By Chris Haise
During the Afternoon Drive on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, Wauwatosa resident and Assistant Program Director Ken Sumka spins a diverse blend of music and community stories that have made his show a local favorite. While Ken is quickly becoming a mainstay on Milwaukee radio, the journey that has led his family to Wauwatosa is anything but simple.
Ken Sumka grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Iowa, where he double majored in Film and TV & Radio. This also where Ken got his feet wet in the world of radio, working for local college station KRUI with many fellow students who would go onto work in radio and TV as well.
After graduation, Ken returned to the Chicago area, where he went to work at Chicago radio station WXRT, a well known commercial AAA (Adult Album Alternative) station that plays an eclectic mix of new music and classic rock. Ken was a staple on Chicago airwaves from 1994 until 2013.
It was during this time that he met his wife, Carla, whom he has been married to for 14 years. Their family has grown since, they have a daughter and a son. They also have a dog and three cats.
In August of 2013, Ken left WXRT and the Sumka family moved from the hectic bustle of Chicago to suburban Milwaukee. Carla was presented with a great work opportunity and Ken described the decision to move as an opening his family couldn’t pass up.
Despite living in Chicago for most of his life, this new adventure for the Sumkas would take them to unfamiliar territory. “Milwaukee wasn’t really on my radar,” Ken admitted. “I had never even been to Summerfest.”
For Ken and his family, their Wisconsin journey began with temporary stops in Brookfield, then Washington Heights. They were searching for a Wauwatosa home throughout the early days. “We only really considered Tosa,” said Ken. “The people we knew here said it was the only place for us.”
Their quest ultimately led them to the multi-cultural Jacobus Park neighborhood. Ken describes the area as a very friendly neighborhood. When they moved in, Ken said they were greeted almost instantly by neighbors. He described them as the “Tosa Welcome Committee”, and was taken aback by the friendliness immediately shown his family. “That’s what Tosa is,” Ken says.
Ken and Carla’s children have settled into the excellent Tosa School System, with both kids attending Jefferson Elementary. His daughter is active in drama programs, gymnastics and tennis and both kids take advantage of the outstanding Tosa Rec programs, like T-Ball and swimming.
“I can’t say enough good things about Tosa,” says Ken. Particularly, Ken loves the “urban aspects” of Tosa, being able to walk to Colectivo and Balestreri’s on 68th Street, and great restaurants like Maxie’s and Bel Air Cantina.
Ken also points to the fabulous Jacobus Park in his backyard, his kids being able to ride their bikes around a quiet and safe neighborhood, getting supplies for the family’s four pets from local stores like Bark N Scratch Outpost, and, of course, Brewers games at Miller Park.
Being able to walk to Miller Park, Ken attends seven or eight games a year, sometimes with his colleagues at Radio Milwaukee, and has really enjoyed the extensive tailgating scene that makes Miller Park such a community favorite during the summer.
Along with tailgating, great schools and restaurants, Ken’s connection to the music scene has made Summerfest one of his favorite parts of living in Milwaukee. “I’m kid in a candy store now that I am familiar with Summerfest.” With Radio Milwaukee sponsoring a stage, Ken says he finds himself spending many days and nights at the world’s largest music festival.
Sumka’s radio career continued in Milwaukee with Radio Milwaukee. While he started part time and filled in for vacations and on weekends, he eventually took over afternoons when an opening became available, and is now the Assistant Program Director.
As the host the Afternoon Drive, which airs weekdays from 2-6 PM Ken is involved in some of 88Nine’s most recognizable segments, including 414 Music, where each week a local Milwaukee band performs live from the station’s Pittsburgh Ave. studio in front of a studio audience while the performance is broadcast live.
The Afternoon Drive host is also the curator of the 5 O’Clock Shadow, a daily event where he plays two versions of a song, often the original and a cover, coinciding with famous birthdays, newsworthy events, or prominent shows in Milwaukee.
In addition to these two popular segments, Ken also coordinates the Studio Milwaukee sessions. The Studio Milwaukee sessions hosted by Radio Milwaukee invite national and international acts, as they tour through Milwaukee, to play exclusive shows that are often broadcast live.
The audience for Studio Milwaukee is comprised of members and donors that receive invitations to see intimate performances by many renowned artists. Some notable performances Ken and Radio Milwaukee have hosted include indie rock group Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, as well as Dr. Dog, and soul singer Charles Bradley.
In addition to working with band management to book artists for Studio Milwaukee, Ken helps bands and artists with almost everything they need, from musical equipment, to transportation, even catering, essentially acting as producer for the events. “That’s my baby,” Ken professed.
Ken’s “baby” at Radio Milwaukee also contributes to one of the more unique ways Radio Milwaukee fundraises. The Studio Milwaukee performances are compiled into a CD, titled the Studio Milwaukee Sessions, and exclusively given as gifts to donors during their fund drives .
Ken’s involvement in the local music scene extends beyond his duties at Radio Milwaukee. Using his contacts and connections from a career in radio, Ken has been helping to book bands for the Tosa Tonight Concert Series at Hart Park, a short walk from the Sumka’s Jacobus Park home.
Ken’s work with the local music scene has given him newfound admiration for music in Milwaukee. “Coming from Chicago that has a robust music scene and is a much bigger city, Milwaukee’s music scene is very healthy and inclusive given its size, and very collaborative.”
No doubt Ken’s time at 88Nine along with his participation in the Tosa Tonight Concert series and actually attending the World’s Largest Music Festival has opened his eyes to the musical side of a city that was once not on his radar.
From Ken’s burgeoning career on the local airwaves, to Carla’s job locally and their children’s involvement in Wauwatosa’s great schools and extra curricular programs, the Sumka family is certainly settling into the Tosa community.
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