“If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.”
What got you started in radio? I followed my Dad into radio stations all of the time growing up, but I started selling at one of my family’s radio stations, WGLB/Port Washington, WI.
My mother, who was a radio actress, would refer to the station as either Radio Glub or just plain Blub and when asked why she would say to my father’s total distaste, “Well, you can practically hear it going under!”
It was an up in the nosebleed section, a highly directional low-power AM in 1968. I was still 17 years old.
How many stations did you Dad own? Over the years, he owned pieces of 17. Atumwa, IA, Port Washington, WI, Virgin Islands, Pensacola, FL. Terra Haute & Anderson, IN. He would have partners and sometimes own 30%, sometimes 50%. He was the radio guy, and they were the investors and sometimes his advertisers.
In ’69, importantly, Dad decided to leave Chicago & bought WSDR-AM in Dixon, IL, about 100 miles west of Chicago. I dropped out of Northwestern to help him sell.
My brother Kerry ended up on the air at 14.
It was the first small market, stand-alone station to bill a million dollars. 32 employees. It was absolutely a wonderful world – it was like having your own chemistry lab. You could do all of these things, and we did. When I start talking about the things we did, people think that I’m nuts, but we did them. (ed. note: the first time Lindsay was interviewed by the Small Market Radio Newsletter, it was by Bob Doll in 1978 after WSDR billed a million dollars!)
We got sued by the State Department for broadcasting programs from Radio Moscow. We were the first people to physically own, rather than lease, our satellite receiving dish. We did some goofy stuff, but that’s what being a small-market owner can be. My old man said he learned more about real radio there than he ever did in all of those years in Chicago.
We really had a fabulous news operation. We won every kind of award. We billed a lot of money but we were so local. Everything we’re doing at WVMO comes from there, obviously filtered by all of the other places I’ve been and stations I’ve worked at, owned, and consulted … it all comes down to WSDR.
Another part of that was fun and really gave us a sharp edge. Dixon was a small town, and in 1970 my sister and the son of the newspaper owner fell in love and got married. This was our greatest competitor and so all of a sudden two families that did not like each other had to be nice to each other. We became great friends on the family side and just vicious competitors, and had a great time doing it. We would see each other across the room at a Chamber meeting or something, and we’d just roll our eyes and laugh.
You’ve always got to have somebody to compete with so that you’ve got some mark. I have a personality that measures things – you always want to exceed – not just succeed – but exceed those goals.
Take me through how you got to your current position. When I went back to college in the early 90s I studied organizational performance and I’m really into compensation models. That’s one of the things that really helped a lot of people under consolidation. I had built compensation models, for, of all things, Mercedes-Benz of North America. So, oddly enough, I ended up with some German clients over the years, and that had nothing to do with broadcast!
But, really, I’m a sales and sales management consultant.
Going back to school was the best decision I ever made. After I left the University of Illinois, I took a job as Director of Membership for the Associated Press. Then the Telecommunications Act gets signed. At that moment, I’m the only guy in the radio business who speaks radio but also had absolutely current academic credentials in how large organizations work. I got tied in with Leon Coulter, who was teamed with Jimmy deCastro and they hired me as their primary management consultant. At the same time, Mary Quass hired me at Capstar. Those companies ended up merging, which we all knew would happen, so I was allowed to have both of these jobs at once.
For an organizational performance guy, which is really what I am, it was having your own playpen. And then, when they got swallowed by Clear Channel, I’m proud to say I was the first guy out the door. I was shot in the cannon because the stuff I was doing was not the stuff that Randy Michaels and that group were doing.
I still have my consulting firm, Broadcast Management Strategies, which I have basically had since ’98. One exception was when I was at the RAB, but I was essentially doing then what I had been doing as a consultant; I was just doing it for the industry.
Then when Mary Quass, Tammy Gilmore and I started the New Radio group, I was still doing it, but I was doing it for our stations … and a few outside clients I still had. I then went to work for Entercom briefly, but I didn’t want to start in a radio station chair any more at that point.
I had been burning the candle at both ends for years. I’m a million mile flyer and most of that was done during that period. My wife said at one point that she was worried I was going to grow a DC-9 out of my butt.
I still continue to consult and it is certainly almost 90% media, but its TV, radio, outdoor, and an occasional newspaper client. Outdoor has been the largest component of it for the last 5 years.
I spent a lot of time helping dismantle all those yellow page dollars and moving them toward electronic media, or what we called creative media. Yellow Pages were a happy hunting ground for the last five years, but they have finally died off enough so that it’s really not worth the effort in most of the markets to go after them.
I spent a lot of time working with the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, helping them with their awards program. I’m sort of the architect of it, and it’s now the largest statewide broadcast awards program in the nation by a lot.
This year we had 1,688 entries – that’s a lot of entries in the state of Wisconsin. It takes 5 or 6 states to help judge. It is a powerful weapon that Wisconsin broadcasters use. We’ve got Station of the Year, and Best News Operation, and Digital Media Operation of the year, all broken down by market size. And they really scrap for those awards!
How did WVMO happen? How did the community come to say, “We really need a low power FM? No one ever said that!
I will tell you the exact story. Monona, WI is a town of 7,500 or 8,000 people, that’s it.
You live in a town like this, your kids play soccer together and you meet all kinds of people and the radio folks all end up knowing each other. I ended up knowing a transmitter engineer from Wisconsin Public Broadcasting named Paul Meyer. We canoed together, and stuff like that, and one day Paul is sitting there in the parking lot of the local Walgreens 6 blocks from my house, waiting for his wife, moving across the dial in his car, and picks up what he realizes is the menu for Monona Grove High School. He realizes this is a common carrier signal for the school that’s leaking so badly he’s picking it up 500 yards away. He calls me up laughing, and as part of the conversation, he asks me if Monona could get one of those low power FM things. I said I didn’t know, but that I’d call my attorney, David Oxenford. David said sure, there’s a thing in it about governmental licenses, but he said it could be 6 months or a year.
We got together a little group of people and we planned this all out. We talked to a City Council guy, who also happened to be a retired general manager of a local television station, and who eventually became the mayor. We figured out a way we could do this without spending any taxpayer money. None.
It would be licensed to the city, which was important to everybody.
We went to the city Council, and they said, “Yeah, it’s OK for us to pursue it.” I think the vote was 7 to 1 or something like that.
Every few months, I would have a meeting and say, “the FCC is still thinking about it.” The city knew nothing about the FCC, of course, so they didn’t think it would ever happen. But the broadcasters on our committee knew that it would probably happen, eventually.
We planned for this as if it were going to happen. We set up the people who were going to do the engineering, we put together the list of the models of the equipment we wanted.
Seven years later, the FCC finally opened up the window. We were ready. We had one of the top tower consulting engineers in the country to do our tower. The head of Wisconsin Public Broadcasting engineering brought his engineers. The head of Midwest Family engineering brought himself and his engineers, and we built a radio station.
“Simple.” Oh, yeah. You know radio people; it gets in their blood. That’s the case with a lot of our volunteers; they’ve been in the business for 30 years and they got tired or consolidated out or whatever, and now they are still radio rats and they showed up in droves.
How are you doing it without tax dollars? You’ll love this. It’s called cable access fees. In our case, AT&T paid three dollars per household per month to the city of Monona. That bucket of money exists in many cities, if they’ve saved it from the general fund. It is usually used for local cable access, and that’s how it was used in Monona. But, they didn’t spend that money for years. They had crap equipment, crap programming, and they had about $200,000 in cash … and so I said I’ll spend that money. They asked if I could build a radio station for $100,000 and we came close.
Here’s the thing. Everyone else that’s trying to build these low power FMs is trying to do it for $8,000 or $10,000 and they’re hoping that somebody could give them the transmitter, and they hope to find a piece of open access software that might run the station on a computer. We didn’t do any of that. We built a real radio station.
It may be little, but it’s a real radio station.
Totally non-commercial? Yes.
Will there be underwriting? I just did my first underwriting deal. You will laugh out loud, so get ready. I have just traded – something my dear father who hated trade would yell at me about – but I have just traded for our first remote broadcast vehicle, a 1946 Good Humor Ice Cream Delivery Bicycle. It was owned by a big bicycle shop in Madison, but it’s now ours and the bicycle shop will be the sponsor of all of our remote broadcasts.
Our station, though, is laid out like a commercial station. We take breaks at :20 and :40, and those breaks have “commercials” off of the library and for the senior center and for transit and for the Immaculate Heart of Mary school bake-off and all of this local, local, local stuff.
Soon, we will do high school boys and girls basketball. We’ll high school football. We’ll do high school soccer. And for all of those things (and thanks to my beginning at WSDR) there will be a sports booster package. Everybody in town, I don’t care how big or small you are, will send us $25 a month for the sports booster package. I’d like to get to 30 or 40 businesses all send us $25 a month and that will be a lot of money.
I’m going after the local bank; I want this to be “WVMO, powered by Monona State Bank,” and they can write us a big check. None of this is fancy, but the idea is we’re not going in and asking for their advertising money. Everybody will technically be underwriters and we will absolutely be completely within the bounds of noncommercial radio. I’m not interested in your ad dollars, I want to talk about your marketing dollars, because you are targeting Monona, and that’s who we are. Nobody speaks to Monona like we do.
You know me, I was from the RAB. It would be hard for me, as a Diamond-level Certified Radio Marketing Consultant, to not have a rate card.
How are you promoting the station? Social media has been absolutely powerful, I cannot tell you how important Facebook is. It sounds almost trite at this point. A couple of other ways. Local musicians & local music is very important to what we do. Our base is Americana. We play lots of other kinds of music; we have polka shows, and traditional jazz and all sorts of other things. Americana was chosen not only because no station in Madison was going to choose that, but also because on the east side of Madison, and in Monona, in the clubs and theatres and such, that’s the kind of music being played, and often with local musicians. We play local music every day – not a set time, it’s just part of our music. Those local musicians and the places they play in have turned out to be great proponents of our radio station.
We have a local artist that’s interviewing local musicians, and we’re cutting up those interviews into 7 or 8 minute segments with a song in them. She’s already up to about a dozen interviews, but those will keep going, and it’s all local. Hyper local.
People want that. They are excited about it. It makes them feel good about where they live, and they are entertained and engaged. And, that’s what the music is for: it keeps them entertained and engaged until that next announcement for the library comes up. Some people have said this station is about the Americana music, but it’s not. It’s about Monona.
How many people are on staff, if I can use that word? It’s the wrong word! Here’s how the station is laid out. The city of Monona has a paid person, Will Nimmow, who is the Director of Community Media. He works many projects beyond radio, like the cable TV channel (that we’re going to blow up and make real good) and more. He’s not just a WVMO person.
Will, our program director Tom Tuber, and I are the three-cornered stool of this.
Then we have Carol, our traffic person, and we have about 50 signed volunteer agreements, if you will. Some of those are the jingle gals … they sing and write our jingles, just like ‘40s radio. Two of them have shows. One is a graphic artist that does our logos. People are involved as much as they want, or as little as they want. There are 40 people that are regularly active in this.
We’ve got a couple of shows that aren’t on the air yet. We’re going to have daily fishing reports … they’ll start with ice fishing which is really important here, and go on from there. To do the reports, we have a young anesthesiologist that loves fishing, has never been on the radio, but he wants to be. He dove right into this, and he’s going to be great.
We have a polka show. The host did it for 15 years on Wisconsin public radio, years ago, and he’s the former state folklorist of Wisconsin. He does a weekly show that’s killer good. The first show was all about polka and beer, and in Wisconsin, how good is that?
Who else? Well, then there’s the engineers. We have this whole corps of engineers. You go into a local store selling audio equipment, and WVMO will be in the store, because our audio is just impeccable. Here’s why it’s so good.
There’s a studio, then 15 feet from there is the transmitter. 135 feet from there is the antenna. We are hardwired to it. There’s no STL. We have fabulous audio quality. Does it go far? No. We’re across the lake from some high rises, and our signal bounces around. We get multipath. We’re like a BB in a bathroom. But we’ve got quality, and that quality catches people.
It’s a funny little station, and it sounds like an odd station, but I don’t think there are others like it.
Are you aware of comparable operations out there? No, I’m not. I suspect our approach of applying commercial radio standards to non-commercial radio’s layout is unusual. But, the low power FM movement is like mushrooms in the wood. You don’t know they are there. Sun Prairie, WI is less than 15 miles from here, and they have one, but you can’t hear them here. I don’t even know what they’re doing 15 miles from here.There are a lot of low power FMs out there. One was literally owned by a city basketball club. I don’t know what they’re doing with their station. There was the case in Miami; Beasley Broadcasting sued that station because they were “New Hot 94.7” and they were going all salsa, and maybe they were a little closer to what we’re doing. But Beasley sued them after they had been on the air 30 days, but let me tell you, after 30 days you’re lucky if you know where the bathroom in the building is. These things aren’t full-fledged radio stations from day one. They are very organic. They’re growing, you’re figuring out what works, you have a great basic idea that doesn’t work at all, and you have to keep going.
We wanted to do traffic reports from bicycles, because this is a big-time bicycle city. It was a great idea and everybody loved it, but it would not work at all. It never got launched, and it’ll never get on air.
One idea we’re now developing is for storytelling. I’m not talking about just for kids. We think storytelling is a wonderful use for local radio. We’re trying to do a children’s story every night at 7:30 – just 5 minutes, a little short one. We’re trying to put that together. I don’t know if we’ll succeed – but if you don’t have things you’re trying after 5 months in low power FM, I don’t think you’re doing it right. You have to fail on some things. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
We have a great investment in wonderful digital tools: Skylla automation, Comrex … we have way more technical capability than we do personal capability. There’s only so much time we can dedicate to teaching people how to use the Comrex gear, so it’s taken us a long time to get our remote capabilities up to snuff.
Operating with an all-volunteer team is a challenge. Remembered, we’re owned by the city of Monona, and we’re in a school building. Come the Christmas break, our people resources come to a halt because volunteers leave town for the holidays. You don’t have the capabilities you might like – and it’s at a time that people are at home that might have a chance to listen to you. That was a big struggle, but thank goodness we have Skylla, because we kept operating and we sounded pretty darn good. In our mind, we weren’t doing everything we should, but we sounded good.
Do you have competition? Local radio doesn’t compete with us. I think of them as friends; many of them helped us get on-air with their staff. Nobody ever said “no, you can’t.” I called some of the GMs to ask if it was OK for their staff to help us … and when Midwest Family gives you their corporate engineer to help, that’s pretty cool!
Would I like to see us show up with a number in a book? I’d die laughing, but we’re not looking for that.
I suspect the local weekly newspaper, who’s been very nice to us, is scared to death we’re going to go after them. I can’t say we’re not….
But how could you do that? You don’t even have a sales mechanism at this point. No, but we could sure do a lot of underwriting!
But you’re not a big money operation. No, we’re not. We’re not meant to be.
The FCC says this is important. If you’re licensed to a governmental property, then public safety must be part of your programming. But, they don’t define public safety and they don’t quantify what part of your programming it must be. So, another call to David Oxenford and he confirmed that. We talked about it, and now we will have a public safety announcement of some sort every hour of every day. Now that could be as simple as the police chief saying, “Hi, this is Police Chief Wally. When I’m in my car in Monona, I’m not talking on the phone or texting: I’m listening to 98.7, WVMO, the voice of Monona.”
Over the course of the day that could include a reminder to put new batteries in your smoke detectors, or it could be from a 5th grader saying school’s open, so please be careful, slow down and don’t run us over. That’s a public safety announcement, but so are 8th graders from the middle school talking about bullying. Maybe we’ll widen the window of what the commission at first probably considered public safety to be, honestly, but we’ll have hourly announcements every hour of every.
Do you have a website? The city has its own website, www.MyMonona.com. There’s a click on the logo to listen there. We have a station website in development, but it’s not there yet. Designing a website that works for us has turned out to be very difficult.
One of our volunteers is doing the site, and he assumed that the site should be about the music, because we’re a music station … but it’s not about the music. It’s about Monona.
We’ve had a wonderful response to our station on TuneIn. That’s simply because of our volunteers. I’ve got a guy with a show on Tuesday afternoons. He’s got 11 brothers all over the country, and they’re all listening to their brother. We saw a huge spike of people listening in Florida over Christmas break.
What are some of your current local programs? Tom Tuber, our PD, does something that most people think of as a PSA. “Got a minute? Here’s what’s going on in Monona.” It’s turned into a community newscast.
We have a brand-new city administrator; she’s on now every other week to discuss the agenda for the upcoming City Council meeting. We don’t do that horribly boring broadcast of the City Council meeting, because Monona already has that horribly boring thing broadcast on our cable TV and our YouTube channels. The radio station is in a perfect position to promote that, and now everybody knows what’s going on at the city Council meeting because of WVMO.
What are you going to do with your remote vehicle, the Good Humor bicycle? We’ve got lots of good ideas. It’s going to be beautifully decorated. We’ll have a little trailer that will take it to the events. We won’t ride it all the way. And, remember the fishing guy? He’s got a pontoon boat so the WVMO remote vehicle can be out on the water. We think that’s really important. It’s Lake Monona, it’s our lake, so let’s do it!
You’re going to do local sports? We’re doing it. We don’t have the staff to do the away games yet, but we’ll get there. And here’s a great idea that shows how local we can be.
Somebody says, “Hi, this is Maggie Smith from Flamingo Road, and you’re listening to 98.7 WDM over the voice of Monona.”
They say their name – if they are a child, they don’t say the last name. They say the street they live on, not their address. This has become a huge thing in the community. It’s not about extending their reach. Here’s it’s the polar opposite. We never really talk about Madison, and I could almost hit Madison with a 7 iron from here. We’re from Monona, and extremely proud of it.
We are broadcasting from high atop the Monona Fire Department Hose Drying Tower. We’re proud to say that. That’s absolutely on the air. Everybody talks “100,000 watts” … no, we’re 100 watts from the top of the hose drying tower.
What would you tell someone who wants to be a part of WVMO? At the beginning, we had no idea who would show up. At our first volunteer meeting, we had 80 people show up. Everybody wanted to be on the air, so we said what time do you want to be on? We didn’t know, but found that we need to digest a lot of what we’ve got. Now, we’re saying we want you volunteer with us, but between now and when we may have some availability for a new show, we want you to help us with the shows we have. We’re interested in hearing your ideas, but can you help us do production? Can you help us do remotes? Do you like sports play by play? We want them involved, but we’re not really in the business of signing up new shows right now.
Most of your programs are older adults? We don’t have high school kids, but we do have younger kids. We have two 3rd graders that report to us each week. We have one 13-year old, who has her own music show on Monday nights with her Dad. We have a regular contingent of 5th grade Girl Scouts who record PSAs for us. I would love more young people, but we’re not there right now.
WVMO-FM uses the Skylla Automation System along with the Second Generation Traffic System to plan their broadcast day.