WVMO Is Perfecting Localism

This city-owned LPFM strives for professionalism with a community focus

One of the best aspects of LPFM stations is that they are redefining community radio. One of the best examples is hyper-local WVMO in Monona, Wis.

WVMO “The Voice of Monona” doesn’t have strident opinions, politics or religion. It is a reflection of its hometown and is a friend to the community. WVMO is the pride of Monona, a first-ring suburb of Madison (population 7,800).

It is the creation of two commercial radio professionals, Lindsay Wood Davis and Tom Teuber, and a whole lot of community folks.

Davis and Teuber worked for many years in the consolidated, shareholder-driven world of commercial broadcasting. As time went by they realized they missed the magic, fun and sense of service that originally attracted them to the radio biz.

We had the opportunity to interview Lindsay Wood Davis, about his amazing Hall of Fame journey from the top rungs of commercial radio to a not-for-profit 100-watt LPFM station, WVMO(FM).

Ken Mills

A LIFE-LONG BROADCASTER

Davis, a member of a three-generation broadcasting family, began in broadcasting at age 17, working in sales at family-owned WGLB Radio in Port Washington, Wis.

Davis’ father left Chicago radio and built a group of hometown stations; his mother was a radio actress. His brother Carey managed stations in New York City. His daughter Hannah helped to put the University of Wisconsin’s student station WSUM on the air as its station manager. Davis says radio is in his DNA:

“I grew up in the business. My mom and dad were both broadcasters. My family’s flagship station was in Sterling/Dixon, Ill. My dad owned stations all around the Midwest and down south. I was around radio stations before I went to grade school.”

Davis got his first “real job” in broadcasting 48 years ago at WGLB(AM), a 250-watt daytime only station. After majoring in education and social policy at Northwestern University from 1968–72, he managed stations in Eugene, Ore.; Sterling/Dixon, Ill.; Harrisonburg, Va.; Middlebury, Vt.; and Peoria, Ill., for two decades.

In 1992, Davis was eager for bigger challenges. He entered the school of management program at the University of Illinois in Springfield. He studied organizational performance to learn how to incorporate best practices to achieve greater success.

In 1995 Davis “went national.” He became director of membership for the Associated Press Broadcast Services, based in Washington. AP is a nonprofit membership organization serving media across the nation. He increased membership and supervised a staff of 40.

While Davis was at AP, the FCC’s ownership policies were deregulated. This allowed major group owners to own and operate clusters of half a dozen stations or more. Today, companies such as iHeartMedia and Cumulus own, operate or lease hundreds of stations. Davis helped AP prepare for the new marketplace.

In the late 1990s, Davis moved to Madison to work for Chris Lytle & Associates, which specializes in training media management and sales employees. He got into the “consolidation game” as SVP of sales for Capstar and primary management consultant to Chancellor Media. Capstar and Chancellor consolidated to become AMFM, now part of iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel).

Davis was then offered a job with the Radio Advertising Bureau in New York. He was an executive VP, in charge of its annual conference and training seminars. The work combined his love of radio with his skills in management, sales and strategic planning.

After several years at RAB, he joined two other partners and founded NewRadio Group, (now NRG Media) where he served as chief operating officer. Tired of constant travel, he became VP/market manager for a cluster of Madison stations owned by Entercom. One station in the cluster is Madison Triple A station WMMM. At WMMM, he reconnected with Tom Teuber, who was the PD.

THE WVMO STORY

In the mid-2000s Teuber and Davis talked frequently about the state of the radio business. Then Davis got a call from Paul Meyer, a friend who was an engineer at Wisconsin Public Radio.

“Meyer asked me, ‘Do you think Monona could get one of those new LPFM licenses?’ I didn’t know much about LPFM, so called David Oxenford, my FCC attorney in Washington, and asked him about LPFM. Oxenford told me that Monona is exactly the sort of place where the FCC hoped LPFM service would be built. But Oxenford cautioned that the process could take a while.”

Davis and Teuber connected with Meyer and other Monona residents to apply for a LPFM license. The group then met with Bob Miller, soon to be mayor of Monona, who also had a broadcasting background.

Before he was elected mayor, Miller managed WKOW(TV), the ABC affiliate in Madison.

Davis describes the meeting: “When we started our presentation, someone on the city council asked ‘Why does Monona need a radio station?’ We were prepared for that question, and we described the opportunity and benefits. Then the mayor and the council voted, and said: ‘Sure, go pursue it.’ That is what we did.”

The City of Monona also had a source of money to build the station. It has an agreement with the local cable company to receive customer access fees. Most localities use access fees to pad the bottom line, but Monona had a by-the-book approach. They invested in a local media center and saved most of the money for a future opportunity — like building WVMO(FM).

That was in 2007. What followed was a six-year waiting period before they could file an application with the FCC. Finally, in 2013, the commission again opened the filing period for new LPFM applications; the city applied in November.

Three months later in January 2014, the FCC granted Monona the permit to construct the station. Monona was the only applicant for the frequency.

“We assumed it would take months, maybe years, before they approved the application,” Davis said. “We later learned the reason we were approved so fast was because the application was filed by a for-real broadcasting attorney. The FCC wants the Is dotted and the Ts crossed.”

The station signed on-the-air on Aug. 20, 2015. Coincidentally, it was the inaugural “National Radio Day.”

Lindsay Wood Davis at WSDR in 1984

WAITING

During the six years waiting for the FCC to open a new LPFM filing period, Davis, Teuber and others working on the application stayed busy preparing for the station.

Davis describes the activity during the interim: “During the entire period while we were waiting, we kept planning for the radio station. We talked about programming; we talked about promotions; we talked finances; we talked about engineering — all of the essential things. Tom would often call me and say, ‘We’ve gotta have a polka show. We knew in our hearts, eventually, the window for applications would open up and the station would happen.”

Mayor Miller turned out to be a particularly valuable member of the team. He helped solve logistical issues, such as the tower site location (it is on top of the fire department’s hose-drying tower at city hall) and space for the station’s office and studios (a conference room just off the lobby in city hall).

“Our engineering team included Terry Baun, the director of engineering at Wisconsin Public Broadcasting; John Bauer, the corporate chief engineer for Midwest Family Broadcasting; and Rich Wood of Resonant Results, one of the best antenna and tower specialists in the world. And they each brought in their own specialists when needed, including Paul Meyer, who started the Monona effort at the beginning,” said Davis.

“The mayor called our volunteer engineers, ‘Lindsay’s Million Dollar Engineering Team’ because they were the kind of professionals only a big-budget commercial station would hire.

“From the beginning, our focus was on what it would take to build the highest quality station possible at a cost the City could afford. We knew the station needed to sound very professional from the first day. To do this requires very, very good engineering and very, very good equipment.”

Simultaneously, the planning team worked with volunteers to instill the same pride in programming.

“We told everybody that we were building a real radio station! It may be a little station, but we are a real radio station. It’s not a hobby or a toy. Even though we will have only 100-watts at 100-feet, we can compete with anyone else on the dial.”

The emphasis on audio quality pays off for WVMO in a way that Davis loves to describe: “When you go into an audio store and they want to show off how good a particular entertainment system sounds, we want them to tune to WVMO.”

THE WVMO DIFFERENCE

Davis and Teuber did their homework before applying for the LPFM license. But they didn’t look at existing community stations for a financial or programming model. They have respect for community broadcasters like Madison’s WORT, but Davis says they knew what they were doing was different:

“Tom and I started our careers in local radio. The most important station in my early career was my family’s flagship station in Sterling/Dixon, Ill., WSDR. It was a 500-watt standalone AM. Tom’s first job out of college was at WRCO, in Richland Center, Wis. Then as now, the only radio station in that rural Wisconsin county. Hometown commercial stations were our models for WVMO.

“To succeed, you have to stay visible. You need to be in parades and community events. There are people who look down their nose at this kind of community radio, but we think it is the essence of localism. We like to say we are small market radio done right. We are taking hometown radio into the listener-sensitive world in a new, sophisticated manner.”

Of course, it is easy to romanticize the past, and not every small market commercial station in the 1950s and 1960s was an altruistic community service. But, in most places it worked very well because the impact was immediate.

WVMO celebrated its second anniversary in August. Things are going well for the Voice of Monona. Just as planned, their operations are built using the three attributes of the WVMO brand: “We are community owned, locally programed and volunteer driven.”

Let’s examine each attribute in greater depth:

The City of Monona holds the FCC license. WVMO is part of the Department of Community Media with a community access cable TV channel, a YouTube channel and online outreach to city residents. The director of community media is Will Nimmow. In this capacity, he is also WVMO’s only paid employee.

WVMO’s budget is roughly $75,000 per year. WVMO is governed, on behalf of the city, by the Monona Radio Committee. The mayor appoints the three members of the committee. Davis is the chair and Teuber and Nimmow are the other members. This group makes decisions for WVMO; Davis calls it a “benign dictatorship.”

WVMO has a 501(c)(3) friends group to handle fundraising, publicity and promotional activities.

Although WVMO’s on-air programming is handled by volunteers, the structure is professional.

WVMO uses the same techniques that are used by successful noncoms and commercial stations. For instance, the hourly program clock has three mandatory stop-sets at 20, 40 and the top of the hour. This creates a “heartbeat” that makes listeners feel comfortable. A human voice and WVMO’s call letters are never far away.

Will Nimmow, Paul Meyer and Davis

Davis and Teuber knew they needed to choose a consistent format. Madison has a very sophisticated radio market with excellent stations, so WVMO needed a unique music niche. They choose Americana, a popular sound not used full-time by other local stations, with the bonus of a strong line-up of local musicians.

WVMO is everywhere in Monona. When you walk into City Hall, the first thing you will see is the on-air studio.  If you call any of the city’s services and get put on hold, you will hear WVMO. If you ask anyone on the street what they like most about WVMO, many will say the singing jingles.

Jingles are a programming staple for many commercial stations, but they are seldom heard on listener-supported radio. At WVMO, they are an example of the type of no cost, high impact promotional items that Davis is known for.

“Since we are the ‘Voice of Monona,’ a group of women asked if they could sing jingles for us; they became the ‘WVMO Jingle Gals,’ a 21st century version of the Andrews Sisters. We also have popular jingles sung by local kids. Now local bands ask us if they can sing a jingle for us.”

Hearing listener voices on-the-air is part of the strategy to position WVMO as a fellow citizen.

“We record local folks saying our IDs,” Davis describes the station’s citizen IDs. “Even little kids love to do them. ‘Hi, my name is Billy, I live on Nichols Road, and you are listening to 98-point-seven W-V-M-O, The Voice of Monona.’”

Another one of Davis’ no cost, high impact fundraising promos is getting listeners to buy a stake in WVMO. “We currently are conducting a campaign to raise $25,000. We are telling listeners that each of our 100 watts needs a name. They can adopt-a-watt in their own name or of someone they choose for a $250 donation. Then, next year, you can renew your watt for $100. So, we are selling our 100 watts in perpetuity.”

WVMO differs from many other community and LPFM because programs about politics and religion are not allowed. Davis says that part of the reason is ownership by the city. ‘WVMO is not here to do opinion programming. We don’t ever editorialize on the air. Also, there is no religious programming on WVMO. We do announce church events, but we would never promote a tent revival. We don’t do religion. It is a real policy. We do have written policies.”

People volunteering at WVMO must sign an agreement to follow rules and procedures detailed in the station handbook (including no religion and no politics). WVMO started with around 40 volunteers and most are still at the station today.

Many of the people who want to volunteer want to be on the air. Davis and Teuber know that they have to make the right choices because firing a volunteer can be messy.

“First of all, nobody who comes to us with an idea for a show is ever turned away. But we never guarantee anyone that they will be on the air,” said Davis. “We want them to first volunteer for other tasks at the station such as doing remotes, help with engineering or doing production work, especially on the many short-form local features we air every hour. This way we get to know them and see how they interact with other volunteers.

“Next, they need to supply us with a rock-solid outline of the first four shows. And, with less detail, we require them to talk about the next six shows. To successfully get a show on WVMO, a volunteer needs to show us that the program idea has depth and will be sustainable.

“Once a volunteer host gets on the air, we do periodic aircheck sessions with them. These aren’t formal meetings. It is more about what we like and what we don’t like. The most important coaching typically comes from other volunteers — they help each other organically.”

IS WVMO SUSTAINABLE?

Davis and Teuber are planning for the next generation of WVMO leadership. Davis knows grooming replacements is vital to future of WVMO.

“Over time, Tom Teuber and I will be gone. Everybody has to remember this is not Lindsay’s radio station or Tom Teuber’s radio station. It has to be Monona’s radio station.”

Davis believes it is likely that new management will emerge from WVMO’s Friends group. That organization handles the fundraising and underwriting at WVMO.

WVMO offerse important lessons for other community radio stations:

Hyper-local works. By keeping the focus on the people and activities of Monona, WVMO can continue as long as the city continues. The target audience is clear.
Invest in a high-quality sound. A radio station has only one opportunity to make a good first impression. By focusing on the best equipment and facilities, WVMO’s fidelity is as good or better than any other station on the dial. A high-quality sound tells listeners they are serious. Teaching volunteers professional programming techniques builds the station’s credibility.
Move beyond partisan programming. To often community radio stations put politics and social causes ahead of good broadcasting. A narrow point-of-view chases away potential listeners. Serve the whole community, not factions.
Dare to be silly and have fun. Some people reading this story may think having homegrown jingles does not convey decorum. Old-school community stations tend to be terminally serious. WVMO is serving the community with a smile and friendly handshake.

Ken Mills is a consultant and blogger based in Minneapolis. Mills spent the first two decades of his career working in commercial radio and the most recent two decades working in public radio.

Learn more at http://acrnewsfeed.blogspot.com/.



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