How are you doing? I have been contemplating the world and looking for something to post on the WOAS-FM.ORG website to provide hope for the future. I was thinking, “What we need is an anthem for 2020 – something that tells the story of these last strange months but leaves the door open a crack…you know, just enough to let a few rays of sunshine spread across the room.” Peggy James upcoming digital release Hard Times popped into my inbox and fulfilled this wish beyond my wildest dreams.
Tom Petty once said that, “When someone asks you to write them a song, what they want you to write is something that sounds like you and not necessarily something that sounds like them.” The guitar interplay in Hard Times reminded me of this quote immediately, but it is not Tom Petty and Mike Campbell at work here – it just sounds like they dropped by to put their stamp on this excellent track. The title may not hint at just how positive the message is, but the music bed lifts one up immediately.
The words are vintage Peggy James and provide just the Rx needed for those of us concerned about the state of the world here and now. Peggy’s lyrics note clearly that,”Nobody is listening any more” and that pretty much cuts to the chase. “Could be hard times, ahead of you and me / there could be hard times, we hope we never see / If we hold on tight, from sea to shining sea / We’ll find a way to get back to our sanity.” Amen, sister Peggy, amen!
There is no reason why a song that name checks a virus pandemic and 9-11 couldn’t be a hit. With that said, I have serious doubts that Peggy sat down and said, “Hmmm, maybe I can make a hit record out of this whole mess.” Kitty Donohoe sat down in the wake of 9-11 and penned There Are No Words to help her cope with the gravity and horror of the attack. It never entered her mind that she would be asked to sing the song at the National 9-11 Commemoration in Washington, D.C. a few years later (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtkC9Dx5JxI&list=RDjtkC9Dx5JxI&start_radio=1.
I will make the motion right now: Any future retrospectives of the COVID-19 pandemic should include Hard Times. Peggy can hang out her shingle and charge whatever she feels like for her musical therapy. Many thanks to our good friend Gary Tanin of Daystorm Music in Milwaukee for sharing this link for Peggy’s latest digital only release: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXCK6SEP5xE
Maybe Hard Times resonated strongly for WOAS-FM as this has been a challenging fall. Certainly having our transmitter go dark on August 17 was not a good omen for the start of the new broadcast year, but these things happen. We checked the usual suspects and found our signal was still being broadcast on our website www.woas-fm.org. When our crack engineer Jim Bradley came in, he chased the ghost in the machine down to the transmitter itself. We were broadcasting a signal on 88.5 FM, but the audio from the board wasn’t included. A couple of emails later, the unit was in transit to BEXT, the company we had purchased it from in 1999. They got right back to us with the prognosis: $400 to repair and return the unit on top of the $100 we spent to ship it to them in the first place. Essentially, we were $500 in the hole with our yearly internet broadcast charge looming by the end of the year. When the school year finally began, we had no staff, no broadcast signal, and a budget that screamed,”deficit spending” in capital letters.
After putting our a couple of short press releases explaining the situation, it dawned on me that there was no use whining about these minor problems. With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting people’s health, welfare, and economic stability, our difficulties were but a bump in the road. The station has always been supported by the Ontonagon Area Schools (who own the station license) and we have never had to worry about paying for our physical space, utilities, and music license fee. The staff have always taken a great deal of pride in being an all volunteer institution that has been able to self-fund through a combination of small revenue streams. The last major fundraising done for WOAS was the $10,000 needed for our last major renovations in 1999. At that time, grants from the school district, UPPCO, and private donations allowed us to replace all of our major studio pieces, many of which were purchased or donated (read: used) in the first decade of the station’s operation. There had been some equipment replacements undertaken since 1978, but the broadcast board and transmitter were both pre-owned units. Replacing those two pieces alone chewed up 60% of the renovation funds.
There was no way we could mount any form of fund drive with more important agencies and groups scrambling to help those in need due to COVID-19 induced hardships. When we simply said we would be grateful to anyone who felt they could help with whatever amount they could spare. We were absolutely gobsmacked by the response. The first item in our mailbox was a note and generous donation from former WOAS DJ Sam Bennett from Marquette. Sam is the son of the late Mike ‘Zenith’ Bennett, our former General Manager and my radio mentor. Sam worked his contacts and soon after, we received a donation from another former DJ, Paul Ninefeldt, now living in southern California. The WOAS West Coast Bureau (Elizabeth Raisanen & Todd Gauthier) and Chirstine & Daniel Raisanen added their good wishes and further donations. Two donations sent in by Ron & Nancy (Savela) Hoffman from Oconto WI, and Bruce & Julie Dembraski, of Ontonagon, pushed us into the black. Having the repairs and other pending bills covered, we can now devote time to getting back on the air and building our war chest for the future. Mere words can not express our level of appreciation to those mentioned above.
One of my greatest fears when thanking people for their contributions is the sin of omission. The thought of leaving someone off the list is a constant concern when so many people have contributed to what we do at WOAS-FM. I will set my terror level on ‘low’ and dig a little deeper into our endless well of appreciation. As previously mentioned, we have existed as an all volunteer community asset since 1978. WOAS has been privileged to work closely with The Ontonagon Theater for the Performing Arts on many musical adventures. The list of supporters and DJs would fill a couple of pages of newsprint, so suffice to say, “You know who you are.”
One of our biggest cost saving measures is the network of contacts we have made with record companies and independent artists over the years. Former WOAS DJ Tommy BoDean has made a career out of radio, rising from small station DJ to major network music director. The last time he was in town, he made sure to stop by and then went the extra mile by putting us in touch with some of his record industry contacts. One small act of kindness later and we are still receiving new music from the sources Tommy B hooked us up with. Many of our music submissions come from a simple email sent out requesting promotional CDs. After seeing The Bomb Squad win the Coca Cola New Band Challenge on TV, we made contact with the Homegrown Music Network. The Bomb Squad was being marketed by HGMN, a group known for helping new bands get their music heard. We had no idea how long we would continue to benefit by signing on as an affiliate. Working with the HGMN eventually put us in contact with David Avery at Powderfinger Productions based in Framingham, MA. David and I discuss a lot of stuff on line and when he sends us new music to preview, we make it a point to air it and get back to him. Record companies thrive on feedback and we are more than willing to provide it. Similar working relationships have developed over the years with Matt LaFolette from the premier blues label Alligator Records, Blue Wave Record, 33 1/3 Records, and a newer label called Blind Racoon Records out of Nashville.
Syndicated programs like The Beal Street Caravan bring a lot of artists to our attention. The programs are recorded at big and small blues festivals and clubs around the world. They will toss in the occasional historical segment to help educate blues fans on the history of the genre. The King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts haven’t delivered new content to us in a while, but there isn’t any reason that we can’t recycle some of their timeless programs.
One of our longest running syndicated shows is The Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour hosted by singer – songwriter Michael Jonathon (who is also a guitar playing – banjo plucking and self-confessed tree-hugger). When we first began airing Woodsongs, it was delivered on cassette tapes that were numbered in double digits. Having amassed a world-wide network of affiliates, Woodsongs’ programs are nearing a thousand episodes. It always tickles our fancy to hear featured artists on Woodsongs who have also appeared at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival. Until this summer, we have always returned from our summer hiatus by featuring PMMF artists, a habit that stretches into a locally produced program called Porkiesfest Radio that WOAS airs year round.
WOAS has been privileged to bring some excellent musicians to the Ontonagon Theater for the Performing Arts. In that Ontonagon is a bit off the beaten path, many bands booked at the theater are happy to pick up a ‘second’ gig by performing for OASD students. The first band we sponsored at the Ontonagon Theater, Measured Chaos, drove here from the Detroit area, played the show the next evening, and then departed for Traverse City, MI so they would be there in time for a morning radio appearance prior to their next gig. Leader Al Jacquez said it was a tough trip, but it did not stop them from doing it all over again a couple of years later. The second go round, we were able to time their concert so they could do a matinee for the school kids. The band was so inundated with questions and requests for autographs after the show, they were talking about an extended future trip that would give them time to do some workshop sessions with the school kids. Unfortunately, there was a big downturn in the music industry before we could arrange a third trip and with two of their band members living in Los Angeles, it wasn’t in the cards.
Other artists that have performed for OASD students include the Los Angeles based band Trees, nationally known folk singer Kitty Donohoe, and another group formerly from downstate, (now working out of Florida), The Rusty Wright Band. Telling the students that they are going to see a blues band resulted in some funny reactions, kind of like how one reacts if you tell them they just stepped in dog poop. Seeing those same faces light up when confronted with live, rocking blues-fusion music is another thing all together. Measured Chaos had never performed for a group of school kids before. Not being able to see the house with the stage lights on, they exchanged quizzical glances at the big reaction Mark Tomorski got when he played his first guitar solo. When the house lights were brought up so the band could do a little Q & A session, they were more than happy to see a packed house.
One of our more recent contacts in the music business is Gary Tanin from Daystorm Music in Milwaukee. We have had the pleasure of receiving and reviewing new music from a bevy of artists Gary works with like Jack Spann, The Young Revelators, Peggy James, Greg Smith, and Locate Your Lips. Our relationship with The Ontonagon Herald allows us to review music for our listeners in this space and introduce artists we might not hear about without this contract.
I will ask again, “How are you doing?” COVID-19 is not what any of us signed on for but it is here and we all need to do our part. Hearing Peggy James sing Hard Times reminded me that we still have a lot to be thankful for in these strange times, and “ If we hold on tight, from sea to shining sea / We’ll find a way to get back to our sanity.” We also have a lot to look forward to.
Thanks to everyone who has contributed to WOAS-FM over the last 42 years – we couldn’t do it without you!
Top Piece Video: Kitty Donohoe performing There Are No Words at the 9-11 National Commemoration in D.C.