Jonathan Little, Madison’s music missionary

Longtime WISM figure now promoting Americana music
Jonathan Little And Sam Ness
Jonathan Little (left) manages singer-songwriter Sam Ness. (Little photo courtesy of TVG Photography; Ness photo courtesy of JC Dunst Photography)

There is never a bad time to check in with Jonathan Little, since few people know more about Madison’s music history over the last half century. Legendary artists, colorful characters, moronic managers of radio stations — Little saw them all.

There’s a photo, from Nov. 1, 1978, taken backstage at the Dane County Coliseum. Paul Soglin, late into his first run as Madison mayor, had proclaimed it “Bob Dylan Day” in the city. Among those pictured are Soglin, Dylan — who played a show that night — and two DJs from Madison’s highly popular top-40 radio station, WISM-AM.

The jocks were Charlie “Rock and Roll” Simon and Jonathan Little.

Simon soon got out of the music end of the business, moving to San Diego and a successful career in radio sales under his real name, Larry Goodman. In 2006 he sold the photo described above — signed by Dylan — for $436 on eBay. Two years earlier he traded a piece of Otis Redding’s doomed airplane to the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas for a guitar autographed by Paul McCartney.

Jonathan Little never left Madison, and never left the music. His WISM highlights included interviewing Jimi Hendrix between sets at the Factory on Gorham Street and singing a number with Harry Chapin on stage at the Coliseum. Subsequently Little worked at radio station Z-104, helped launch 105.5-Triple M and managed numerous musical acts. He was elected to the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 2008.

“I’ve always considered myself from the very beginning to be a music missionary,” Little, who grew up in Montello and attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said recently, by phone from Durango, Colorado, where he and Betty, his wife of 57 years, have a second home.

The thing is, he’s still at it. Little currently manages a handful of musicians, including the classical guitarist Miles McConnell and singer-songwriter and Sauk City native Sam Ness. He programs three channels for the online music streaming service Accuradio and for 22 years has worked as an executive for TroyResearch, which pioneered Internet-based media research.

Little also just narrated his first audio book and is three chapters into a second.

“Retirement’s not in my vocabulary,” he said. “I’m having too much fun.”

It’s probably hard for people today to understand what a juggernaut WISM-AM (1480 on the dial) was in Madison in the late 1960s into the ‘70s. Music on AM radio? Trust me, it was a big deal.

Little was not just a DJ, he was also program director. And he was unusual in that he sometimes deviated from the station format’s rigorous playing of the same hits over and over.

“I listened to the whole album,” he said, in search of songs with potential perhaps unrecognized by record label executives.

On a day in 1976, he found one, a quirky song off an album by the Captain and Tennille. He played it. WISM listeners flooded the station with calls. Play it again!

Little called the label. “It’s not a single,” he was told. Little persisted. Finally, the label relented.

Which is how the world got “Muskrat Love.”

Toni Tennille used to shout out “a program director in Madison, Wisconsin” when she introduced the song at concerts.

If Little had an ear for a hit, more recently he’s shown he has one, too, for an original format.

“I had a feeling there was an opening for Americana,” Little said, of the music that mixes the authentic sonic roots of numerous genres.

With backing from investors — who included Culver’s restaurant chain cofounder Craig Culver, — Little pitched the format to radio conglomerates. Despite some early enthusiasm — “It’s about time we had a format that plays Steve Earle” — the giants all passed. The target listener age was too old.

Little took the format — he named it The Train — to Accuradio, and it’s done well enough that two more channels have spun off from it.

Little is high on all the artists he manages, but first among equals seems to be Sam Ness, a young singer-songwriter first touted to Little by Mitch Henck after Ness performed some numbers on Henck’s radio program.

“I believe he will be a major star within two years,” Little said, pointing to Ness’s soulful take on the Willie Nelson song “On the Road Again.”

Little credits Betty with keeping him grounded, and, just as important, keeping them in Madison. His wife had seen friends in the radio business jump cities constantly. “We’re not going to do that,” she said, and they didn’t.

These days they are mostly in Madison or their “little shack in the mountains” in Colorado. Little says he has been reading Ben Sidran’s new book on the music producer Tommy LiPuma and enjoying it immensely. How could he not? Little knew many of the people in the book, including the legendary record promoter Juggy Gayles. Little says he once took Gayles to lunch at Namio’s on South Park Street.

Of the book, Little said, “It’s like you’re sitting there chatting with Tommy LiPuma.”

Which must have been as fun as sitting around chatting with Jonathan Little.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.