You’re on the air: UWM alum shines as mayor, talk show host

You’ve probably heard his voice over the airwaves during his morning show on WTMJ Radio. If not, you probably watched him comfort a grieving city in the aftermath of the 2012 Sikh temple shooting.

And if you were at UWM in the early 1980s, you would have seen him in the halls on his way to his mass communication classes.

Steve Scaffidi graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 1983. Since then, he’s enjoyed an exciting career spanning the private sector, public service, and – these days in his job as a radio host on WTMJ – the mainstream media. Through it all, he’s kept his focus on his values and forging connections with the people of Milwaukee and beyond.

Scaffidi sat down to talk about his work, his time as the mayor of Oak Creek during the Sikh temple shooting (he even wrote a book about it), and his dad’s pasta sauce.

Why did you choose UWM?

I grew up in Cudahy. My dad was a meteorologist at the airport. We moved to Oak Creek and I graduated from Oak Creek High School. I was a good student – not great, but good – and wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do, so I took a year off. I worked a ton of different jobs. Then I went to UWM because I started to have an interest in television/radio/broadcasting.

UWM – I loved the campus. I loved getting out a little bit beyond Oak Creek. I remember going to William Ho’s down the street on Oakland Avenue. I lived there in college. A lot of my friends went to UWM. I started dating my wife of now 37 years at UWM.

What drew you to broadcasting and media?

I was always a pretty good speaker. I’m a good writer too, and that’s part of what I do now. I wanted to do something in communications. Radio/TV seemed like a fun thing to study. The funny thing is, I ended up working in television, but on the research side for 28 years.

You worked for Nielsen after you graduated college. What was it like working for the famous TV ratings company?

I don’t know how much you know about the ratings; in the old days, people filled out diaries – “I watched the ‘Dick Van Dyke Show’ from 4 to 5 p.m.” When I was coming in, it was the advent of new technology. The term is “people meter.” It was just a little device that people logged into. I was responsible, at the time, for convincing people to participate. I did that all over northern California. I did that job probably about 3 years.

Fast forward doing a lot of jobs, I became a marketing manager supervisor for Milwaukee/Minneapolis. Then I worked on the national samples. The last five years, I went to special projects, which was taking technology and figuring out the different ways people could watch TV. … Our group had to figure out, how can we measure what people watch on their phones or their computers? Of course, the answer is software.

After a long career at Nielsen, you picked quite a different career direction and ran to be the mayor of your hometown, Oak Creek in 2012.

I was interested in politics. I love the city that I lived in, but I never thought that we were respected in southeastern Wisconsin the way that we should be, given all of the things we have going for us. I saw this malaise. Nothing was inspiring about the city. I thought, we can do something bigger and better, and that’s what made me run.

I was a guy that appreciated business and came from the private sector. I appreciated economic development and building business. I didn’t see a lot of that, and I didn’t want Oak Creek to be a one-trick pony. I wanted us to embrace the 21st century.

What did you bring to Oak Creek as mayor that you’re proud of?

We put in a new interchange while I was mayor – Drexel Avenue. It was the first one in 40 years, and it was not an easy decision. People did not want to spend the money, but it seemed like it made sense. Now that’s the access point for the downtown and IKEA. If that didn’t happen, there would not have been an IKEA. (We also built) Drexel Town Square.

You were the mayor on what is probably the worst day in Oak Creek’s history. Tell me about having to lead the town through the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting.

I was elected in April. The Sikh Temple shooting happened in August that same year. I had literally no ramp-up at the time to even understand what was involved. So, I had a really quick course in public/private (relationships), and how faith groups interact with their communities. Whatever skills I was missing, I had to learn them quickly. That also involved media skills. I went from being a small-city mayor on the day of the shooting to my friends on a trip in Italy watching me on CNN International.

That had to have been your worst day as a mayor. Can you take us through what happened that day?

I got the phone call around 10:30 a.m. The fire chief called me: ‘We have a shooting.’ That was followed up by the police chief: ‘One of our officers was shot.’ Officer Brian Murphy, whom I knew from a previous meeting as mayor. He was part of our emergency response – SWAT – team.

I was working in my garden that morning. I quickly had to shower and throw a suit on. I went to City Hall and contacted the city administrator, the city attorney, all of the aldermen. I went to the scene and was in this big SWAT vehicle trying to assess what’s going on and who else did I need to call for the rest of the day.

At one point, the fire chief comes running up to me and goes, ‘You’ve got to answer your phone! The White House is calling.’ We had a live press conference at 4 p.m. where we were basically speaking to the world. I had a short speech. I still have the piece of paper at home where we wrote it out. The city attorney wrote it because my handwriting is so bad. It was, ‘Thoughts and prayers, we will cooperate fully with the FBI’ – things that mayors say.

I drove back to City Hall in my blue Ford Escape. I’m sitting in the parking lot, and the phone rings. It’s a woman’s voice: ‘Is this the mayor of Oak Creek? Hold for the President of the United States.’ Barack Obama comes on the phone.

That must have been surreal after everything that had happened that day.

It is the weirdest feeling in the world. Everybody knows his voice. You’re just listening thinking, this is not real. He did all the things presidents do – reassured us, said we’ll provide you all the help you need. If they had a transcript of the call, you would have seen his brilliance against my stuttering nonsense. I’d never talked to a president before.

Because of that conversation and what we did … I got invited to the White House at least 10 times over the next few years. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, I was invited and I met all of those folks. All of the work the President did on gun violence, I was part of that. It wasn’t about politics; whenever I talked with the President I always joked with him that I never voted for him. He laughed about that.

You handled the situation with aplomb, which is impressive because it’s not like there’s a training manual for handling the aftermath of a mass shooting in your city.

There is now! This is a cool thing – the night after the shooting, after the President called me, I got a call from Steve Hogan. He was the mayor of Aurora, Colorado, where the movie theater shooting had happened just two weeks before ours. He got my number from the city clerk. He goes, ‘Look, I know you’re busy, but we just went through this and I have some advice.’ … Just that little bit of wisdom in a five-minute call was life-saving. When people credit me with a good response, I learned from him. I actually got to meet him at the U.S. Conference of Mayors a year later.

Since then, the Department of Justice has put together a guide, and all of the mayors who went through this are cited in it with detail on how we responded. I’m really proud of it.

What do you wish people would know about that day?

What I am really proud of is not all of the official stuff; it’s the friendships and relationships I developed after. … We all know what happened: Six then, now seven people died from the shooting. We know it was a white supremacist that acted alone. We know that Brian Murphy miraculously survived (after being) shot over a dozen times.

But the other parts of this story – how the community came together, how the faith groups responded, which was unbelievable. In my book, I detail a lot about individuals from the Sikh Temple, and how we interacted and worked together to figure things out. The Sikh community is amazing. So compassionate and smart. They were worried about us, even with all of the tragedy that had happened to them. They are just unbelievable people. I’m close with so many of them now; they invite me to their weddings. They’ve been to my house. It’s a friendship that’s endured.

Five years ago, you stepped down as mayor to go work in radio. How did that happen?

If that shooting doesn’t happen, I probably don’t have this job. I became very familiar with local media. A couple of people here saw me on TV and that connection was how (I got this job). I literally got a phone call between Christmas and New Years’ from (the WTMJ station manager) who said, ‘Ever think about doing radio?’

It was a gamble, (but) it’s been a fun 5 years. It’s the greatest job I’ve ever had. I grew up with WTMJ. My dad actually taped weather forecasts on WTMJ in the ‘60s.

Tell me about the Steve Scaffidi show.

I have three hours (every weekday morning) to talk about things that people care about, things I care about. I can weave personal stuff into it, which is the biggest way, I think to establish a bond between fans of the show and the host. They know that you’re going through this things with them. That’s the magic of it for me.

Every day, I put together a one-page outline. There’s a lot that goes into that. I do a lot of reading. Every night, I watch all of the major networks, from MSNBC to Fox and Newsmax, which is a pretty big extreme. It’s a way to get a pulse. That all goes into what I think makes an interesting radio show: You’re up to speed on current events and you have life experience that actually relates to the people you’re talking to. That combination has allowed me to do this for five years.

What topics do you cover?

Today I had five guests on a lot of different topics, from re-districting to the Packers. Then I have to back-fill. For re-districting I brought Rick Essenberg, who is way on the right. He’s from Wisconsin Law and Liberty. And I had someone from Wisconsin Fair Maps. So left and right; liberal and conservative. These guys have vastly different opinions.

Most people, we just want to our elected representatives listen to us. One of the mantras of my show is, I don’t care what your politics are or who you voted for. We’re going to look at issues (from the lens of) who’s actually getting work done and how we can help the most people.

Now, I identify as a Republican and I’ve voted Republican for almost all of my life. Doesn’t mean I’ve never voted for a Democrat, but that’s where I come from. I like to say I’m a reasonable, rational Republican. I get frustrated by the nonsense of politics. Political tantrums, I have no time for. … Come on. Be adults.

I don’t care what your politics are or who you voted for. We’re going to look at issues (from the lens of) who’s actually getting work done and how we can help the most people.

There are a lot of shows out there right now where it’s just people shouting. That’s not me. I try not to shout. I understand there’s a market for it, but that’s not me. And if you look at the data from my audiences, they appreciate that.

You’ve said that if everything lines up, the shows can be “magic.” What makes a magic show?

The right guest on a relevant topic. I’ve had Sen. Ron Johnson on the show, and he and I argued. That creates a lot of drama on the radio, and I’m typically not known for that. I’ve had everybody from Vice President Pence to U.S. Senators. But I’ve also had Dennis Miller the comedian and Chelsea Handler on. One is right; one’s left. They were brilliant in their own ways.

Are there any really memorable shows for you?

My dad cooks great Italian food. He’s Sicilian. I was talking one day about his sauce recipe. I said, this is the best sauce ever, and he just sent me the recipe. A listener said, you should share that! To this date, I’ve sent out that recipe 300 times. People text back with pictures of their sauce. That’s that connection. That builds the bond. And we make our sauce together.