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Midwest Communications Founder Duke Wright Dies at 83

WBA Hall of Famer built one of the country’s largest family-run radio groups

Duke Wright, speaking in a video marking his induction to the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame in 2010

Wisconsin radio pioneer Duke Wright passed away December 21, 2022, at the age of 83. Wright built one of the largest family-run radio groups in the country, Midwest Communications, with more than 80 stations operating in nine states.

Born Duey Edward Wright Jr. in 1939, Duke was fascinated with radio from the time he was a boy. His parents owned a music store and Wright felt future lay either in music or radio. He played multiple instruments and hosted a weekly music show on WSAU-TV in Wausau, Wis., at the age of 15. While still a teenager, he also ran Northland Records, the label responsible for what’s considered the first rock ’n’ roll record recorded in Wisconsin, “Rock ’n Roll Saddles” by Johnny Edwards with the White Caps. Wright even filled in on bass during the 1957 recording.

In 1958, when Wright was 18, he began working on air at WRIG(AM) in Wausau, which his parents had purchased that June at Wright’s prodding and operated from a studio above their music store. Wright hosted a rock ’n’ roll chart show, which proved to be a success for the station, as well as for the sale of 45s in the music store.

After earning a business degree from the University of Wisconsin, he became general manager of WRIG and, in 1964, he launched WRIG-FM, which was the first FM station in Central Wisconsin.

In 1971, Wright founded Midwest Communications with the launch of WROE-FM in Appleton, Wis. Over the years he gradually grew the company through a series of more than 16 strategic acquisitions, eventually operating stations in eighteen markets across in the Dakotas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Tennessee, as well as Wisconsin. He also was a ham radio operator, using the call sign K9DJ.

“Duke would call or email, often at day’s end, and after talking business would want to reminisce about the early days we had shared. He was very sentimental and never forgot where he started and the people we knew along the way,” wrote Steve Moravec of the Phoenix Media Group in an email noting Wright’s passing. Moravec and Wright had been friends since 1974.

Wright viewed Midwest’s acquisitions and expansion as part of building a family business, looking to operate high quality stations that were “live and local.” Today, three of his four children, Mary Kay, Michael, and Jeffrey Wright lead the company, along with Pegge Wright, Duke’s wife of 50 years.

Wright was a strong presence in Wisconsin broadcasting, serving on the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association’s board of directors from 1981–1985 and chairing WBA’s Hall of Fame Committee in 1997 and 1998. In 2000, he was inducted into the WBA Hall of Fame and in 2010 to the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame. In 2016, he was awarded The Conclave’s Rockwell Award for lasting and significant contributions to radio and the public. He was also honored by the Wisconsin Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for his role in recording of “Rock ’n Roll Saddles.”

Services for Wright will be held Dec. 29 at Christ Alone Church in Green Bay, Wis. Memories and tributes can also be left for him online.