Arnie Wheeler will sign off of The Fox 99.1 FM Morning Extravaganza for the last time on Friday, Oct. 1., but he doesn’t have any grand departure planned.
“It’s just going to be another day on the job, and at the end, I’m going to say, ‘See ya!’” Wheeler said in an interview on Thursday, Sept. 23, at the studios of TKC Inc. It’s a simple, no-frills end befitting to a career that Wheeler has built with the idea of keeping things light-hearted and fun.
Wheeler will be moving to Tennessee, where his wife, Lila Wheeler, has moved for her job.
Twenty-two years ago, Wheeler was hired by station owner Tom Koser for the brand new radio station. “He’s the original host of the Fox Morning Extravaganza,” Koser said.
Wheeler got his start in radio while a sophomore at Roosevelt High in Minneapolis, Minn. The public schools owned and operated a radio station, and Wheeler took school classes learning how to news, host shows and produce commercials for radio, he said.
“All the big-boss jocks of the 1970s,” Wheeler said of what inspired him to try radio. “WLS in Chicago, with Larry Lujack. Fred Winston.”
With an old tube radio at his parents’ cabin on Spirit Lake in Burnett County, he’d listen to WLS and WCLF in Chicago, Ill., and KAAY in Little Rock, Ark., as well as Twin Cities stations. “Tom Barnard is on KQRS to this day. He was a screaming Top-40 DJ back when I was a kid. He was ‘The Catman’ on WDGY.”
Asked about finding his voice for radio, Wheeler said he grew into it. “Everybody that starts as a young broadcaster has a thin, high-pitched voice usually,” he explained. “You just start messing around with it and you figure out what works for you and then there it is.”
His first radio job after high school was with WTCH in Shawano, a station owned by his uncle, Ray Wheeler. Later, he worked at other stations across the region, eventually ending up working parttime for several stations in Wausau.
After finding an online ad for the brand new WKFX, and being familiar with the area, Wheeler applied for the job. He was hired by Koser and then-program director Mike Bigner in September 1999. His position, duties and format of The Fox, have stayed mostly the same since then. Along with The Fox, he has hosted mid-day shows on WAQE-FM and WJMC-FM.
Wheeler brought professionalism and creativity to the stations, and that’s what made him successful, Koser said. Wheeler fit his audience well; people could really relate to him, Koser added. “He’s a comfortable, smooth professional who never lost his sense of humor. He really put Fox 99 on the map.”
What Wheeler enjoys most about the job is serving the community and making sure the public has accurate and important information when they need it most, such as during severe storms.
While other calamities have happened over his tenure—Sept. 11, 2001 (though he was not at working that day); the Chai Vang shootings; the 2017 tornado; and now the coronavirus pandemic—Wheeler says he tries to not focus on the negatives. For example, he’s not going to go on air and talk about wearing masks, or not wearing masks, he said.
“I stay away from that. I’m a distraction—I want to distract people from that stuff and not dwell on it. I don’t want to try to tell them what to think,” Wheeler explained.
“If you do things that amuse you and hope people like it, it generally works out for you,” he said.
Helping Chris Kroeze gain regional, and then national fame though the radio has been a proud part of his career, he added.
Asked if the internet is killing radio, “Certainly not here,” Wheeler said. People will always listen to things, whether it be the radio, an online stream or podcasts they have downloaded.
“We have to consider ourselves more than broadcasters, but content creators,” he said. “We’re doing more to reach an audience. We’re still reaching the same number of people, just over different platforms,” he said.
Wheeler’s wife, Lila, is the national marketing manager for Spectrum Reach, which sells ads for cable TV networks. She was transferred to Tennessee, prompting their move. The couple bought a new house in Tennessee and are in the process of selling their house in Barron.
Adam Hutton will be taking over Wheeler’s role on The Fox Morning Extravaganza and Ryan Quinn will be the new program director after Wheeler. Asked about The Fox without him, Wheeler said it was in good hands with Hutton. “Young people bring more energy to this job than old people do, so I think we’ll be fine with Adam Hutton,” Wheeler said.
Koser echoed Wheeler’s sentiment and said Hutton will bring the same humor and quick-wittedness that people have come to expect on The Fox. “We’re so blessed to have really good people that have been with us for a long time,” Koser said.
Wheeler was appreciative to Koser for all his opportunities over the past 22 years. He noted he had never worked anywhere longer than four years before this.
“There aren’t any ratings here, and I couldn’t get fired for having the worst ratings in town,” Wheeler joked.
Wheeler has bought a high-end Neumann TLM 103 microphone for himself and his new home studio, but he hasn’t settled on any plans for his next project or work. He might do commercial voice over work, or something else. But like his show, he isn’t taking his options too seriously.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be a podcast, a Youtube channel; if it’s going to be a shirtless dad-bod channel,” he joked.