Friday October 13, 2023 turned out to be our lucky day. Like the visit paid to us by John Carlisle and Ryan Garza from the Detroit Free Press back in April of 2023, we weren’t really at liberty to say much about NBC Nightly News visiting WOAS until our story aired. The Freep guys said, “Sure, write about the visit, but after the article goes to print,” which finally happened on July 13, 2023. Hmmm, there is that number 13 again… but in this case, it was a Tuesday. In this day and age, it didn’t take long for social media to start spreading the word about NBC Nightly News coming to Ontonagon, but we figured it was better to play it safe and keep the details to ourselves until their piece aired. If you are reading this, then it isn’t much of a secret any more as the segment about WOAS-FM 88.5 appeared on the NBC Nightly News on November 9, 2023. A quick search for ‘WOAS’ at NBC.com will direct you to a slightly longer version of what was broadcast that night. In order to understand the complexity of having a major news outlet do a feature on our area, we need to go back to the beginning, more or less.
Not long after the Freep published John Carlisle’s article (on the front page no less and also on their web site), it was shared extensively by different social media outlets. At the time it came out, we thought our three month fundraising effort for the station was nearing the end, but the Freep article kicked it into gear again. Mitch Albom picked up the story and put us on the air for a very pleasant ten minute chat about the importance of high school and college radio stations. A few days later, we got a call from Kinjal Patel at NBC Universal who wanted to know more about WOAS and why we needed to purchase a new transmitter. Kinjal told us she saw WOAS as a ‘feel good’ story about a small town radio station and said she was going to pitch the idea to her group and see if they thought it would be a worthy story for NBC to cover.
It wasn’t long before Kinjal called us back. She was excited her team gave her the go ahead to start working on the story. She asked a bunch of questions about where we were in the efforts to get a new transmitter and frequency, how long we had been on the air, and so on. The third time she made contact, she said their idea was to come and do the piece once the new transmitter was in place. At that time, we were planning on placing the order and having it up and running by mid-August. Various delays kept the order from being filled immediately so we kept updating Kinjal with promises that ‘as soon as we know, you will know’. As August turned to September, it began looking like perhaps the shelf life on our feel good story was going to expire before we ever got the new unit on the air (we had continued to broadcast with our old transmitter in the meantime).
Once the new transmitter arrived and our engineer Jim Bradley had it mounted in a temporary equipment rack, we let Kinjal know it was in service. The new unit did not fit in our old rack so we sat down to plan how the studio could be rearranged to make it more convenient to service all of the rack mounted pieces. We decided a new, free standing floor bay would solve all of our problems, but the new layout added another couple of weeks to our renovation plans. After trying to let Kinja know we understood if things had taken too long on our end, she said point blank, “No, we still have it on our big board and are trying to work on the arrangements to get a correspondent, producer and film crew there. I will let you know.”
Prior to 1999, the station had two very large steel equipment bays standing in the same area we pictured installing the new one. Those two large racks contained the original transmitter and two very large reel to reel tape decks. All of these units were ‘pre-owned’ before being put to work in the station as was the broadcast board. When we remodeled twenty-five years ago, we no longer needed these large bays so they went out the door and all the new (and smaller) equipment went on a shelf high in the corner of the studio. It was a great way to save floor space and keep busy fingers away from the electronics, but it was a pain to access for any kind of maintenance. The floor space taken up by the two bays was now occupied by a desk and computer that served as our station logging device. With WiFi connected Chromebooks now in use, we were able to move out the computer station to make way for the new bay. In other words, we have kind of come full circle from floor bays back to a single free standing rack unit.
Just prior to the new, unassembled equipment rack’s arrival, Kinjal called with the good news. The field producer would be calling me early the next week to work on the logistics of their visit which was now scheduled for Friday October 13. I had pretty much convinced myself that we would simply be broadcasting with our temporary rigging until after they had been here, but I didn’t count on Jim’s ‘let’s get ‘er done’ enthusiasm. When he asked, “How far did you get on putting the new rack together?” I had to admit it took me an hour and a half just to get it out of the packing material. Surely the components for the Hubble Space Telescope arrived with less padding, strapping, cardboard, and tape holding them all together. Time was ticking, but on the Wednesday before the NBC team arrived, we dug in and assembled most of the new bay.
Thursday dawned with the rack rails and shelf in the new bay almost ready to receive the devices from the old rack. In a matter of hours, Jim had disconnected all of the wiring save the ones running the new transmitter (we were still on the air). From the bottom up, we mounted the power conditioner unit, the old transmitter (for nostalgia’s sake), two shelves, the headphone amp, and the studio monitor amp. Around 3:00 p.m. we had to shut down the station to move the new transmitter, reconnect the assorted cables, and then power all of it up again. All in all, the station was dark for about three hours and there were smiles all around when everything decided to play nicely together – we were back on the air, but not done. Jim needed to bundle the cables running down from the ceiling and replace all the dislodged ceiling tiles. There are some cable connectors we need to redo so the front door and back panel can be installed on the bay, but two days and fifteen hours after Jim started, we had a presentable radio studio on the air.
Having the two Freep guys here gave us a pretty good idea of how a visit from a big media outlet worked. NBC was sending a team of four so it made sense they were going to need more space and time to do their thing. John and Ryan spent several hours in the building so we did the math and figured this was going to be a bit longer. When the field producer, Ramon, called and said they would like to get set up at 7:00 a.m. Friday, it pretty well confirmed our suspicions that this would end up being a very long, interesting adventure.
By Friday morning, I was already exhausted but still managed to be waiting by the front door when the sound and film guys (Marty and Steve) arrived promptly at 7:00 a.m. They had come up from Chicago and spent the night in Marquette and left there at 5:00 a.m. to get to Ontonagon. Ramon had called me Thursday night from Marquette to say he would be arriving in town that night and would see me in the morning. He arrived about ten minutes after the other two and reported that the correspondent (Maggie Vespa) had flown into Green Bay and would be driving up and arriving a little later in the morning. With the WOAS studios located in two rooms inside the library, we had made prior arrangements for the crew to use the library for the day. As we watched them unpack all their gear, our library aide (and faithful WOAS on site assistant) commented, “It is a good thing we cleared the library for today – they wouldn’t fit all of that into the studio.”
My job was simple: show them where to set up, answer any questions, and stay out of the way. Getting to be a fly on the wall watching the well oiled machinery of a veteran news crew go about their tasks was a lesson in TV journalism. One does not think about all of the behind the scenes stuff that goes on when sitting down to watch a news broadcast. Ramon was the ringmaster of this traveling circus and he had pages of notes prepared to make sure they got all their tasks done. He had a timeline established and on occasion he would note, “We are ten minutes behind,” or “we have fifteen minutes left to do this,” and so on. There were no random acts involved in the whole process – everything was done according to plan.
Just before Maggie arrived, I volunteered to run downtown to pick up the breakfast order Ramon had called in earlier. No sooner had I arrived with four breakfasts, bakery, and coffee for all, Maggie pulled in after driving north from Green Bay. By mid-morning, the crew was set up, fed, and ready to start doing the interview segments. Marty hooked up both of us with wireless microphones. While Steve adjusted the angles and backgrounds for the two cameras they would be using, Maggie and I talked about the Bears and the Packers. Maggie is an Illinois native and as only two lifelong Bear and Packer fans could, we lamented about how sad the current season was playing out for both teams. After a little discussion about the kinds of questions she would be asking out of the way, and we were off.
It seemed like less of an ‘interview’ than two people simply having a conversation. Professionals like Maggie know how to put their subjects at ease and I thought, “Wait a minute, how come I am not nervous?” I have been interviewed for TV before and my goal is to not come off sounding like Elmer Fudd. In this case, it was, dare I say, fun to be in the middle of the whole process. Ramon was somewhere behind me. He and Maggie would exchange ideas about questions to pursue, the timeline, and so on. My job, again, was to watch all this transpire and enjoy seeing them do their jobs (and not to sound too ‘Fuddian’).
We had lined up student DJs to be interviewed. The front office staff and Betsy took care of rounding them up when they were needed. Counselor Lindsey rolled in with the portable coffee cart she uses for events and treated everyone with hot refills for their already cold breakfast coffee. Classes changed, students peeked through the doors as they walked by, and the school day unfolded like any other day. The camera man spent some time taking background shots around the school and Marty was constantly fiddling with his gear, changing batteries, swapping mics and so on between interviews. With one of my principle DJs out of town and another who suddenly developed cold feet about being interviewed, we had to go to Plan B.
The school started a new communications class this year and I have been working with instructor Tim Nelson to get his nine sophomores involved in radio. These students rotate their days in the studio so they have not had the amount of time in the studio as our three senior DJs who are on the air everyday. Nonetheless, it fell upon two sophomore communications students, (‘NelComms’, we call them) Violet Amos and Jack Nelson, to represent the school and WOAS-FM. Watching Maggie introduce herself to them was as close as I got to their interviews. They disappeared into the station and all I heard was Maggie’s assessment when they were done: “Oh, they did great – they were so cute!” This first segment was all interviews and data gathering. The plan was to have Jack and Violet return later so the crew could shoot some footage of them broadcasting in the studio.
We went out the back door to shoot a little footage of Maggie and I talking about the radio tower which stands next to the gym wall. Once that wrapped up, they whisked Maggie off to do some shots around town and to pick up lunch. Maggie said her goodbyes so she could get back on the road to Green Bay to catch her flight home. After playing food ‘gopher’ (as in ‘go for’) earlier, I tried on my other hat and played ‘security’ so they wouldn’t have to pack up all their equipment while they were downtown with Maggie. Yes, I will admit I did the cliche cop thing and passed the time with donuts and coffee.
When the crew arrived to eat their lunch sans Maggie, I heard the announcement that the football team should report to the bus at 2:00 p.m. to depart for their away football game. I called across the library, “Hey, Ramon, do you know that Jack will be leaving in fifteen minutes with the football team?” “Where is the bus loading?” he asked. I pointed down the hall toward the student parking lot. Ramon, Steve, and Marty sprang up from their lunch and grabbed their gear: “Can you get Violet down there so we can get a couple of shots of them together before Jack leaves? We will figure out the studio shots later.” They went one way and I went to the office to find Violet. Fifteen minutes later, they were back at lunch, Jack was on the way to a football game, and Violet returned to class to await her third call to be filmed.
The rest of the day consisted of bits and pieces. They filmed multiple takes of Violet doing station breaks between fading out and back into the music being broadcast. Once they had all their gear stowed, there was one last element Ramon wanted filmed. Marty and Steve set up curbside on River Street and flew a drone camera back and forth while Ramon and I drove the same three blocks several times. Ramon filmed my car radio changing from static to the tunes coming in on 88.5. After exchanging good-byes, I went home at 6:00 p.m. exhausted while they faced another long drive (and a flight for Ramon back to New York) to get back home.
When I thanked them for coming all the way to our little corner of the world, they in turn thanked everyone who had shown them so much hospitality. Who knew when this whole losing our 88.5 frequency adventure started it would end up generating so many positive experiences for our station, the school, and the community?
In the aftermath of the segment being aired on NBC Nightly News, my phone blew up with texts, emails, and phone calls. Ramon and Kinjal were both excited and he passed along that, “This was a fun one to do. Everyone at Nightly loved it, too. A bright light we all needed.” Although Kinjal left NBC for a job at CBS shortly before the piece aired, we remember it was her vision that saw ‘a feel good story’ in what was taking place with WOAS. I predict we will be hearing more from Kinjal, Ramon, and Maggie in the future and can’t thank them enough for shining a light on our little corner of the world.
Top Piece Video: Yes, we were all a little Radio Ga Ga when NBC came to town to visit our humble little studio!