At center, Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, speaks during a recording of the weekly progressive podcast "Battleground Wisconsin." (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
At center, Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, speaks during a recording of the weekly progressive podcast "Battleground Wisconsin." (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

After 400 episodes, still a progressive outlier in a conservative media world

The story of the progressive podcast “Battleground Wisconsin” begins in the throes of protests in Madison over ex-Gov. Scott Walker’s signature 2011 Act 10 that gutted public employee unions. Matt Brusky was there. He pulled out his cell phone and started recording short video clips of protesters. 

“I was capturing their stories, if it was 20 seconds or a minute long, and putting them up on our — at that time — very small Citizen Action Facebook page,” said Brusky, deputy director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “It grew by like five or six thousand people over that period. It dawned on us that we should do a weekly radio show to talk about what we’re seeing at the Capitol and what’s happening in our state.”

Since then, he hasn’t stopped.

Nearly 430 episodes later, with scarcely a week off, “Battleground Wisconsin” has been streamed hundreds of thousands of times online and is broadcast weekly on talk-radio stations in Milwaukee and Madison. As national attention intensifies on the Badger State going into the 2020 election, the podcast’s title is as apt as ever.

The 45-minute podcast, which is recorded in Milwaukee, lives and breathes progressive politics while urging the state’s Democratic elected officials to push the needle of state politics further to the left. 

At the weekly recording last Thursday, Brusky and co-hosts Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action-Wisconsin, and Claire Zautke, the organization’s “health care for all director” gave their predictions for which Democrat will win the Iowa caucuses. 

Zautke bemoaned that she expects Joe Biden to win, despite her support for Sen. Bernie Sanders, while Kraig gave the bold prediction that Biden would finish fourth behind Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg. The disdain for Biden’s moderate politics was obvious.

“We’re very clear about our audience,” Brusky said. “This is not a general interest show. This is aimed at progressive activists — people who want to change the world from a left perspective.”

Brusky and company. shoot for the moon, advocating for familiar progressive goals including universal health care, recreational marijuana legalization, non-gerrymandered maps, free college and more. They hope that by raising the issues politicians become more likely to speak out and make more radical proposals. Even when they’re not recording, the co-hosts and producer Brian Wooldridge are almost entirely focused on the issues.

“How do we start to provide a window and insight into a different world while also still understanding within a current system and structure that has limitations?” Brusky said. “We need to understand those limitations, but we have got to lay out a vision of what we stand for. What are our values and what’s our vision of the world?”

Thursday’s guest was Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality, or MASH, union that last week won a $15 minimum wage for Fiserv Forum employees. 

The conversation quickly evolved from MASH and the Fiserv Forum to passionate, philosophical speeches about uniting Milwaukee’s service industry under unions and transforming the economy as more and more workers turn to the service sector.

“We see (the podcast) as augmenting and improving the reach of our organizing,” Kraig said, adding, “It’s not just about information. We’re not trying to be journalists. It’s about our way of viewing information.”

That information is ripped straight out of the headlines, and will often be swapped out on the fly. Kraig arrived at the recording practically breathless. He was shocked by a Wisconsin Public Radio story he heard on the way in about a bill proposed by Republican state senators Duey Stroebel and Jerry Petrowski. The bill would raise the retirement age of public employees,except police and firefighters,from 55 to 59 for the sake of “fairness.”

On Kraig’s command, the new bill was discussed and promptly slammed.

“Please call and speak out against this bill,” Kraig said on-air.

Progressives have lagged behind conservatives in practically every medium including podcasts, talk radio and internet memes, areas historically dominated by figures like Alex Jones, Mark Belling and Rush Limbaugh. Conspiracies peddled by conservative commentators, like the Hunter Biden-Urkraine connection, have made it all the way up to President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, Kraig noted. 

Asked what separates conservative talk radio and “Battleground Wisconsin,” Kraig answered with no hesitation.

“First, we’re fact-based,” he said. “Second, we’re willing to question quote-unquote progressive politicians based on what they’re doing and say that they’re not going far enough. And I think we’re willing to question ourselves.”