Opinion: Changing times for a local AM Radio Station

Chris Moreau WRJN

I read with sadness this morning that two local radio news reporters, Tom Karkow and Janet Hoff are “retiring” at the end of this month. One after over 40 years, the other after 20+ years, all at the same station, WRJN.

These two have been the heart of local news reporting on my local AM radio station that I grew up listening to. I later worked there as a part-time high school kid and 35 years later as the general manager after years of broadcasting jobs around the country. I fear this may be the final blow that takes down a once mighty force in the Midwestern community.

The station signed on 97 years ago, one of the first in Wisconsin. From the very beginning the station served the community with vigor. Owned for a long time by the local daily newspaper, and by several others in the following years, the station delivered news from every corner of the city and county. Live from city hall. Live from the fair. Live from downtown parades. Even in the early days of “remote” broadcasts, they found a way to bring the color to the air.

During the “Golden Age” of radio, the network dramas were supplemented by local shows, right down to the live orchestra in the studio. Dignitaries like Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Harvey made live broadcasts from the studios. A long list of local celebrities endeared themselves to the city with 10, 15, and 20 year plus runs on the station.

One Sunday night classical music program lasted over 60 years with its original host and continued with recorded shows after his passing.

The radio station was famous for coverage of the areas high school athletics and semi-pro football team. One newsman/sportscaster was the iconic local voice of play-by-play for over 40 years. Generations of locals grew up listening to his calls of touchdowns, free throws and stellar prep performances for decades.

Until 2014 a series of owners continued the traditions that served the community so well. They carried on a commitment to local news by staffing the newsroom 18 hours a day. Local sports continued. The prime time hours were live and local. Community events were promoted and made the focus of much of the programming.

It wasn’t easy to keep the cash flowing on an AM station in a city of less than 100,000 nestled in between two major markets. The key was the LOCAL commitment. If you were to ask a local business owner what station people in the city listened to it was always the local AM. Sure, they had opinions on what they did and didn’t like. They often complained about comments or positions taken by various hosts. But, they ALWAYS depended on it for local news and took pride that the city had an outlet that focused on them.

In the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’ and 70’s the profits were amazing. In the 1980’s the ownership acquired a local FM station to supplement the revenue. Into the early 2000’s the combo thrived. As the economy crumbled in 2008, the revenue also took a tumble. While still self-supporting, the local stations had to find ways to compete with the surrounding big markets. They did by staying local. There were some cutbacks and people doubled up on jobs once done by two or three people, but the staff was passionate and dedicated. During my time as GM, we turned a small profit each year and STILL found a way to serve our community in the tradition that made the station a staple for over 95 years.

The latest ownership, not from the area, has gutted this once proud and respected local AM station. First to go was high school sports. Next the semi-pro football team. Then local talk shows, replaced by automated music.  These changes came about not because of the local economy or lack of audience, but because they lacked the commitment to tradition and service that only local ownership and operation can deliver to a community. It takes a commitment and an investment that can only come from people who live in the community. Absent ownership in any business has an uphill challenge. But in media, with a rapidly changing news cycle and digital sources all over, having real people doing meaningful work is essential.

One of the best compliments I ever received as GM there was “As I drove through town and listened, I had no idea what they were talking about. It was SO local, and SO specific to the community”. 

Anyone can assemble a playlist of songs on any number of devices. Only real people with a passion for local involvement can use the magic of radio to make a difference.

I contend that a local AM radio station is still a viable and much needed resource for local communities. All over the heartland, AM stations continue to serve the local folks and somehow turn a small profit. Many need the help of FM sisters, but the independent ownership understands the need for AM’s and the great service they provide. Many will say I’m dreaming, but very few people still have the passion and drive that I have for local content, AM or FM.

The retirement of the two news professionals I mentioned at the start of this rant may be the final nail in the coffin of the once powerful voice of an industrial town in the Midwest, but those of us who care may still have a say in how LOCAL radio can still be done….and make a buck or two. We’ll miss the storytelling, sound bites, coverage of significant events and breaking local news.

Best wishes to both of you in retirement, and thank you for you lifelong commitment to a medium we’ve all loved.