We love David & Goliath battles – how the little guy or gal can position that sling and marshal up the strength to fall the big, bad corporate bigwig. In radio, we don't get these often because frankly, the behemoths often force their will and come out the winner.
But not this time. And for proof, hop in the minivan, make sure we haven't forgotten to pack anything, and let's head straight up I-75 North – and just keep going – all the way up to the U.P.
For those of you not versed on mitten terminology, that's the Upper Peninsula – the less populated, remote, and cold part of the state that some historians believe should've been a part of Wisconsin. Be that as it may, the U.P. is an important part of the Pure Michigan empire, a place where hunting, fishing, and eye-popping natural resources are on display.
And it's also the home of the radio battle I foreshadowed, between WOAS, a small community radio station in the far western part of the U.P., owned by a high school – Ontonagon High School to be exact. WOAS has been on the air since 1978, a 10-watter that barely covers the community. As you'd might imagine, it's volunteer run, with students from the high school working afternoon drive.
Its manager is 60 year-old Kenneth “Ken” Raisanen who's been running the station for a quarter century following his retirement as the school's science teacher.
And the Goliath of our story? Interestingly, it's WHWL, a 100,00 watt Christian station that drapes the U.P. It's the flagship of the Gospel Opportunities Radio Network, in search of new frequencies to spread its teachings. The FCC granted them use of 88.5 FM – yes, the same frequency WOAS has occupied as a Class D station since the late 1970s.
But there's another player here, too – the FCC. They refer to WOAS as a “secondary service” that “must accept interference from primary stations and may not cause interference to primary stations, even if the secondary station predates the primary station” – which WOAS most certainly does.
John Carlisle of the Detroit Free Press wrote a great story about this existential struggle between two non-commercial radio entities, accompanied by beautiful photos by Ryan Garza. This story was also picked up by Radio Ink last week.
But something different jumped out at me when I read the Freep story, and that's the wisdom and common sense approach espoused by manager Raisanen in discussing the fundamentals of radio. Now you'd expect a former science teacher to stick to Boyle's Law or take us on a tour of the Periodic Table of the Elements.
But instead, this article is an object lesson on radio done right. Here are some of the takeaways I gleaned from Ken Raisanen's logical view of his situation:
It's about people: “To me, the fun part about radio is when they start talking about stuff or they get silly about something. That’s why I’m always telling the kids, ‘You gotta do more than just play tunes. If you wanna just play tunes then I don’t need you. What I want is the human element. You gotta have a personality.'”
You know chemistry when you hear it: “If you get the right two kids in there who start talking about stuff, it sucks you in. It’s funny to listen to when kids start talking about school and stuff. It’s a lot better than listening to CNN.”
Every cult brand needs an enemy – in this fable, WOAS is the little engine that could, and the radio company could be the bad guy. But as the Freep story is framed, it's the consultant – unnamed, incidentally – who takes the heat. That evildoer is mentioned four times in the story as the entity that started this frequency war.
You can't slash your way out of trouble – This isn't the first time WOAS has found itself in hot water. As reporter Carlisle found out, when faced with unforeseen expenses, Raisanen has had to get creative – passing the hat, writing a check himself, or hoping the local newspaper would allot him a few column inches to explain the station's plight. You do what it takes.
You have to creatively fundraise – Virtually every public radio station is facing a crisis of one kind or another when it comes to eliciting funding from listeners. The old, standby – the Pledge Drive – is shopworn, forcing stations to think outside the tote bag.
When he found himself in this current dilemma, Raisanen relied on good old word-of-mouth and community. Small donations, an anonymous gift of $1,000, and even without a GoFundMe, WOAS is well on the way toward having enough money to purchase a new transmitter to facilitate a boost to 100 watts, which should pave the way for a license upgrade, and a new frequency that cannot be poached.
Don't be a slave to the ratings – Of course, Ontonagon is an unrated market so Raisanen has to rely on his instincts – what he sees and hears: “The question I always get is, ‘What’s your demographic? Do you know how many people listen?'” he said. “We’ve never done a study like that, but I still run into people at the store who say, ‘Hey, you guys got that fixed up yet?’ Or we put out a fund appeal, and all of a sudden I’m getting money from Florida or from Minneapolis. I was corresponding with a drummer from Scotland for a while who had picked us up on the internet at some point in time or another. So we know people listen.” Yup, better than diaries.
But the real appeal of WOAS is the contagious excitement of radio, especially among the student volunteers. One is 18 year-old Halle Floyd (pictured left below), an admitted music fanatic. What does it mean to her to be on the air? “I love listening to music, so now I get to come in here and do my own show my own way, and listen to my music and share it with everybody else. It’s a really cool thing that not a lot of people get to experience. To say that you had your own radio show in high school is a pretty cool thing to say, in my opinion.”
The story of WOAS goes right to the essence of what makes working in radio special, a feeling that many of us experienced at some point in our careers. For some, it's the emotional fabric they carry with them during these more challenging times.
The spirit of radio is alive in small markets, often in places like the western U.P. where you might not expect it.
We may have to search a little harder up and down the dial to find that frequency.
I'll have information about how you can make a contribution to WOAS later today. – FJ
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