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What’s Cooking at WQXO(AM)?

Community AM station serves up heaping portions of community service and oldies

WQXO is heard at 1400 on the AM dial in Munising, Mich. Back in the good old days, when radio transmitters had power tubes that generated lots of heat and kilowatts where allowed to fly from coast to coast, station engineers would often refer to their signal strength as “really cooking!”

DX listeners all across the United States would twist their old radio knobs ever so gently, and in between the squeaking and squawking, they were sometimes able to tune in from New York to California.

As solid-state equipment began replacing the old heat generators, some station managers began adding a new twist to that old cooking expression: “Our ratings and advertising revenue is really cooking!” Soon thereafter, operating officers of large corporations began to say, “Wow! Our network of remote control stations and voice tracking is really cooking!”

But over in on tiny AM station in Munising, Mich., you can be sure that “really cooking” isn’t just a manner of speech. No – this station has mastered the art of blending tasty entrées with tasty local content.

So where on God’s green earth is Munising, Mich., and what’s with this little radio station?

Here you can order two eggs over easy, and make requests for ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ To begin, the population is about 2,900 citizens. It lies directly on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, about three-fourths of the way between Mackinaw City and Marquette. Outsiders could probably say that it lies smack-dab in the middle of nowhere — yet it is one of Michigan’s most colorful summer destinations for those seeking pure ambience.

The average temperature only gets above 60 degrees from June to August. For the other nine months of the year, it gets down-right cold. People who live through this kind of Upper Peninsula cold are called “Yoopers,” by Michiganders living south of the Mackinaw Bridge.

There are two highways running into this small community, with miles and miles of vast wilderness in all directions. Only in the last year did cellphone usage along these highways become operational — and service continues to be quite spotty. There are also limited choices for radio reception as you approach Munising. But then, about 20 miles outside town, a lonely AM signal begins to fade in at 1400 kHz.

It was somewhat by accident that I happened to stop at the Navigator Restaurant, while I was on my way to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I should have noticed something unusual when I first looked at the outside of the restaurant, but my stomach was more interested in getting something to fill it.

George Dwelley, local radio personality, splits his time between deejaying and pastoring. I was looking out over the marina from a large picture window of the restaurant when the waitress arrived at my table. “May I take your order?” she asked with a warm smile.

“Yes you may,” I replied. “I’ll have two eggs over easy, sausage, hash browns and whole wheat toast. By the way, I see that banner on the wall over there with call letters ‘WQXO, AM 1400.’ Is that a remote location to promote your restaurant?”

“No,” she replied. “That’s Munising’s radio station.”

“That’s a radio station studio?” I asked. “Here in the restaurant? You mean this restaurant has its own radio station?”

“Yup”, she replied. “That’s it. It’s been here for about a year and a half.”

“What’s the importance of the Mustangs on that banner?” I asked.

“That’s our high school sports team. Sports are very important to us,” she replied.

A quiet street scene outside the 1000-watt station. Now, I’ve been inside a lot of radio studios over the years, but this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a radio station that is part of a restaurant. Bacon and eggs and freshly baked cinnamon rolls feed the locals while an open mic feeds into the station’s vintage soundboard.

Cooking with microwave

Lonnie Shellnut and his wife are owners of the Navigator Restaurant, and Lonnie also serves as the station manager. When Lonnie’s not cooking up good tasting grubs, he spends some of his time in front of the mic.

On the roof of his restaurant is a satellite dish that brings in oldies content to the restaurant studio. Located in the corner of the studio is an equipment rack, which includes a Clear Channel Satellite XDS Pro 4 receiver, a vintage Marti STL-10 transmitter, voice processor, EAS unit with program interrupter and a computer with EZ Automation and an EZ proprietary switch.

The station’s 1 kW transmitter is about a mile away, fed by Marti STL. The Marti beams a signal from the restaurant roof to a transmitter site located about a mile away. An older-model, six-channel Audioarts soundboard is used to link everything together. It can definitely be said that this restaurant brings an entirely different meaning to the word cooking … as its cooking RF signals in addition to tasty food.

WQXO’s 1 kW AM transmitter sits in an isolated field within the city limits. The station is owned by Great Lakes Radio Inc. of Marquette, which operates five stations: four FM and one AM, and together covers the entire Upper Peninsula from the Mackinaw Bridge to Copper Harbor.

The five-station cluster has its main studio and corporate headquarters in Marquette, another 35 miles west of Munising. This studio provides voice tracking from the main studio to all five stations, and provides traffic, news, sports and weather, local and state politics, etc.

Each of the five stations has its own program format based upon what community surveys indicate listeners want to hear. At WQXO, oldies music and local sports information (go Mustangs!) is preferred. The other four stations carry country, classic rock, talk radio and adult contemporary.

Great Lakes Radio Inc. is a privately held corporation whose principal equity owner and station licensee is Todd Noordyk. Todd Pasanen is the operations manager. He and his engineers, program manager, news director and sales manager maximize uptime and broadcast performance at all of the stations.

Noordyk’s management team believes they can deliver programming and uncompromising community service to five communities by using a combination of part-time local personalities, syndicated programming and voice tracking.

Local Flavors

Every weekday morning from 7–10 a.m., local personality George Dwelley starts the day off from inside the Navigator Restaurant studio. When not playing classic oldies, George goes all out to promote local activities such as raising funds for an autistic child in the community, or seeking awareness of another local family’s child who suffers from Waardenburg Syndrome.

The station helped promote the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and generated a huge number of participants and donations. It sponsors community blood drives and local events, such as the Flannel Jack Festival with its opening lumberjack breakfast and ending with a street dance.

For Munising High School sports fans, the station broadcasts 50 local high school football and basketball games. And here’s an interesting tidbit: Alger County Judge Charley Nebel provides the play-by-play, announcing for those Mustang mascot games.

George likes working at WQXO. As he puts it, “With just my voice in three hours each day, I am able to touch many people’s lives. It is an awesome responsibility and very gratifying.”

He adds that he recently drummed up community support for a young couple whose baby required a series of 10 surgeries.

When George signs off from the restaurant studio each day after his show, he switches the audio board over to the station cluster’s voice tracking and to the satellite Oldies Channel. The rest of his day, he serves as pastor of the local Corner Stone Baptist Church.

Perhaps using the term “serves time” is appropriate, because the State of Michigan Alger Correctional Facility is also in town. And it is from the prison that George receives a flow of mail from inmates asking for particular songs. It is not uncommon for George to end each day’s program with their most popular request, “Jailhouse Rock.”

Out of the frying pan

As is the case with many small community radio stations, advertising revenue at WQXO is limited, and making a profit can be tough.

Munising’s recipe for successful radio is careful staffing and control of operating expenses through sharing management resources across five stations. That includes smart use of a central voice tracking system, customization of programming of each community’s station to what listeners want to hear, and creation and distribution of advertising to all five stations from the central studio.

WQXO was acquired by Great Lakes Radio in 1999, and its program strategy has been custom tweaked to meet community desire. WQXO may pump out only 1,000 watts, but to the people of Munising, it sounds like a million.

Robert Kegerreis is a frequent contributor to Radio World.