If one checks out the WOAS-FM website (www.woas-fm.org), one can find an archive of FTV articles stretching back several years. The site is hosted by the Regional Educational Media Center (REMC) that is part of the Intermediate Schools District (ISD) office located in Hancock, Michigan. The ISD office is responsible for providing educational services that school districts in the Western Upper Peninsula would not be able to provide on their own. The Regional Educational Media Center has always been part of this consortium. Even though the technology they employ has evolved since I arrived in Ontonagon in 1975, their mission has not. In order to explain how important REMC is for our mission at WOAS-FM in 2020, we need to go back thirty years or so to the time computer technology was first making inroads into the local educational scene.
When the new fangled thing called the internet first became available in our schools, Lois Gregory and I used to marvel at how silly it all seemed. Lois had an office tucked into the corner of the old Ontonagon Area Schools Jr-Sr High teacher’s lounge (the space now occupied by the Caring Closet). My desk and computer station were located in the back of Room 109 in the same building, separated from Lois’s desk by a concrete block wall. We often laughed about emailing each other. It involved sending messages to the computer servers at the REMC office sixty miles away so they could be delivered to a computer that was located on the other side of a brick wall, all of three feet away. As they say, you have to start somewhere. When the Board of Education in Ontonagon decided to take the plunge and wire our buildings, we went straight to fiber optic cable. A group of teachers volunteered to help string the cables around the building to speed up the process. Once they were connected to a central hub by the tech crew of REMC employees, we went from ‘snail-paced to 100 mph’ with our classroom internet service.
The first steps in the process of linking our building to the world wide web involved a tech guy in one room hollering port connection numbers down the hall to another tech at the central hub. They were able to improve this method of communication when I loaned them the handheld CB radios we kept on hand for our orienteering hikes in the Porkies. As with any newly installed technological system, there were bugs in the system that required the servers to be rebooted from time to time. If something crashed, I would get a phone call directing me to the central hub (located then in Room 117) where I would either press this switch or that button, or in some cases, recycle the power to see if that fixed the problem. There were no phones in the classrooms yet, so I would trot back to the office and if it worked, I got a ‘thanks’. If it didn’t work, there would be some grumbling on the other end of the line indicating that someone would have to come from Hancock to do some more extensive exploration of the problem. The whole operation became smoother and less cumbersome as time passed. Eventually, all of the internet connections to school districts west of Ontonagon (including the ISD/REMC satellite office located in Bergland) passed through our building. If our hub went down, everything from Ontonagon to Ironwood also went dead. I won’t pretend that I actually knew what I was doing, but the ISD was happy that they had someone to call if a switch needed flipping or the power needed recycling. They charged a small fee for email accounts using the system back then and the ISD picked up the tab for me as a small ‘thank you’ for being on call.
Prior to the district being connected to the web with the fibre optic cables we helped install, the district did have a computer class. The older computers relied on phone lines that were slower than the newly installed lines. Our new high speed lines finally gave us a reason to begin upgrading the old computers to match the performance of the new connections. The first small cadre of teachers who received the newer computers were offered a chance to attend a training session at the ISD building in Bergland. It was a B.Y.O.C. (bring your own computer) affair as the ISD did not have their computer lab up and running yet. We expected this would be a ‘how to use your computer’ training session and were totally surprised when the instructor greeted us. He said, “Okay, the first thing that we are going to do is pop the cover off your computer so you can see what makes them tick.” Okay, this sounded familiar. The first day of Driver’s Education usually started with a peek under the hood for the benefit of those students who had never seen an internal combustion engine up close and personal before.
As we gazed at the internal workings of our brand new computers, the instructor handed out little tool packets. He continued, saying, “The best way for you to not be scared of your computer is to take it apart right down to the frame, and then put it back together again. It is not as complicated as some people make it out to be and I assure you there are very few things you can do to actually hurt your computer. Oh, by the way, did anyone bring one of those little cables to clip to your chassis to prevent static shocks?” A couple of attendees put their hands up. “Throw them away,” the instructor told them, “I will show you how to do this without them. If you do manage to do something stupid while wired to your computer, you could get hurt. Now let’s begin.”
By the end of the second day, we had reassembled our computers and all were still in working condition. We spent the rest of the time on the practical uses of computers in the classroom. For a period of time, I actually felt like I understood the inner workings of a computer enough to do some of the upgrades. As the system grew more complex, REMC began consolidating more of the programming and fix-it functions under one umbrella. Early on, many of the upgrades and fixes had to be done one machine at a time. As the number of computers hooked to their network grew, they eventually locked users out of the ‘upgrade and fix-it’ game. There were two goals accomplished by this move: First, it kept users with little training from tinkering and doing serious damage to their computers or the network. Secondly, it put the critical job of keeping the network running and bug free in the hands of trained techs who could do much of the work remotely from their Help Desk located in Hancock. Considering how rapidly the technology changed in a short period of time, it would have been difficult for me to keep up on the network protocols while trying to teach. Being ‘just a user’ is fine with me as long as I know that help is a couple of mouse clicks away.
As the REMC computer network evolved, we immediately saw a way to expand the reach of WOAS-FM via the internet. Our ten watt signal reaches a radius of around 17 miles from Ontonagon, depending on the terrain. From what I had read about broadcasting over the internet, we would be able to expand signal’s reach around the world without a costly power boost. At the time, my former classroom aide, Mark Szaroletta, was building us a new home computer from scratch (dubbed the Szaromatic 1000). When I showed him an older set of servers that had been handed down to the station by the resident computer guy, he said, “Sure, let me see what I can do.” He took them home and basically rebuilt them from spare parts he had laying around. We dubbed them Kang and Kodos (fans of the Simpsons will recognize the names). One would be used to broadcast our audio signal and the other was being groomed to carry our image to the world via a studio camera I had salvaged. We had set up a distance learning classroom in the school when we first wifed the building. It was intended for online instruction between schools and was eventually replaced by a more portable version with all the equipment on a cart that can be moved room to room. When the room was put back into general classroom configuration, I rescued one of the cameras for ‘future use’ in the radio lab.
The audio broadcast server worked pretty well, but our connection to the entire network in place at that time tended to crash quite often. A crash in one place meant a reboot in another and I seemed to spend a lot of time putting us back on the air. We did get the video signal to work, but the connections between Kang and Kodos left much to be desired. We had an internet presence for nearly a decade before the entire system was upgraded enough to become a reliable way to tune in to WOAS-FM. In the early days, I spent a lot of article space apologizing for the latest breakdown in our internet broadcast capabilities. We were ahead of our time (in terms of getting on board with the concept of radio on the internet), but our low budget operation needed to get some newer computer gear to have a stable platform so our listeners could connect with WOAS-FM.
When Mark left the area, we had a series of REMC tech people who rotated from school to school to work on the computer network. Most were busier than one armed paperhangers and our quest for digital radio was, in the scheme of things, ‘low priority.’ All were kind enough to spend what little free time they had assisting us. The first upgrade came in the form of a new computer. We saved nickels and dimes from our ink and laser jet recycling program until we could afford a newer, faster computer. We eventually added a power supply back up, a rooftop weather station, and a webcam to the mix of things we posted on the internet. The move toward a reliable internet presence was fueled by Steven, an MTU student working at REMC’s help desk. We were chatting on the helpline as he worked on a computer problem for me and he mentioned that he had set up a website for his high school radio station down state. He was happy to give us a price to do the same thing for WOAS as a private contractor and with his knowledge of the REMC system, it would have been a fool’s bargain to say ‘no’. Steven has long since gone off into the world of work, but the foundation he laid for www.woas-fm.org is still in place. If it is true that you ‘get what you paid for,’ WOAS got our money’s worth and then some when we hired Steve. Aside from the occasional computer glitch or power outage, the last half decade has been more or less smooth sailing for our digital outreach program.
As of this writing, COVID-19 dictated our entire broadcast schedule for the last three months of the 2019-20 broadcast year and the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. With no students or volunteers broadcasting, yours truly went about the business of keeping WOAS on the air while learning how to navigate a new system set up by the FCC to streamline the license renewal process. It has been my pleasure to run the license renewal gauntlet four times since I became the General Manager in 1997. The learning curve on my first renewal was steep. I had just been approved as the GM when I learned that our license renewal materials had been gathering dust on a shelf deep with old mail. We were weeks from losing our broadcast license, but at least the forms I needed to fill out closely resembled the last renewal form in our files. The second renewal followed a similar vein, except for a small clerical mistake I made by checking a ‘yes’ box where I should have checked ‘no’. All this filing experience came to naught, however, when the FCC went to a computer based system. When I got completely balled up, a very helpful man at the FCC help desk walked me through my problems and he assured me that once I had used the electronic filing system once, it would be a breeze the next time.
License renewals happen on a seven year cycle. The ‘next time’ turned out to be the COVID shortened 2019-20 broadcast year. There were two compounding factors that put this round of license renewal into panic mode. The first was the matter of converting our mandated Public File into an electronic file. There was a two year window to get this done and I had let the time slip long enough that I finally got a friendly note reminding me that this needed to be done before our license renewal could be processed. Checking the calendar in early May, it dawned on me that all of the paperwork to renew our license for the fall of 2020 had to be done by June 1. The second factor slowed progress to a crawl: The renewal portal has been revamped and looked nothing like the one that had been in place at the last filing.
The first phone call to the FCC help desk was like shining a light into a dark tunnel. The helpful voice gave me a guided tour around the new site and suddenly, the Public File migration to the new online system was posted. While waiting for the ‘your Public File has been accepted’ message, I made a second call to sort out the new filing portal. As the second helpful voice pointed me in the right direction, I couldn’t help but hear what sounded like a bit of a sibling battle of wills taking place in the background. “It sounds like you are working from home with the COVID shutdown,” I said. My FCC helpdesk voice said, “Yes, and there are days when the kids get a little stir crazy without school. We live just outside Gettysburg. We have not had many cases here, yet, but we are dreading what will happen when the tourist season begins.” After explaining where Upper Michigan is, I expressed the same concerns. Again, as of this writing, our license renewal has been confirmed and we are good to go for another seven years.
Hats off to REMC-1, the FCC, and all the other organizations who employ people with patience and empathy to answer their helpdesk phones. Our latest encounter was with the repair department at BEXT in San Diego, CA. They answered our questions about our recent transmitter problem. It only took a couple of weeks to get the unit repaired and returned. It has now been reinstalled, so once we get the station put back in order, we will be good to go. Keep checking 88.5 FM as we return to the business of broadcasting over the airwaves, but remember that we are also available at www.woas-fm.org.
Top Piece Video – couldn’t find the right tune to go with this, so in honor of our Kang and Kodos reference, I give you Cub Koda with Brownsville Station’s epic ‘Martian Boogie’.