Early in the spring of 2023, John Carlisle from the Detroit Free Press called the WOAS-FM studio to inquire how our fundraising was going. It didn’t dawn on me to ask where he had heard about our need to purchase a new transmitter but I told him, “We are just getting started on it and I will be able to tell you more in a couple of weeks.” John is no stranger to the Upper Peninsula as he has written many feature stories about the places and the people that inhabit Michigan’s ‘true far north’ (pardon my bias – it drives me nuts when people from the Lower Peninsula refer to the Traverse City area as ‘northern Michigan’). Carlisle is also quite familiar with the Ontonagon area; you may have seen his feature on Stubb’s Museum Bar that went to sprint and was posted online in the fall of 2022. John asked if we might be interested in him doing a piece on WOAS-FM. He mentioned ‘they’ would be coming up in the near future and perhaps the exposure would aid in our fundraising campaign. The other part of ‘they’ would turn out to be photographer Ryan Garza. We will get back to them in a few minutes.
In the earliest days of our fundraiser, I had no idea how quickly folks would respond. One should not forget that Ontonagonites are a generous lot. Whether they have migrated to distant places or have kept their deep local roots, people from Ontonagon County will always lend a helping hand for a worthy cause. When John called me back a few weeks later, I had to break the good news to him: “Ah, John, about that ‘helping with the fundraising’ part of your article. We are already 75 percent there.” Indeed, we ended up eclipsing our $2850 goal within a month and gained some much needed operating dollars to boot. “That’s great,” he said, “but that was only going to be part of the feature. WOAS will still make an interesting story.” To give him some background, I sent along a couple of articles detailing the history of WOAS-FM. We like to run something about the station’s origins every few years to acquaint new listeners to our little station by the big lake. I just had to reach back in the archives and pluck out a couple of the more recent updates.
Traveling from Detroit to the far Western U.P. isn’t something one does without putting together a multi-stop tour itinerary. When John had finally figured out their schedule, he got back to me to let us know about the dates they had picked to be in Ontonagon. Once we were on the same page, I let the station DJs know the Freep guys were coming and asked them to plan on being available for interviews. Our engineer, Jim Bradley, is the only volunteer left on board whose history with the station goes back to the original construction of the station in 1978. It made sense to get him in the picture. The only stipulation we were given by John was ‘don’t share the details of our visit until after the piece runs in the Detroit Free Press’. The last statement means as of July 13, 2023 the article has gone to print (and is also posted eonline) so we can now share ‘the rest of the story’. (One additional note: after sharing the link to the article, I discovered the Free Press gives free access to these articles for a day and then requests one subscribe after the first day. Given enough time, the link will appear elsewhere for the general public to view it. Search for ‘U.P. radio station had the same dial spot for decades until bigger station took frequency’ by John Carlisle for the Detroit Free Press).
Anytime the outside world takes notice of little old Ontonagon, it is a big deal for those of us living on the north terminus of US 45. While it is always fun to see this area covered in various forms of media, the interesting part (for me, at least) is getting to talk to the folks who come here to spread the word about our corner of the world. One can always learn a lot about what others think of our hometown when they begin asking detailed questions. Topics from ancient history to what happened yesterday can enter the discussion. If you don’t know the answer, you probably are acquainted with someone who does. What is it they say about there being no secrets in a small town?
John Carlisle has been with the Free Press since 2013 and according to his bio on the Freep website, “He has written about people and places that few others give attention to, from small towns in Northern Michigan to inner-city neighborhoods in the Motor City. A Detroit native, Carlisle earned a journalism degree from Wayne State University. He is the author of the book 313: Life in the Motor City, a collection of stories and photographs about Detroit. In his 10 years as a Free Press columnist, Carlisle has won nearly five dozen state and national awards for his writing, including six Emmy Awards.” The site also provides links to 20 or so of his most recent articles, including the one about Stubb’s Museum Bar.
Carlisle’s partner in crime on this trip was staff photographer Ryan Garza. Ryan’s bio is a bit less expansive than John’s, stating he is a, “Flint-based Emmy award-winning photojournalist working for the Detroit Free Press” followed by a link to a visual photo-essay on the Flint water crisis. Maybe it is a good thing we didn’t know we would be fielding questions from two Emmy award winning journalists. That knowledge may have made us a little nervous, but it also makes us kind of proud that the Free Press sent us a couple of their best to do the feature.
The last television news coverage WOAS-FM got was back in the winter term of 2022 when Matt Price from WLUC-TV 6 in Marquette came to town. Matt paid us a visit to document our seventh year of the Strive 4 a Safer Drive / Don’t be Distracted Public Service Campaign. Like John and Ryan, he spent the better part of a full day roaming the halls of the Ontonagon Area Schools building. Unlike the Freep guys, Matt recorded all his material with a rather large tripod mounted camera and microphone. One could see the wheels turning in his head as he filmed short segments of the campaign banners, displays, and student art work done as part of this yearly event. It all seemed rather random until he got a couple of our student volunteers in front of the camera; at this point his mental organization of the topic began to emerge. . If they were nervous, it wasn’t apparent because Matt walked them through some questions about the S4SD program and let them tell him a lot more information than he would be able to use in the final report aired on TV6. It all made a lot more sense when he had edited it down to the final form that aired on the news. Matt ended up summarizing his piece while seated at the WOAS-FM broadcast board. It was a nice way to remind viewers the local S4SD – DbD program was put together by the station’s DJ staff.
John and Ryan came as a package deal, although they both drove to town separately. In fact, I met Ryan first and thought he was John because I had not met either member of the tag team coming to do the story. Both asked a lot of questions and took enough photos to fill an entire scrapbook. The number of photos used in the actual Free Press (which I had not seen as of this writing) would no doubt be fewer in number than the ones posted online if the Stubb’s article is any indication. The student DJs accounted themselves well and showed a lot of poise although one confessed afterward they had been a ‘nervous wreck’ (there were no indications of this state of mind during the time he spent with John and Ryan).
Engineer Jim Bradley was on hand to fill in some of the information about the original construction of the station in the late 1970s. I did not get involved with the station at first and therefore, I know more about the history from the mid-1980s to the present. Our Friday evening DJ, Lee ‘The Nightflyer’ MacCaffrey also stopped by to give them some impressions on what we call ‘the nightshift’ (the students, of course, are the ‘dayshift’). I tried not to be a fly on the wall during these interviews, but I did hear them asking Lee why he got involved in the first place. By now, you have probably realized that I am not going to cover everything that appeared in the Detroit Free Press article. John said he will send us a copy or two of the paper (the Freep is more difficult to find around here these days with no local distributor for the Free Press in our area). We will leave it to our readers to decide if they want to find it online.
The one topic we spent a lot of time on was the reason we had to fundraise for a new transmitter to begin with. As I have previously explained over the past months, our Class D non-commercial frequency was purchased at a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) auction by a Class A non-commercial licensed station out of Marquette in November of 2021. We knew nothing about this turn of events until the Marquette group finally sent us an email detailing their plans. The FCC does not notify those being displaced and the auction winners are not legally bound to do so, either. John wanted to know how this made me feel and I told him, “At the time I was angry. I did not know that much about the process of allocating frequencies so I contacted the FCC for clarification. Some have asked ‘How can the FCC do this to you?’ but it wasn’t their doing. The way educational frequencies are allocated, ours is unprotected even though we have used it for 45 years. It could have been worse: the new owners could have simply constructed their tower in Rockland and overpowered us completely – now that would have really been a surprise. I began as a volunteer at WOAS and inherited the manager’s job when former GM Mike ‘Zenith’ Bennett had to leave the area to pursue other opportunities. As a newbie to the radio game, I will admit there are many things I still am not up to speed on.
According to the consultant who recommended the Marquette group bid on our frequency, there are many frequencies available for us to move to. This left me somewhat mystified – why 88.5 was their ‘best choice’ (as he framed it)? We asked this very question several times but the answer was always the same: “Our consultant said it is the best one for us.” With the help of the FCC (who have been great to work with, I should add), a path forward became more apparent. For WOAS-FM to continue, we would have to apply for a new section of band width. When a window opens for us to apply to upgrade from Class D to Class A, we will consider it to lock in our new home. To move up in class, we would need to up our power so it was also logical for us to replace our 25 year old (and once repaired) transmitter with a new one running at 100 watts. Rather than dwell on what happened, we are looking forward to moving on. Thanks to you, dear readers, we now have the finances in hand to do just that.
Once the Free Press article was released, an amazing series of events began, proving to me that radio is still an important medium (even with the number of entertainment choices available on multiple platforms). The first was a call from a couple in Detroit who had seen the article and asked where they could send a donation. Several people had asked previously if we had a GoFundMe site, but as a school owned station, we needed to keep it on an old fashioned “If you wish to send us a check, that would be great” level. The same goes for setting up any form of electronic money transfers. A woman from Dearborn, MI summed up the sentiments of the majority of the new contacts when she wrote, “What a great ‘feel good’ story about the determination and community love for WOAS radio. What we all need to hear about these days.” With in the course of a day, more inquiries about making donations came via email, including one from another Detroiter who wished to donate by purchasing station ‘swag’ (either a T-shirt or ball cap).
My answer to these inquiries was the same as we put out at the beginning of our fundraising efforts: “A check made out to WOAS-FM sent to 701 Parker Avenue, Ontonagon, MI 49953 works for us. We get our shirts and caps made locally so they can be obtained by sending $20 for either with size, shirt color, and logo color specified for shirts (ball caps are gray with a maroon logo). At this point, the logos will all be ‘legacy designs’ featuring our original 88.5 FM. When the frequency changes, so will the design on our colors..
As I was replying to the emails, the phone rang and a voice I did not recognize asked if I was Ken Raisanen from WOAS. I confirmed my identity and my jaw dropped a bit when he asked, “Would you be available to do a phone interview with Mitch on WJR AM at 5:35 this afternoon?” I had a sneaking suspicion who he was talking about but I still had to ask, “Mitch who?” He replied, “Mitch Albom.” Me: “Oh, the Detroit Free Press guy!”
Sure enough, the same voice called me later in the afternoon, asked how to pronounce my name and said, “You will be on after the break.” Through my phone, I could hear Mitch and his partner (sorry, missed his name) talking about how a lot of radio folks got started in college radio. They discussed their college radio experiences and then turned their attention to John Carlilse’s article about WOAS. Thus began a three way conversation where I was asked to describe what was happening, how it happened, how we felt about it, etc etc etc. It was a pleasant (and humorous) ten minutes that flew by – talk radio people have a knack for putting their guests at ease and Mitch Albom is definitely a pro.
The next afternoon, I got an email from a young lady from NBC Universal. She asked me to call her so she could ask some questions about the radio station. When we connected, she told me she wanted more information so she could pitch our story to her team to see if it could be worked up for the NBC Nightly News. It was another pleasant conversation and she asked if she could call back for more information as needed. Less than an hour later, she sent me an email that said, “The team liked my pitch!!! Would you be available to be interviewed early next week?” She made no promises about a segment being aired, but she was genuinely excited and mentioned she saw this as a ‘feel good’ story to help balance some of the less happy news aired nightly. As shocking as the news about our frequency being bought out was (when we found out in April of 2022), we had no way of knowing how far the news about our little station would resonate with people. This is truly a case of making lemonade out of lemons. The latest site to spread the word about the story came from Fred Jacobs Media – it is too long to relate here but Fred is a long time radio guy and his JacoBlog isn’t hard to find.
I noticed the Marquette Mining Journal ran an abbreviated version of the story on their website based on John’s article. The title (and information) used was taken directly from the Freep article, but so many details were omitted from this version that even I had a hard time following it. As this piece is being prepared to go to print, I don’t have all the answers to how this new found media attention will play out. We have found ourselves a whole new batch of supporters and friends and we will be eternally grateful to John and Ryan for covering our story.
Top Piece Video – Okay, Detroit plays big in this story, so how about a little Rock and Roll . . .performed by that good old Motor City boy Alice – well, at least Detroit got Alice early on and he pays tribute on his latest album, including this Mitch Ryder cover.