Strength in low numbers

By - Mar 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Jon Anne Willow

During any given week, over a million Milwaukeeans listen to the radio, according to MediaAudit, which surveys the market twice a year. Of those, a surprisingly hefty 145,000 listen to public stations, namely WMSE, WUWM, WHAD and WYMS. And while the number may not seem like much in comparison to the total, public radio listeners are the cream of any community’s crop – typically engaged, educated and interested in what makes the world around them tick.

Following the events of 9/11, public radio, primarily NPR, gained new listeners as people looked for in-depth news coverage. The trend continued into the first two years of the Iraq war, but since then the amount of time people spend listening to news, and especially national news, on the radio has declined. Even so, public radio is alive and well – and thriving financially like never before – at both the national and local levels. And in Milwaukee, the appeal of the left end of the FM dial may be about to become even stronger.

(( The long and winding road ))

In 2003 when MPS announced it could no longer financially support 88.9 WYMS (“Your Milwaukee Schools” ), the station was nearly handed off to WUWM without an open bidding process. When word got out, a small but vocal group of the station’s mainstream jazz supporters tried to “save” the station, citing its long tradition of supporting local music and civic discourse in all its forms – from polka shows to live airing of school board meetings. The group was unsuccessful in raising the capital needed and in the end, the school district invited requests for proposal (RFPs) for a new management operating agreement for the ailing station. One group responded – Radio For Milwaukee. The deal was finally inked in 2004.

Headed by former Milwaukeean Peter Buffet, Radio For Milwaukee (RFM) came to the school board with a seven-year proposal for a radio station that would serve a wide swath of the community. The stated goal was to connect to as many facets as possible of the city’s exceptionally broad multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population while continuing to serve the civic need of broadcasting school board meetings and developing educational opportunities for high school students. RFM brought to the table a group of men dedicated to local music and familiar with the population terrain, but more importantly to the long-term feasibility of such a venture, they brought cash. To date, $1 million has been raised and/or pledged for operations, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has given a grant for $225,000 for community programming and upgrading the signal to digital, so that like WMSE, WHAD and WUWM, the station will also broadcast in HD. An undisclosed source has also donated $10,000 toward starting a web-based student radio station. The station will garner additional operating revenue through underwriting.

WYMS, which will call itself 88Nine, RadioMilwaukee, had hoped to launch in 2005, but when the group finally got the keys to the kingdom and traversed the drawbridge, they found there was much more to be done to make the station broadcast-ready than originally anticipated. In March of 2006 the station announced a July launch, but that too came and went, leaving the curious wondering if the “new” WYMS would ever hit the airwaves. Since then, the staff has kept a low profile, working to overcome a plethora of unexpected challenges.

J. Mikel Ellcessor joined Radio for Milwaukee in October, 2006 as its first executive director. With a career in public radio that spans 20 years, including seven at WNYC, New York’s NPR station, he’s philosophical about the delays, keeping the focus on quality and refusing to rush an inherently slow-moving process.

“There were a lot of technical challenges,” he explains from his office in Brooklyn, where he will remain based. “There was a tower upgrade, we now broadcast in HD, there are new studios being built and we’re building a new format from scratch. Everything just took longer than people were expecting it to.”

He adds, “It took longer to make it something that was more than just a little bit better and a little bit left.” That’s the roundabout way of saying that to rush a good thing is to make sacrifices in quality, and Radio For Milwaukee didn’t choose to do that.

(( Wait ))

The ongoing delays have been frustrating for everyone involved; the programming staff has been on board for a year, as has station manager Vicki Mann. They’ve been putting in their hours preparing for the big day – readying the music library, overseeing construction of the new studios, assembling the support team – but the hunger is there to get on the air, to see their vision in action.

On a recent visit to the facilities, acting program director Jay Hedblade, afternoon drive talent and co-music director Scott Mullins, operations manager Terry Kegley and air talent Marcus Doucette hung around the programming suite, entertaining me and each other with radio war stories and wacky brainstorms. The mood was relaxed and the camaraderie warm and genuine, but the impending launch definitely electrified the banter.

“In two weeks this will be a state of the art broadcasting facility!” quips Hedblade, waving a hand to the window behind him where a tangle of chords, raw wiring, mostly empty racks and a ladder surround a lonely mixing board perched atop a console table. Everyone laughs, but there’s a bit of nervousness, especially for Kegley, whose job it is to have the facilities built on time for the launch.

Ellcessor is unfazed. “Everybody wants to tell you what’s not possible, and there are experts in every part of our lives who will tell why something can’t be done and why it shouldn’t. For a radio station where everything is done by hand, built from the ground up, the outcome is of course uncertain. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. Community media is viable – we believe that.”

The good news about the long wait is that it’s given the station’s board and staff time to really think through their programming offer and how it can best fit into the Milwaukee radio mix. The conventional approach to radio is to segment formats along ethnic and age lines. And while RadioMilwaukee will not break its music into specialty programming blocks, according to Ellcessor, the station’s format will be built on artists and genres that cross traditional boundaries with local music liberally sprinkled into the mix.

(( It won’t be long ))

But perhaps the biggest single advantage to the prolonged percolation time has been the opportunity for WYMS to define how it will serve the community. 88Nine hopes to become an integral voice in Milwaukee’s ongoing quest to find itself, to improve its quality of life and to address some of its biggest hurdles. The first step it has taken is to launch the Sphere Research Project, a community survey available through their website that asks respondents a series of questions about economics, education, public service, faith, crime and overall quality of life in the city. The survey will also be distributed at public gatherings, community centers and to non-profit groups. Ellcessor hopes to use the results to spark a wider conversation and to help 88Nine understand the needs of the city, and behave accordingly.

WYMS will have launched as 88Nine RadioMilwaukee on February 26. The air staff goes live on March 5. The station will stream live on the web, expanding its reach well beyond the limitations of its signal. At press time, this is all still ethereal, theoretical, hopeful. By the time this story reaches your eyes, you’ll be able to determine for yourself whether the vision of Ellcessor and his staff has been realized. He is realistic.

“People are going to have plenty to say about what 88Nine is and isn’t, what it’s done and hasn’t done,” Ellcessor says of the station’s desire to be a ‘Rorschach for the city.’

“We know it’s not going to be perfect the first day on the air. We’ll need time to work on it, to make it better.”

And if he’s right, WYMS could attract an even broader swath of listeners to the left end of the dial, turning a wider audience on to the possibilities of community broadcasting as a reflection of the city itself. And though perhaps that’s a pipe dream in this modern age of packaged consumerism, it is a good one. VS

(( Left of the dial in Milwaukee ))

>>What does that mean, anyway? A radio wave is an electromagnetic wave carried by an antenna and captured by a receiver – your radio. A fun fact for geeks is that the entire broadcast spectrum falls between the frequencies of 535 kHz (AM radio) and 220 MHz (television). All 101 channels on the FM radio band exist between 88 MHz and 108 MHz, or entirely between TV channels 6 and 7. Kind of crazy when you think about it that way, but why is it important?

The way the signal band works, the higher a station’s frequency, the stronger their inherent signal. When the FCC approved the current FM band in 1945, it allocated bandwidth at the low (or left) end of the spectrum for community-based, or public broadcasting. The thinking was that these stations only needed enough power to serve local interests. Stations at frequencies below 92.1 are typically non-commercial ventures serving specific constituencies, while higher channel numbers with a broader reach are reserved for commercial broadcasting.

Milwaukee is home to four public radio stations, each serving the community in a specific capacity. They are, in frequency-ascending order:

WYMS, 88.9: Long a cherished mainstream jazz station and broadcaster of MPS school board meetings, WYMS changed forever when MPS could no longer finance it. The district entered into a 7-year operating management agreement with Radio for Milwaukee. The new station will offer a continuous format of eclectically chosen music from across the spectrum, will continue to broadcast meetings and plans to create a student-run web-based radio station. (

WUWM, 89.7: Its license held by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, WUWM is the local NPR affiliate and runs several locally-produced news and music programs, including “Lake Effect,” “Café Tonight” and its newest, hosted by local radio legend Bob Reitman, “It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Music.” (

WHAD, 90.7: The local affiliate for Wisconsin Public Radio, WHAD airs NPR and other syndicated programming, WPR programs and two local programs, “Conversations with Kathleen Dunn” and “Conversations with Ben Merens.” (

WMSE, 91.7: Frontier Radio operates independently under a license held by the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The station has a long tradition of supporting local music, especially that which falls outside the mainstream, with frequent in-studio appearance by local and national musicians. Since 2004, the station has also run the Milwaukee Sound Environment Project, a rich resource for local musicians, with grants from the Milwaukee Arts Board and the Wisconsin Arts Board. WMSE’s air staff are all volunteers with their own weekly programs, though the weekday 3 to 6 p.m. slot is reserved for “The Blues Drive.” ( and

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