From the Vaults: Goodbye Zenith
WOAS-FM lost a great friend and supporter when Mike ‘Zenith’ Bennett passed away over the Labor Day weekend. I am told his family was by his side and that they had a lot of blues music playing, but I can almost imagine Mike being mad that he was missing the Marquette Area Bluesfest.
I dug into the WOAS archives to review an article that the Daily Mining Gazette had done on the station in 1990. I hadn’t even thought of this feature for a long time, but as I read through it, a thought popped into my head that I remembered from the first time I read it back in 1990: Mike is passionate about music and radio, but he never talks about ‘his’ radio station. To him, WOAS-FM belonged to everyone who volunteered their time and to everyone who took the time to listen.
When we celebrated the station’s 30 th anniversary in 2008, I asked former DJs and volunteers to send me their recollections about their time spent at WOAS. This is part of what Mike sent me: "I am so proud and honored to have been the General Manager of WOAS-FM from 1986 – 1996. During this exciting period, we opened up the schedule and widened the variety of music of the station to make it more of a community radio station as part of the Community Schools Program." In that short paragraph, Mike distilled not only the lasting legacy that he left for WOAS, but also the foundation of everything we are doing on the air to this day.
The history of WOAS has three distinct parts. The development phase (under our founder and first General Manager Thomas G. Lee) involved the time consuming process of building the station from the ground up. The middle period (when it was run as part of the Community School Program) saw the first extensive upgrade of our facilities and the expansion of the station’s offerings in many directions. After the Community Schools Program in Michigan imploded, Mike had to leave his beloved station and move on to greener pastures, first to Bessemer and eventually to Marquette. At the time, I wondered how long it would take for him to find another radio gig.
When Bennett left, the station floundered for a couple of years and was months away from having its license expire and that was just too tragic to even contemplate. A small group of remaining radio-heads took Lee’s foundation and Bennett’s vision and began a second round of station renovations. The studio looks much different than it did in 1978 and 1996, but the philosophy is pretty well stated in our current tag line – ‘WOAS-FM, YOUR SOUND CHOICE’. Bennett eventually got back into radio in the Marquette area, but until he did, he always kept in touch with WOAS and encouraged us to keep the station on the air.
If I ever get around to writing the book I am always threatening to write, Mike will need a couple of chapters or perhaps and entire section to do his contributions to WOAS due credit. For example, Mike invited Karl Bohnak (yes, the WLUC-TV weatherman) to come to Ontonagon to critique the station and give the DJs some tips. Over lunch, Bohnak regaled us with stories of his earliest days in the broadcasting business, not as a TV weatherman, but in radio as a ‘multi-personality radio talent’. Mike always had a way to find the right people to share the right stuff at the right time and it always helped the station move in one direction or another. Who can forget WOAS’s sponsorship of a semi-professional wrestling match in the Gladiator Arena (and this was before wrestling took off as a major media event)? How many of you heard the Coaster’s perform in the same place? Mike got the funding together to put Doug Filpula’s ‘Walk of Life’ program on the air. The list goes on and on.
Mike came back to Ontonagon from time to time and always wanted to check out the station. He would get a big smile on his face and no matter how cluttered the studio was, he would exclaim, ‘Ah, the station looks GREAT!’ During all the years we have struggled to get our web streaming up and running, Mike never nagged about it – he would just say ‘Oh, you will get there and it will be GREAT to have little old WOAS-FM going world-wide’. Those are just the words one needs when progress has slowed to a crawl and Mike knew when to give a little pep talk. If that failed, he would resort to juggling. I sometimes wondered if there were circus people in Mike’s gene pool.
Here’s to Mike ‘Zenith’ Bennett, he of the ‘Airborn magical, mystical, musical, gonzo revue and Circus for Jugglers, clowns, outsiders, wharf rats and friends’(as he tagged his Nooner show for many years). When I got the news about his passing, I did the only thing that seemed to make sense – I headed over to the studio and programmed up a rack of blues CDs. We will continue to call our ‘Blue Monday’ show ‘Pete and Zenith’s Blues’ because Mike really loved the blues. We named our Senior Service Award the ‘Mike Bennett Award’ many years ago in recognition of his contributions to WOAS-FM. Thanks for everything, Mike. Hope you like the tunes, and say ‘hello’ to John Lee and Bo for us.