I first met Charlie Sykes more than 25 years ago when I was a Senior at the UW. He was speaking at a conference of collegiate journalists in Evanston, Illinois and as the author of ProfScam was emerging as one of the most insightful critics of higher education at the time. He was so entertaining that when I found myself organizing the next year’s conference I had to lock him in on the panel. That’s right, I put Charlie I my panel long before he put me on his!
On Tuesday, my friend Charlie announced his retirement from his weekday radio show and weekly television program. After 25 years in local broadcasting, 23 with WTMJ, he’s heading into semi-retirement. He’ll continue to write and contribute to the conservative movement, but he’ll no longer have to drag himself out of bed at 4:30 every morning.
I’ve had the honor and good fortune of working for him and even guest hosting his show on occasion over the years. I can assure you he’s not going to disappear, as much as his many critics may hope he will. At 62, he’s just taking greater control over his schedule. Kudos to him.
A full analysis of his impact on local, state and national politics is intertwined with a look at the power of the medium of talk radio in general. Along with his colleague Jeff Wagner, and local talkers Mark Belling, Jay Weber, Vicki McKenna and Dan O’Donnell down the dial at WISN, Sykes has helped create and maintain an important crucible for conservative thought and news analysis in Southeast Wisconsin.
Rather than examine the medium itself, however, Sykes’ announcement affords me an opportunity to examine his unique impact on the community and causes I care deeply about.
When he abruptly left WISN in the early 90s to host his own Midday show at rival WTMJ, few –including Charlie himself– could have predicted he’d last 23 years as Jay Marvin’s replacement. Conservative talk radio was still in its infancy, and Sykes was joining a legacy radio station filled with long-established voices, formats and imaging. He was too wonky for radio, some said. Too North Shore. Too academic.
Over the years his show evolved along with the host. He continued his work with the Wisconsin Policy Research institute, but also dove in head-first into the world of blogging. He was very supportive of those of us whose platforms were far smaller. Because of his promotion of websites like my Dailytakes.com, Owen Robinson’s Boots & Sabers, James Wigderson’s Library & Pub and other blogs run by folks like Bridget Jacobsen, Kevin Binversie and many others, I dubbed Sykes the Blogfather. Sykes’ embrace of online opinion journals, of course, helped lead to the birth of Right Wisconsin, a site I helped him build and launch nearly four years ago.
Sykes’ impact was not limited to the media world, however. Along with Belling, he helped raise the public profile of a young new state assemblyman in 1995. That conservative would later run for Milwaukee County Executive and by the time Scott Walker was elected Governor of the State of Wisconsin in 2010, everyone understood the role Charlie had played in his political rise.
Since its inception, his show was home to many spirited debates–from callers on all sides of the Brewers’ stadium issue to actual political face offs like the one between Republican Attorney General candidates JB Van Hollen and Paul Bucher in 2006. Some shows, like that one, were riveting. But even during the slower periods, the show was never boring.
“Charlie’s career can be summed up in a single word: impact,” long-time public policy expert George Mitchell tells me. “He made it necessary to tune in each day or be left out of the loop. Not an easy thing to pull off.”
Charlie provides more than just exposure to politicos, he helps advance the causes he cares about. On his show, despite what critics feel they know, all sides get a fair shake. Cogent callers who oppose the host are far more interesting and get far more latitude than the Amen Chorus. “Let’s go to Earl in Milwaukee…” But it was outside his show where Sykes’ passion for the issues he cares about really made a difference.
He was an early, vocal and passionate supporter for School Choice. His commitment to the Right to Life is deep and profound and he has long served as the emcee for the annual Wisconsin Right to Life Dinner. And, of course, he’s been a champion for free speech and the rise of the responsible conservative new media.
School Choice champion Susan Mitchell chose three words to describe Sykes. “Bright, fearless, insightful,” she said. “Charlie has been an indispensable ally in turning great ideas like parent choice into public policy that changes lives.”
But Charlie himself admits that the greatest impact he’s had in his professional life has been through his involvement with the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight. When the organizers of the flights first approached WTMJ and Sykes regarding helping WWII vets get to see their memorial in Washington, DC., Sykes could have done the minimal promotional public service work expected of a radio host. But that’s not Sykes’ way. Anyone who’s ever met Joe Dean, much less the great men who have flown on the honor flights knows that it’s impossible not to fall in love with the concept and the project. But Sykes turned his passion into action. Together, Sykes and the station have helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars more than a million dollars over the years, helping hundreds of WWII and Korean War vets get the well-deserved appreciation after all these years.
Joe Dean explained to me:
“My cell phone rang. “‘Let’s fly these guys’ is the first sentence I heard from Charlie after doing a phone interview about a start up group of ragged volunteers – who were selling brats and begging friends – to raise money for our 2nd Honor Flight.
The rest is history, and in part, well, his- story: Multiple 747s, a number one rated documentary, a Guinness World Record, sold out Miller Park Field of Honor event, an Honor Flight book to raise funds for the Fisher House, Honor Flight gift baskets for Children’s Hospital, Veterans Day screenings of our film at Marcus Theaters across the midwest and the building of an exact replica of the WWII Wisconsin pillar – the Pillar of Honor in Port Washington.
Mostly, what I remember though is being in studio, looking past the mics and witnessing Charlie during commercial breaks. He’d laugh and shake his head at our good fortune – as his community of listeners would answer the call – to give our veterans a long over due thank you. Their Honor Flight. Right before we’d go back on air, sliding the head-phones on, Charlie would smile and say: ‘here we go again!’ We never looked back.”
Dean ends with one simple acclamation: “Thanks Charlie!”
Sykes has a regular segment on his show titled “Charlie, what I don’t get…” Every Thursday at 11:07 this open line segment kicks off and no topic is off limits as long as callers begin with the aforementioned phrase. Well, it’s not Thursday, but I’ll give it a try.
“Charlie, what I don’t get is how during the next few weeks your critics (on the far right and left) will call you stupid and reactionary and inconsequential while simultaneously recognizing your unique and substantive role in the policy and political debates of the last 25 years.”
To be sure, as creative, opinionated, Type-A personalities Charlie and I would on occasion butt heads; and that certainly was true when we worked together at RightWisconsin. I place no man on a pedestal–clearly he’s not always right. (See what I did there? As I said, Type-A) But he’s been a good friend and damn good talk radio host. I personally will never forget the compassion he and his wife, Janet, showed me upon the death of my mother a few years ago. It was one of a litany of similar kind moments his long-time producer Scott Warras and I heard about as I helped him put together Sykes’ 20th Anniversary show. From then MLB Commissioner Selig, to Cardinal Dolan to former Governor Tommy Thompson, nearly every heavy hitter we called to offer a pre-taped congratulation obliged us. Almost all of them shared a private testimonial as well, providing even more revealing anecdotes about Charlie.
Today, some long-time listeners don’t appreciate his vocal opposition to Donald Trump. However, his last year has shattered the left-wing mythology that talk radio hosts take their marching orders from talking points sent down from the national or state Republican parties. It’s not just because I agree with his position that I respect it. I know the difficult and head-scratching moments that can spring from opposition to ‘your’ party. But like me, Sykes hasn’t lost a minute of sleep, or any significant audience share because of it. Much like it’s wrong to think politics in Wisconsin began with the 2011 passage of Act 10, it would be colossally stupid to evaluate a 40-year professional career over one or two political disputes.
So, after 25 years, he’s on the air for about 10 more weeks. Here’s hoping Charlie Sykes goes out with a bang, continuing to champion issues about which he cares deeply.
After a quarter century on the air, I’d expect no less.