JANESVILLE — Local radio is on the rise in a big way even though the towers are short, the transmitters the size of home stereo receivers and the talent in need of more polish.
Passion, dedication and a willingness to share locally produced programming that traditional commercial stations have abandoned, however, are abundant.
In Janesville, the second floor studio of WADR-FM/103.5 is in what had been a historic home and in later years was converted to office space. In Monona, studios are housed in City Hall and in Sun Prairie in the city’s Media Center adjacent to the public library.
The trio of stations are among the state’s newest low-powered FM radio stations making local programming a priority in a day of syndication, automation and conglomeration.
“It’s really empowering for communities and for individuals,” said Yuri Rashkin, one of the founders of WADR. “It’s making it easier for voices to be heard.”
Low-powered stations are taking off across the country after the FCC announced in 2012 that it would open up frequencies for 300 stations. Now, many of those stations, with limited signals, have either just begun or are about to begin broadcasting a wide range of programming that can include local news, events, government meetings, high school sports, music from multiple genres, Bible scripture, comedy and programs aimed at specific ethnic cultures.
School districts, city governments, churches, foundations and other nonprofits are among those that have applied for the permits.
In Black Earth, for example, the Mazomanie Music Conservancy, formed in 2010 to promote area music, has been awarded a station at 92.5 FM.
In northwestern Jefferson County, the Waterloo Christian Radio Corporation has been assigned 96.9 FM while in Portage, the Seventh-Day Adventists have 93.5 FM. None have begun broadcasting.
Not so in Rock County, where at 100 watts, WADR blankets Janesville and can be heard a mile or two beyond the city limits, depending on the terrain.
Startup costs were less than $20,000, with much of the work and equipment donated for the ambitious project. The station signed on the air June 24 and held a grand opening celebration on Friday after streaming programming on the Internet since late 2013.
“You can actually turn on your radio and hear it now,” said Gordy LaChance, an information technology manager for the city who put in countless volunteer hours setting up the station.
“People have referred to us as hobby radio but we wanted to show that this is a professional operation and I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Despite its low budget and all-volunteer staff, the station looks and sounds professional.
This is where listeners can hear Oscar Wilson host Big Daddy O’s Blues Garage, Edie Baran talk about the local arts scene and Esther Turner relieve stress with her Mindful Mondays program. Ray and Annette Jewell deliver local church activities, there’s a Spanish language program and there is talk of creating a polka show.
“It’s going to happen,” said Rashkin. “To be in Wisconsin and not have a polka show … come on.”
Dane County is home to WIDE-FM/99.1 on the Southwest Side, which went on the air in 2008 and is run out of program director Bob Park’s garage. WIXL-FM/97.1 is licensed to Lake City Church, 4909 E. Buckeye Road, and signed on in 2007, while there are plans for stations for the Lussier Community Education Center on the Far West Side, Madison Christian Low Power FM near Monona and the First Unitarian Society of Madison with an antenna in Downtown Madison.
Two of the more notable projects in the Madison area are hitting the on-air button this summer.
WLSP-FM/103.5, licensed through the Sun Prairie Community Foundation, began testing Thursday and is scheduled to begin regular programming on Monday. The $30,000 station, with a 100-watt signal, has an antenna mounted on a water tower near the Sun Prairie Aquatic Center and will ultimately broadcast a wide variety of local programming to listeners in a 5- to 6-mile radius.
The station, with about 50 volunteers and funding from cable access fees and fundraisers, is housed in the same facility as KSUN, Sun Prairie’s long-running community access television station.
“We feel like we’re hitting the ground running because we have so much programming on our TV station that we’ll repurpose,” said Jeff Robbins, the media center’s executive director. “I think community radio is putting the power of media back into the hands of citizens. It’s an incredible opportunity.”
In Monona, the $116,000 in startup costs for WVMO-FM/98.7 are being funded by fees assessed to cable subscribers. The station is located in city hall, “is equipped with top-of-the-line broadcast gear” and has an antenna mounted to a cellphone tower on top of the hose tower for the Monona Fire Department.
Will Nimmow, city media director, is working with longtime radio executive Lindsay Wood Davis on the project. More than 20 volunteers have expressed interest in creating programming that includes jazz, classic rock and some shows using vinyl records. There will be news from Monona City Council and Monona Grove School Board meetings along with interviews of local officials and segments on the city’s history.
Testing will begin in August but the official launch is set for Aug. 21 with the broadcast of the Monona Grove High School football game at Mount Horeb. The station’s signal will blanket Monona, Madison’s Downtown and East Side, and could possibly reach as far as McFarland, Maple Bluff and Madison’s Near West Side.
“It has to be a service just like the community center or the library,” Nimmow said. “It’s pretty amazing how many people we’re getting involved. Hopefully, they’ll stay involved.”
In Janesville, WADR (Wisconsin’s Alternative Destination Radio) is the result of community members coming together and creating Janesville Community Radio. A group of what is now 40 volunteers, led by a seven-person board of directors, applied for the license through the United Arts Alliance, a nonprofit county arts coalition formed in 1996. The group, with no ties to the city, was granted a license in June 2014.
Financial support comes through donations, volunteers and underwriting by area businesses and organizations.
Rashkin, 41, who teaches at UW-Whitewater and interprets Russian in area court cases, is the longtime host of Discover Janesville, a podcast that now has a home on the air.
WADR could be considered a smaller version of WORT-FM in Madison and a younger WDRT-FM in Viroqua. Both are successful community-oriented radio stations, although WADR has the unique distinction of airing 40 Beloit Snappers minor league baseball games this summer, even though the broadcast signal doesn’t reach the stadium. The team had been buying time on another station. When it couldn’t reach an agreement, it bought time on WADR, providing a welcome revenue stream for the upstart operation and an opportunity for the Snappers to reach listeners in Janesville.
“We’re the only community radio station that I’m aware of anywhere that has a professional or semiprofessional team,” Rashkin said. “It was a match made in heaven.”
Janesville is far from lacking when it comes to radio. The city is home to two popular commercial stations owned by Southern Wisconsin Broadcasting and located just down the street from WADR. WJVL-FM/99.9 is a powerful country music station that delivers news, school closings and does local remote broadcasts. At 1230 AM is WCLO, a news-talk station that covers local news, agriculture happenings, high school sports and carries Badgers, Bucks, Brewers and Packers games. It also airs more than 14 hours of nationally syndicated programming a day, according to its website.
Paul Krapf, 41, a former truck driver and General Motors worker turned radio guy, is WADR’s chief operator who keeps a laptop close to him to monitor the station and, if need be, has an app on his smartphone that allows him to broadcast from anywhere. This week, the station will broadcast from the Rock County 4H Fair and a block party could be in the works for next summer.
“I just kind of dove into this head-first just trying to help out, and it turned into a full-time thing,” said Krapf, who doesn’t draw a salary. “I like it. For every struggle that comes up, we’ve seemed to find a solution and worked through it. We use what we have and make it work.”