February 8, 2021

From the Vaults: WWZS?


     Former WOAS-FM General Manager Mike ‘Zenith’ Bennett was much too young when he passed away a few years back.  Mike was my radio mentor and he made it a point to stay in touch years after he had moved from Ontonagon to Bessemer and eventually to Marquette.  When I was first getting involved in WOAS, we spent many hours talking about life, music, and radio.

Mike had big dreams for extending the broadcast reach of our little 10 watt FM station.  Had he been able to stay in Ontonagon longer, he very well may have been able to find the grants needed to upgrade our signal path.  Zenith envisioned boosting our signal to 100 watts and sending it to the tower located at the top of the Porkies Ski Hill, thus expanding our broadcast footprint much farther than our normal 15 to 20 miles.  Mike was forced to leave his beloved station behind to follow other job opportunities, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still hold mental conversations with him when plotting our next project at WOAS-FM.

     It wasn’t all that long ago that the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” was popular.  The shortened version appeared everywhere from posters to wristbands, condensing the message to ‘WWJD?’.  My radio version of this is ‘WWZS?’.  It has been over twenty years since Mike left town so there have been many changes at WOAS-FM.  When I look at something at WOAS-FM that is now different than before Mike left, I often ask myself, “What Would Zenith Say?”

     When he was still stopping by or making contact via e-mail, Mike always asked, “What’s new?”  When I filled him in on the latest upgrade project or programming change, he was always positive and encouraging.  During my first two years as GM, we were able to gather enough grants and donations to do a full remodelling of the station facilities and equipment.  It was the first large scale upgrade since Mike’s Community School program had taken over the station’s operations in the 1980s.  When he heard the story of how we were able to get both studios recarpeted, he laughed and said, “You must have planned it that way.”  

    We just happened to be in the process of removing all of the desks, shelves, and equipment bays prior to replacing all of our electronic gear when the school contracted to have the carpeting in the library replaced.  The principal was fine with the new carpeting being extended into our studios which occupy two former study rooms adjacent to the library.  “As long as they have enough spare carpeting to do it,” was all he said.  I didn’t bother to mention to him that I had already talked to the contractor.  He had assured me that it was standard procedure to order a certain amount of extra carpeting and he anticipated our two little rooms could be done with what they already had on hand.  Both the principal and contractor reminded me that I would have to clear the stuff out of the rooms, but by the time we got to discussing it, the rooms were already empty.  In this case, I was able to get an answer to WWZS? right from the horse’s mouth.  Mike said, “Atta boy, that is exactly how I would have done it.  Never buy something that is free or can be bartered for.”  Zenith would have been one of those ‘tinkers’ in the old days as he was a master of bartering deals to get what was needed for WOAS and his Community Schools program.

     Mike wanted to increase our signal to 100 watts but the cost of the equipment to do so was beyond our meager budget.  Any time Mike would learn about an upcoming grant, he would set about writing a proposal that might allow the upgrade.  Up to the point he moved to Bessemer, no grant money was forthcoming (but he kept looking, even after he left Ontonagon).  Raising the signal from 10 to 100 watts wasn’t the show stopper here, it was the height of our tower.  FM signals travel in a straight line and one must have a clear path between their receiver and the tower to pick up the signal.  With the hilly topography surrounding Ontonagon, merely boosting the signal wouldn’t yield the results that Mike was hoping for.  The WOAS-FM tower is located next to the school gym and tops off at 138 feet in elevation.  Ontonagon is the lowest part of the county with ranges of hills in excess of 1500 feet twelve miles in three directions.  To truly extend the WOAS-FM signal, the increased wattage would need to be broadcast from a higher tower or at least a tower in a higher location.  The cost and logistics of bouncing our signal off the tower that already existed at the top of the Porkies Ski Hill (and is still there) were two insurmountable problems that kept frustrating Mike.

     Zenith had already left Ontonagon when the school was first wired for the internet.  An interested group of volunteers (including yours truly) helped the crew from the Intermediate School District string the cables, thus expediting our jump into the digital world.  As soon as we had the basic knowledge and tools to begin using the internet as a teaching tool, we began to investigate the possibility of expanding WOAS’s reach via the internet.  Mike kept sending me ideas of how we might be able to fund the signal boost, but as previously mentioned, none of these avenues panned out.  When the idea of broadcasting the WOAS-FM signal on the internet was mentioned, it was another case of getting a direct WWZS? answer:  “If you can do that, it would be really cool!”  The technology employed by the ISD to get all the schools online was changing so rapidly that we spent a lot of time retooling our internet broadcast idea as things evolved.  We would find a way to adapt our signal chain to the system and as soon as we worked out most of the bugs, the equipment would be improved and we would have another hoop to jump through.

     One area that the ISD tweaked a couple of times was the support network.  The  larger the system grew, the more staff they needed to work on the facilities.  As the technological side expanded, a help network evolved so there is now a dedicated crew of techies available.  The tech support team assists users when problems come up and upgrades are needed.  When the network was smaller, some of us were trained to do much of the trouble shooting on our own.  There were times when I would get a call to go and ‘recycle the power’ on the equipment bay in my old classroom.  This meant a trip down the hall to perform the reset.  I would wait a minute to power things back up, then trot back to my room and report what the indicator lights were doing.  If the system reset worked, it saved someone a trip from the ISD-REMC 1 office in Hancock.  Most small computer problems were handled by those of us who had been given the minimal ‘how to fix minor problems’ training.  As the system became more and more complex, it made more sense for the ISD to consolidate the problem solving duties to a centralized staff who would be fully attuned to the intricacies of the network.  I used to feel fairly competent trouble shooting computer problems, but those skills have eroded since we now have someone else taking care of computer and network issues.

     The ability to broadcast our audio and webcam signals via our website took a leap foreward when we were able to partner with a techie who had set up a similar system at his former high school.  Our previous WOAS-Internet interface work had been handled by some of our DJs who had more IT skills than the station manager (me!).  Mark, Daniel, and Tyler had done everything possible to keep us connected to the world wide web in the early days.  When the techs took over more of the nuts and bolts tasks, it made sense to hire someone who worked on the ‘inside’ of the ISD-REMC network to get us set up with the latest iteration of our web presence. 

     I can already hear Zenith’s response to our last upgrade.  We were relying on a free video streaming service who shall remain nameless.  One day the feed stopped.  After trying all the fixes and resets available to me (to no avail), I put in the hands of the support network in Hancock.  Many weeks later, the verdict was:  “The free service has been dropped but you can continue with them for $100 per month!”  The cost of this was not in our budget so I asked them to see if there was a free replacement service available.  Their research landed us on TwitchTV and the service has been much more stable and reliable than our past service.  Mike would have approved:  “Atta boy, that is how to get ‘er done!”

     It is one of my duties to remind new DJs that we can be heard and seen all over the globe.  One of our original tag lines was, “The little station by the big lake,” but these days, we like to tweak a ZZ Top lyric a bit and say, “We are bad, we are World-wide!”  WWZS?  Zenith used to joke that DJs “better behave on air – your mothers are listening.”  The letters and phone calls he received told him we had a bigger audience than we suspected.  Today we get emails from far flung places and our logos have been worn on apparel on every continent except Africa (which we are still working on).

     At the time we cabled the building, it was determined that each classroom could get by with two internet drops per room.  Two drops allowed up to four computers to be connected to the internet in each room.  That made sense because there were multiple machines available in the computer lab and most classrooms had one or two computers in those days.  We put one two-port drop into the WOAS production studio figuring this would give us plenty of flexibility for the future.  That is before we began thinking about audio and visual streaming.  Both of those ports are now occupied by our streaming server that hosts our rooftop weather station plus our audio and video streams.  When I retired in July of 2018, my office moved from my old classroom into the WOAS-FM production studio.  Luckily there was an internet port just outside the studio door that was available for the internet connection needed to keep me in business using my desktop computer.  Obtaining a Chromebook with Wifi has expanded our DJ’s connectivity without pulling more cable.

     When Mike left town, we were still doing most of our radio correspondence via phone and fax.  Today, 90% of those functions are handled over the internet.  We used to get promotional materials from record companies in the form of albums or 45 RPM records.  Eventually, cassettes and CDs became the standard mode in which we obtained new music.  Today, CDs account for about 70% of our new music acquisitions (and strangely enough, we are getting a trickle of vinyl albums again), with the other 30% arriving as digital downloads.  The digital distribution is growing and the Public Service Announcements (PSAs) we air actually reverse those numbers with 70% arriving in digital form.  WWZS?

     In Mike’s GM days, we had a phone in the studio.  The district installed a newer phone system with lines to each classroom just after Bennett left, but for some reason they didn’t bother to replace the phone in the radio lab.  In my early days as GM, I began researching a way to get a phone back in the studio.  We found a phone had been installed in the chemistry glass storage room (where there had never been one previously).  It became a nuisance when students found they could sneak in and use it without having to ask permission.  I asked if we could solve two problems by relocating this line to WOAS-FM.  All it took was an hour to pull the cable from one end of the hall to the studio.  The phone number doesn’t match the number on the studio door, but we  have been available at 906 813 0614, Ext. 113 ever since.  WWZS?  Mike used to call me on what he referred to as our ‘PPL’ or ‘pirated phone line’.  With the advent and evolution of cell phones, our students have no problem being in touch with the outside world.  The installation of wireless nodes throughout the school also means that students have easy access to the internet via portable chromebooks, I-pads, and phones.  From our ‘PPL’ to ‘unlimited access to the world’ – WWZS? about this explosion of technological advancement?  

     As a teacher, I loved integrating the internet into my classroom as a tool but disliked the many distractions it provided students if not monitored properly.  The same can be said for our DJs at WOAS, but if used properly, the wireless connection to the studio can enhance their radio communication skills.  I do remind them that we do not want people tuning in to our camera feed to see DJs constantly absorbed in their phones.  Broadcasting involves enough tasks that simply playing music while diddling on one’s phone does not make for compelling radio.  With that said, using chromebooks and phones to augment a radio program is encouraged.  We will, from time to time, engage in ‘CD only’ broadcast weeks to keep the DJ’s other skills from eroding like my computer teching skills. 

      WWZS? about the state of the internet and wireless broadcast capabilities?  Knowing how excited he was when cassettes (and later CDs) entered the picture, I am sure he would be even more excited by the improvements these new technologies offer to our DJs. As my immediate predecessor as the GM at WOAS-FM, I can never thank Zenith enough for rescuing the station back when it was on the verge of extinction.  We will do our best to honor those who laid a solid foundation in the first twenty years of the station by continuing to improve with an eye to the future.  One can imagine ‘WWZS?’ about WOAS moving into year 43. 

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