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Marquette Monthly
June, 2003
 

Back Then,
Joe Kirkish - WGGL, then WNMU: The birth of national public radio
Sarah Perrault - Manager, station celebrate fortieth anniversary


WGGL, then WNMU: The birth of national public radio

In the Upper PeninsulaIn the fall of 1977, I had an epiphany of sorts. It was then I first realized the extent of reception for our little public broadcasting radio station, WGGL.
   Usually known in the Copper Country as "that professor who teaches communication skills at MTU" or more personally, as the son of Lebanese parents who opened the first dry goods and grocery supermarket combo in Houghton, I was amazed one day while on a photographic shoot in an outlying rural area. I asked permission to take pictures on private property, and the lady, a farm wife, said, "Oh, I know you; you're the person I hear on the Tech radio station."
   That was the day I was no longer my father's son; I came into my own.
   That station, Michigan Tech's WGGL, evolved in a most serendipitous manner. Working long hours in the darkroom of boys' camp in Wisconsin over a number of years, I discovered that state's public broadcasting network. I reveled in its existence--a twenty-four-hour station filled with classical music, informative lectures, intelligent talk shows and original radio dramas--all without the interruption or restrictions of commercials. Yes, Virginia...
   After my return to Michigan Tech, a little research uncovered people willing to help duplicate, in a modest way, a station similar to that in our neighboring state: a few advanced electronics students were willing to help design and build a campus station, a president (Ray Smith) was willing to approve such an idea, and an electrical engineering faculty was available to provide technical aid.
   Beginning humbly, we settled on a ten-watt FM station, developed with volunteer help for a surprising $10,000--one-third of the expected cost. Cooperation and dedication to a dream began to pay off.
   An article in the Daily Mining Gazette announced in August 1967, "Tech plans FM station this fall." Actually, that was a bit optimistic.
   Starting the station was a struggle. First, there was a delay in receiving FAA clearance for the FM tower, then confusion over the new station's call letters (originally applied for as WMTU, but governmentally changed to WGGL when it turned out that another small station already had those letters. WGGL arbitrarily became "the Wiggle in the Miggle of your Dial" or just "Wiggle" for short). Then, as always, there was the problem of sufficient financial support. And, finally, the obstacle of overcoming public ignorance of FM (frequency modulation) as opposed to the generally accepted AM (amplitude modulation) for radio listening. But overcome them we did, with financial aid from the administration and the private sale of 100 cheap AM/FM radio sets, we were ready to broadcast by March 28, 1968.
   Those were exciting days. Crowded into two tiny rooms in the tower of the MTU Mining Department building, we operated on a day-to-day basis, making up programming and tuning up technical prowess as we went. While resources and public interest were modest, enthusiasm among us was high and expectations even higher. In addition to my position as faculty adviser and station manager, the initial staff consisted of an assortment of MTU students serving as engineers, announcers, handymen, a program manager and a secretary/bookkeeper--twelve in all--along with itinerant volunteers.
   Programs, patterned after WHA Wisconsin-based radio, included pre-recorded materials from dozens of international radio tapes which exposed residents of the Copper Country to music, documentaries, dramas and talk shows from around the world. Filling in the bulk of the station's then twelve-hour days would be the staple of any public radio station: mostly classical music augmented with the best in light classics, jazz and folk. And, to make it regional, the daily programming was spiked with local information, interviews and public announcements of a topical nature. The station's motto, "We offer a choice, not an echo," became its decision-making guide.
   During the first few years, the program schedule varied considerably, depending, among other factors, on the sources of free materials and the number of students available to work. At first, the station's hours were limited to five--from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m.--and never on weekends; but within a few months, Sunday afternoons were added. The station in those early years was shut down during summer vacation and holiday breaks.
   All the equipment was surplus from an earlier attempt at campus radio work and whatever could be purchased on a very limited budget. Then late in 1969, with increasing appreciation of WGGL's output, the station moved into more spacious quarters in the basement of MTU's old administration building, increasing its output to 250 watts. That gave it a coverage of a little more than ten miles, and when the antenna was relocated from the campus to a shared facility with WHDF on Quincy Hill in Hancock, its coverage stretched, with some luck, as far as Thunder Bay, Ontario and Marquette.
   In the fall of 1970, WGGL became a qualified radio station with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which made it eligible to receive annual government grants to support a steadily-growing operation. That was the time when some eighty other qualified stations met in Denver to form a national public network, and National Public Radio (NPR) was born.
   By May, 1971, NPR became the first nationwide, non-commercial public radio network in the country. In that same year, WGGL, now dubbed "the only campus station that isn't a 'sand box' station," became the recipient of an educational broadcasting facility grant, enabling it to increase its operating power to 100,000 watts, stereo, increasing its coverage area to nearly 100 miles with a potential listening audience of nearly 300,000 listeners.
   WGGL became part of the MTU Division of Public Services, grew to a professional full-time staff of seven including faculty director and a large community of student and community volunteers.
   It was on the air twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year. Listeners from as far away as Louisiana and Texas sent letters, and regular listener comments were received from Thunder Bay, Grand Marais (Minnesota), Ironwood and Rhinelander (Wisconsin), as well as many closer and more distant locations.
   When budget cuts and university administrative decisions threatened to close the facility, Bill Kling of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) made arrangements to transfer WGGL to his spreading number of MPR stations. In 1982, the Tech station was taken over by the Minnesota chain of public stations. While it remains in its present basement location, its staff has been reduced to one announcer and a technician, with less than a few hours a week of local broadcasting.
   A canvassing of regular listeners brought a variety of responses. Some admit to leaving the radio on simply as an escape from commercial programming, a "pleasant background sound" throughout the day. Others switch back and forth between WGGL and Public Radio 90 and appreciate the luxury of personal choices. Most of the long time listeners, addicted to public broadcasting but unable to pick up the Marquette station, admit that they are sorely disappointed in what WGGL now offers--a near absence of local programming combined with some programs of national and international information so important in intellectual, political and social growth.
   Gone are the locally-produced programs--interviews with national celebrities and local people of interest, items of topical interest from the listening area, expanded discussions and lectures from MTU faculty and administrative staffs, talk shows of esoteric nature, and materials from global sources--all of which brought enlightenment and entertainment to the audience. In lieu, MPR's mostly classical music programming, now most of it "canned," fills the station's day. It may not follow the mandate set by the original staff, but it still offers "a choice, not an echo," and without commercials, though the frequent MPR announcements touting the network's many possible purchases sneak in between programs and their now necessary but notorious membership pleas have increased to twice annually, interrupting great lengths of regular programming with the iron fist in the velvet glove technique now embraced reluctantly by all public stations.
   Meanwhile, it should be noted, as WGGL moved farther and farther away from local programming, the steady growth of Northern Michigan University's WNMU-FM filled the vacuum by increasing its coverage, to be picked up in much of the WGGL area, and at least for the present, it augments the MTU station with considerably broader programming coverage.
   Public Radio in the Upper Peninsula still is alive and kicking.
   So far, that is. If the rumors become fact, and NMU's valuable addition to broadcasting is silenced next year, there will be a huge gap in our choices across the Upper Peninsula. That would be a tragic loss.
--Joe Kirkish

 

Manager, station celebrate fortieth anniversary

Bruce Turner and WNMU-TV recently celebrated their fortieth anniversary together.
   When WNMR-TV began televising in 1963, it went out via cable to thirty-three communities, and Bruce Turner was there as the station's production manager and announcer.
   Nine years later, in 1972, WNMR-TV became WNPB-TV and began broadcasting a signal to the non-cable audience for the first time. Turner was there to announce the change.
   Two years after that, WNPB-TV had yet another name change, this time to WNMU-TV, a public service of Northern Michigan University. Turner became station manager, a position he has held ever since. During that time, Turner has become nearly synonymous with the station. He oversaw its move to color in 1975, and the establishment of a fiber optic/microwave connection to Ironwood and Sault Ste. Marie in 1990.
   Many shows that viewers love today began during Turner's tenure. In 1978, the highly popular High School Bowl premiered on WNMU-TV; Turner oversaw its scheduling.
   Today people still tune in to High School Bowl, and also are familiar with Turner's passion for local programming such as the "Ask the - " series, "Public Eye News," "What's UP?" and "Media Meet."
   Turner's accomplishments received recognition from the Michigan Association of Public Broadcasters in 2000 when he was honored with the Broadcast Pioneer Award.
   The word "pioneer" is apt, given the scope of the changes television has undergone in the last forty years.
   As Turner says, "We have gone from black and white to color, to broadcasting in stereo, and now we look forward to WNMU-TV's conversion to digital."
   Turner's station also has been recognized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. In February, its documentary about one-room schoolhouses in the Upper Peninsula, "One-Room, Many Stories: Schoolhouse Memories," won first place in the category of "TV Market 4 News Special."
   And on May 1, 2003 WNMU-TV celebrated another accomplishment--forty years of quality programming, and of course, forty years of Bruce Turner.

Station statistics
   WNMU-TV broadcasts from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. daily.
   In addition, it provides twenty-four hour cable carriage of PBS programs for 70,000 cable subscribers of Charter Communications in the central Upper Peninsula.
   Local programming includes:
   --"Public Eye News," which has been broadcasting from WNMU-TV for twenty-eight years, provides a fifteen-minute daily newscast, five days a week, thirty weeks a year. The program is completely produced, directed and aired by students of Northern Michigan University working as volunteers.
   --In the "Ask the" series, "Ask the Doctors" and "Ask the Lawyers" each have been running for twenty-eight years. Other more recent additions are "Ask the Realtors," "Ask the DNR," "Ask the DEQ," "Ask the CPAs" and "Ask the Financial Planners."
   --"High School Bowl" has been running for twenty-five years. Up to fifty schools participate yearly in spirited academic competition.
   --"Media Meet" also has been running for twenty-five years, with fifty-two weekly public affairs programs on Upper Peninsula issues.
   --"What's UP?" is another quarter-century show. It provides three- to five-minute informational pieces that inform Upper Peninsula residents of upcoming events across the U.P.
   --WNMU-TV also is known for its award-winning documentaries. Most recently, "One-Room, Many Stories: Schoolhouse Memories" won the first place from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters in the category of "TV Market 4 News Special."

NMU's Public Radio 90: Forty years of history
   WNMU-FM broadcasts twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
   It services the central Upper Peninsula in a circular broadcast pattern emanating seventy to ninety miles from a location south of Republic.
   Translators extended the signal to Escanaba, Manistique, Menominee and Newberry in 1990 and to Stephenson in 1998.
   WNMU-FM began broadcasting in 1963 with 250 watts on the campus of Northern Michigan University; it was raised to full power, 100,000 watts, in 1975.
   It changed to full stereo operation in 1986. The station became an affiliate of National Public Radio in 1971 and continues to provide quality local and national programming.

WNMU-FM's local programming includes:
   --Humor-esque--Classical music from the station's extensive music library.
   --Weekday--Daily light jazz, world beat, new age and blues music from the WNMU-FM music library. There is an emphasis on music from upcoming regional performances.
   --Classics by Request--This classical music program features listener requests.
   --In the Pines--Regional performances including music from the Hiawatha Music Festival.
   --Sunday Swing--Big band music from the station's CD library.
   --Just Folks--Traditional and folk music.
   --Jazz Showcase--Light jazz is featured in this Sunday afternoon program
   --Night Studio--Selections are taken from the broad spectrum of jazz.
   --Listener's Choice Jazz--This weekly program features local requests.
   --House of Blue Lights--Featuring a wide range of blues recordings from the twentieth century.
   --Superiorland Concerts--This program includes recordings of regional classical music.
--Compiled by Sarah Perrault

 


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