rammel’s twentieth-century experimental classical music show, and Jerry and Dewey’s Friday afternoon rock music shows. I was playing music from every genre. For a while I had programs at both radio stations. Saturday I was at WMSE live, 9:00 a.m. to noon. I taped my WYMS show and would hear it driving down the street Saturday night.”
It worked out well for Sonia that she was just a sub during the early 1990s, for she was presented with two opportunities to teach and live overseas. First she taught at the Malaysian Institute of Technology Shah Alam main campus from January to June 1991. Then she spent two years at Justus Liebig Universität in Giessen, Germany, from 1994-1996.
Sonia returned to Milwaukee in 1996. Back at WMSE, “Jerry could no longer do his time slot due to work commitments. I took over his show, which at the time was from 2-5 p.m.”
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During her “Blues Drive” radio show, which airs 3-6 p.m., Sonia is amazing to watch. She moves about the booth like a Zen master. She rises from her chair to find a CD on the shelf, then sits back down at the console, fluidly opening jewel cases to remove and replace CDs, pressing buttons to cue the next song – all the while talking with me, answering my questions about when she discovered the blues and how she got started in radio. She is unflappable, easily segueing from our interview conversation back into the maintenance of her show, swinging around to the microphone to tell listeners the title of a song that has just ended. Every half hour she does the weather and public service announcements.
From my seat on the other side of the desk, it is like watching ballet.
When Sonia answers phone calls on the studio line, her voice is friendly and relaxed.
Hi. . . . Oh, that’s kind of you to say. . . . Was there a song you wanted me to play? (pause) Oh, thank you . . .
So they’re getting married tonight over at the Harley-Davidson Museum? I’ll mention them shortly.
“I’ve always lived my life in service to others, so my radio show fits with my value that it is important to serve other people. I accommodate listeners, answer their questions. I try to serve musicians by being prepared for interviews and doing my homework. So it is a hobby that serves the community.
“The process is subconscious. The subconscious is important in relation to the radio. There is something that happens when you get into a flow. Your mind starts making connections, and you realize you’ve been playing songs that fit with a theme. At WYMS, once I read five books for a program that I prepared on British Blues. I was immersed in doing shows that had themes, just like my courses.
“I have to be able to entertain myself. I want to learn more about music, so I’ll take a chance. I see new albums come in, and I take a chance. I like to play musicians who are virtuosos with the instrument they play and offer something beyond the banal, who do bring something special to their craft. When I came over to WMSE, I came into the more free-form vision. Speaking of originality, I want to play songs from musicians who aren’t redoing what has already been done. If a song has been done before, I want them to have their own arrangement.”
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Sonia considers herself fortunate to have interviewed many, many musicians. She has written many freelance articles, including a few for Living Blues Magazine, published by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Among musicians Sonia has interviewed are Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, guitarist and bass player, respectively, for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.
“I think it is important to have a conversation, rather than an interrogation,” Sonia says.
One large, ongoing project is her biographical work on Chicago blues guitarist and singer Hubert Sumlin (1931-2011), who played with Howlin’ Wolf. “We conducted approximately 60 hours of interviews at his home. He was one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. I interviewed him many times over the years. He was on the radio program seven times; no one in the world has interviewed him that much.”
Sonia also interviewed Les Paul, the Wizard of Waukesha, twice. The first time, Les was in Waukesha for a fundraiser related to establishing an exhibit in his honor at the Waukesha Historical Society. The second time was a week before he came to Milwaukee for the opening of the Discovery World Exhibit. That interview was by phone from Paul’s home in New Jersey. They spoke for two hours on the radio.
“Les Paul was an inventor. He offers a good lesson on creativity. We don’t invent out of a vacuum. We rely on our environment and creativity that came before us. He was able to look around a room, outside, and see another purpose. And I recognize that as genius. We draw purely upon what is around us, look at it in a different way, and transform it. That’s what makes art.
“In recent years, I have been asked to do album reviews. I have my own theory about writing. It’s very important to be descriptive. I do not want my words to affect whether people buy an album or go to a concert. I intentionally reject that kind of power. It’s much easier to say something is good or bad, but I would rather be descriptive. Let me give an insight to the life, career, and creations of these musicians.
“John Hammond said when he read my article about him that he felt it was the first time someone quoted him accurately and accurately portrayed his life. When Hubert listened to a tape of the first radio interview that we did together, he said that it was as if a mirror had been held up to him of his life. Sometimes we are just the vehicle.”
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During my time in the WMSE studio last week, I interviewed Sonia in between her DJ duties while the music played. During the later portion of her show, Sonia turned the tables and started interviewing me live on the air! I was petrified at the possibility of long, awkward silences, but Sonia is an excellent interviewer. Just when it felt like our conversation was headed for dead air because I couldn’t think of anything to say, Sonia would rescue me with a great question or comment on something I’d said earlier. (Thank you, Sonia 🙂 )
Sonia’s show, “The Blues Drive,” airs every Friday afternoon from 3:00-6:00 p.m. Central Time. You can hear it live on the station’s website – wmse.org. In addition, WMSE archives its radio broadcasts. So if you’d like to listen to our conversation from last week (Friday, October 5, 2012), just click on the “2012-10-5” link here to download or stream the show.