From time to time it is kind of fun to go back and look at how we got here. For WOAS-FM, ‘here’ means ‘still here as we enter our 40th year on the air’. While yours truly has been in Ontonagon as long as the station has been on the air, I was more of a casual listener over the first decade, an active participant during the second decade, and the General Manager over the past two decades. With each decade, changes in the station’s staff, equipment, technology, schedule and funding have ebbed and flowed. What has not changed is the vision of who we are. The best way to explain that vision is to go back and look at the distinct stages of our history.
WOAS-FM was the brainchild of the Ontonagon Area Schools high school librarian, Thomas Graham Lee. Tom and I started our careers with the Ontonagon Area Schools at the same time. With Tom working in the high school on Parker Ave. and me at the elementary/junior high building Greenland Road, we didn’t really get to know each other very well. Tom decided that Ontonagon needed a radio station, so he set about gathering the facts, volunteers, and equipment necessary to build a station. Undoubtable there are records somewhere detailing what it cost to put WOAS-FM on the air, but Lee’s operative words were ‘volunteers’ and ‘donations’. There is a long list of names that would need to be inserted here to cover all of the volunteers and donors Lee brought together and I am reluctant to start naming names for fear of missing more than a few. I will venture to say that the core of the braintrust that kept the train rolling forward included Lee, Jim Bradley and OASD electronics teacher Larry Mattioli. The rest involved can add their names to the list..
When the station went on the air, the equipment may not have been ‘state of the art’ but it all functioned. Broadcasting at a frequency of 88.5 Megahertz with a transmitter power of 10 Watts meant the station could be picked up in a 17 to 20 mile radius of our tower which stands next to the OASD gym (FM signals travel in straight lines so local terrain dictates where the signal can or cannot be heard). The DJs had two turntables built into the broadcast desk, a rotary dial broadcast board, and a large metal tower that held the studio’s amp, transmitter, and a reel to reel tape player. DJs on the would spin tunes the old fashioned way and syndicated programs obtained on tape could be played on the reel to reel player during times when there wasn’t a live DJ in the studio. During the installation phase, wires were strung to the gym and cafetorium so remote broadcasts could be made from those locations. The station staff was made up of students who took a basic broadcasting class run by Lee and the student staff would donate their study hall time so they could broadcast during the school day. Community members and school staff were invited to join the family, but sadly a list of who they were and what they broadcast are lost to the sands of time. My first contact with WOAS-FM came when my FM Radio Alarm clock would go off in the morning to the golden voiced duo of Tom Voyce and Bill Kilmer (and others who also filled that time slot) doing their thing an hour before school began .
I must confess to being a little hazy on the period after the station was already established because I was laid off for a year, got married, and returned to NMU to finish my MA in Geography. When I came back to Ontonagon in the fall of 1980, I had kind of lost touch with the station’s doings. What I know now is Tom Lee had turned over the day to day operations to Margarite Muskatt and she in turn gave the student managers most of the responsibility for the day to day operations. During the early part of the 1980s, the equipment (most of which was donated used to begin with) began to break down with greater regularity. With the initial novelty having worn off and a new player in town (WONT FM which would ultimately become WUPY Y101), student interest in WOAS-FM began to wane.
In the mid-1980s, Mike Bennett entered the picture. With the station equipment, staff, and schedule circling the drain, Bennett saw its potential and petitioned the OASD Board of Education to let him take over the station and run it as one of his Community School programs. Bennett’s position as the Community Schools director gave him access to new sources of revenue and he began refurbishing the station’s facilities and morale. Mike also loved music so the contacts he made with record companies brought in an influx of vinyl records and a new fangled medium, cassette tapes. The cassette tapes were a huge addition for me because that is how I got involved. When the junior high students moved into the high school building for the 1983-84 school year, I got to know more about Mike and the station because were were now all under one roof. I made a few cassettes of music I liked with my first attempts being a DJ added from my primitive home studio and I dropped them off in his office one day. I told Mike, “If you think these are okay, you can use them on the air and I can make more.” A couple of days later, he handed me a box of blank cassettes and said, “Hey, you can be the oldies guy. There is a lot of great music there. Do you have a name for your show?”
MTV was blowing up at the time so I decided to rip them off a bit by coming up with a snappy sounding name that could be abbreviated into three letters. “From The Vaults” popped into my head as I was making the next batch of tapes and I liked the way ‘FTV’ sounded so that was that. Years later, I found out that Sony Music began selling music under their own From The Vaults label, but neither of us has taken legal action to prevent the other from using the phrase. Mike’s one critique was spot on and I use it to this day. He said, “The music is great but you are trying too hard to sound like an FM DJ – just use your own voice and it will be great.” He was right and after that day, the original ten shows I had recorded were bundled off to the archives where they won’t be aired again in this lifetime.
I asked Mike when these show would air, he surprised me when he said, “All day long. If we leave two tapes on continuous cycle, then the DJs don’t have to try and leave something playing (between shows) that might run out. If someone misses their shift, we will still be on the air.” Again, Mike had a vision of what worked and we still rely on the same format today. At one point, there were more than a thousand hours of From The Vaults shows in the can, but tapes wear out and/or get tangled in the players. I can’t replace them as fast as they fail, but I will remedy that when I finally retire and have a little more time on my hands. The kids (with their smartphones and chromebooks) think that using cassettes is tantamount to riding a dinosaur to work every day, but it still serves our needs. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say.
One of the hardest things we had to endure was the implosion of the Community Schools program. The State of Michigan slashed funding which lead Mike to move into the Elementary Principal’s position here before eventually taking a High School Principal’s job in Bessemer. After Bennett left town, we were down to a shoestring staff of diehards who wanted to operate the station, we had no income, our equipment was breaking down, and we had nobody leading the parade. At the lowest point, we were three months from having our FCC license lapse and all on air programming was being handled by four people.
Former OASD biology teacher Chuck Zielinski, Superintendent John Peterson and I huddled up to come up with a plan. Peterson said, “Make a proposal to the School Improvement Team and if they like what you propose, I will support you in any way I can.” As of the spring of 1997, we were granted control of the station’s day to day operations, Peterson came up with $8000 spread over two years and we were able to fundraise another $1000 from UPPCO. Our listeners also chipped in a bit of capital to get the station refurbished and renewed. When I walked into the station on the first day of the station renewal project, there was a three foot pile of unopened mail on the large desk in the production room and half the slots on the broadcast board were out of commission. The second decade had seen a lot of great stuff come and go but like a surfer riding a wave, we were at the bottom of a wave with no other direction to go but up. I sat down and started opening up mail. The first CD opened was Jimmy Thackery and the Driver’s Drive to Survive. I plopped it in the one working CD player, cranked up the speakers and let the Driver’s title song push us toward the top of the next wave.
The first thought that crossed my mind was, “Great! It will take me a year to just open the mail!” My second thought was, “Well, we are still on the air in spite of having no money, a small staff and a bunch of failing equipment, so the only way left to go is up.” The watch words for the next two decades would be “learn as you go” and that is just what we have done since those low days of 1997. Rebuilding the station had been done before and it seemed that it would have to be easier than starting a station from scratch. Anything with a strong foundation can be fixed so we thanked our lucky stars that everybody who got the station through the first twenty years had laid a firm foundation for us to rebuild on.
In Part Two, we will take a look at the WOAS-FM from 1997 to the present. In the meantime, put on 88.5 FM and you will hear more of the music that is still driving us forward.
Top Piece Video – Okay, we didn’t build a city, but we DID build a radio station!!