ELY – According to Brett Ross, longtime program director and general manager at WELY, the “End of the Road” radio station, this community’s on-air presence still has a future. …
ELY – According to Brett Ross, longtime program director and general manager at WELY, the “End of the Road” radio station, this community’s on-air presence still has a future. At a Tuesday Group gathering this week, he discussed the possibility of a local municipal and non-profit effort to keep the radio station alive.
The idea comes in the wake of the announcement earlier this month that the station would cease operations on June 1. The station, operated by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa since 2005, has experienced mounting financial losses in recent years.
Ross, who moved to Ely in 1998, has had an on-and-off relationship with WELY during that span and will be out of a job on June 1 when the station goes off the air.
“Being on the air at the radio station really helped me to fall in love with Ely,” he said. “I got to share connections with people, and that’s one of the biggest things I gained at WELY. Helping people connect with one another is one of the ways that radio still thrives in small communities. It is a crucial resource here.”
He reminisced about his time at the station and gave the Tuesday Group audience a timeline of the station’s recent past.
Opening first as an AM-band station in 1954 and adding an FM simulcast in 1992, the station has had a long list of owners over the years, and it’s not the first time that WELY has had trouble generating revenue. The station closed for a month in 1984 due to lack of funds, but the community responded with a $9,000 fundraising effort to help get the station back on the air.
CBS News “On the Road” reporter Charles Kuralt saved the station again when it went belly-up in 1995. Kuralt, fell in love with Ely as he did numerous stories here over the years, bought the station at a court-supervised auction and poured thousands of dollars of his own into upgrades. His dreams were cut short when he died in 1997.
Bois Forte bought the station in 2005 when Boundary Waters Broadcasters, Inc. put it up for sale. Station managers had implemented a format change to “adult album alternative” similar to Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current.
“I call it music for grown-ups,” Ross said. “It is listenable to a wide variety of people, like everyone age 8 to 80. But there was no way I was going to get rid of polka music on Saturday mornings.”
An automatic system to provide music 24 hours a day and seven days a week was installed.
“That provided the opportunity to have our own consistent sound, our own voices, our own advertising, all the time,” he said.
In 2013, WELY had another management shake-up and Ross took over as interim general manager.
“During that time we had substantial revenue losses, and by 2014 we were on the verge of getting back in the black. Then I was told by the Bois Forte tribal council chair that our format was terrible and they forced changes. I was given two weeks to change the format and instead I gave them my two-week’s notice,” Ross said.
Two years later, the Bois Forte Band asked him to facilitate a sale of the radio station. He said he talked to a potential buyer who indicated a desire to change everything about the station.
“It would have been the end of ‘the end of the road’ radio station,” Ross said. “The tribal chair at the time put a stop to the sale and backed out because he didn’t want to see this community lose its community radio station. That was the best opportunity for the Band to sell the station.”
The beginning of the end for WELY came at the end of 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic. “By March of 2020 there were no advertising sales to be had and that’s when the bottom dropped out,” he said. “It was bleak and really rough. We got some help with (COVID funding) to keep things going.”
Meanwhile, the radio station’s signal strength was cut substantially in late 2020 when tower equipment was damaged by a work crew, according to Ross.
“Our signal was cut to about 30 percent of what it was. A new transmitter and new antenna are sitting at the Ely tower site waiting to be installed. We could have full range as far away as Cotton, Hibbing, Virginia and all the communities in between.”
A future for WELY?
On the news of the impending shut down, Ross said, “My initial reaction was heartbreak and sadness. This station has so much history and means so much to the town. The fact is, the people of Ely owned this station and there will be a big void once we leave the airwaves.”
He also described a sense of relief.
“I’ve been watching in the rear-view mirror for the last three years that something like this was going to happen. I’ll say right now, I’m looking forward to June 1 and having a day off, turning my phone off, going into the woods and not worrying about anything,” he said. “We have outdated and obsolete equipment, For the past four years we’ve held the station together with technological duct tape.”
He was quick to add, “This community wants its radio station. People here love it. People count on it. It is a huge resource and service for this community.”
He said he believes there is a future for WELY in Ely. He described his personal-best case scenario.
“There has been interest expressed by the city of Ely, by the mayor,” he said. “They have an interest and they also have an infrastructure that can support a radio station, like high-speed fiber broadband.”
He noted that several non-profit groups have expressed an interest in being involved in keeping WELY alive.
“There is talk of collaboration going on,” Ross said. “We have all these different strong non-profit groups that can produce some incredible results. They can open up possibilities of fundraising and grant funding.”
Ross said he can see a partnership between the municipal organization, the city of Ely and some non-profit groups.
“My position on that right now is that I want to support the right people that have an interest in seeing WELY survive,” he said. “Would I come back and work at WELY? Absolutely, 1,000 percent. I would love to see it survive into the future and I am really optimistic that it will.”
He urged Ely radio station advocates to contact Bois Forte leadership and the city of the Ely’s mayor and city council members to urge support for continuation of WELY.
“The decision to close the radio station created a sense of urgency and panic by those who don’t want this to go way,” Ross said.
The clock starts ticking on June 1. The station’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadcast license was just renewed last year and is valid until 2028; however, when the station goes off the air next month, the owners can apply for a six-month renewal, and if the station remains off the air after six months, the station’s owners can apply for another six-month renewal, according to Ross
“But after one year without being on the air, they will lose the license,” he said.
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