Julie Koehn Detroit has been in dire economic circumstances ever since the auto industry’s bankruptcies and reorganization. The effects have been devastating and wide-ranging, especially in small neighboring suburbs, like Lenawee County, home to WLEN(FM).
“We used to have several manufacturing facilities here supplying the ‘Big 3,’ and our area was the home of Merillat Cabinets,” said Julie Koehn, president of the station. “When the economy sagged, the auto manufacturers began laying off, and the housing industry collapsed. Things changed dramatically for our community, and we lost about 10 percent of our population. I have seen homes for sale for less than $20,000 — literally less than the cost of a new mid-price car.”
Because of the economic climate, requests for assistance grew and the pool of those able to give became much smaller according to Koehn, who added that the biggest local problems have been homelessness, hunger and unemployment.
In the midst of all this, WLEN, a standalone FM, has continued to focus so heavily and so successfully on public service that the station will be presented with a Crystal Heritage Award on April 14 at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. This honor is bestowed only upon stations that have won five previous Crystal Radio Awards for exceptional year-round community service, and only four other stations have been so recognized.
At a time when even the most community-minded of stations feel compelled to explore money-saving approaches like voice tracking, outsourcing and cutting back on local involvement, what drives WLEN’s quest to super-serve its area, and how are these efforts documented?
Check presentation at the Thank a Vet Fundraiser, which raised $20,000. Funds to help veterans in need stay local and are administered through Housing Help of Lenawee. Pictured: Kathy Williams and Julie Koehn of WLEN; Marge Erickson and Khristine Henson-Jones from Housing Help of Lenawee; Jim Mooney of WLEN; and Suzanne Miller from TLC Community Credit Union.HOMETOWN HOPE AND MORE
“Our staff is really committed to the community,” said Koehn. “We have 17 full- and part-time employees, and they really want to make an impact and do meaningful things. A few years ago, we started our Community Action Squad. In a couple of weeks, it will participate in the Walk for Warmth to help people pay their utility bills. The Squad also raced around a grocery store in the Supermarket Sweeps to raise money for our local soup kitchens, food banks and warming shelters.”
Another public service event on WLEN’s calendar is “Thank a Vet,” which has taken place on Veterans Day for the last 10 years. Station personnel broadcast curbside outside the station in Adrian, Mich., soliciting donations. Last year, $20,000 was raised to aid veterans in the community with rent, utility bills or even a pair of boots to help secure employment.
While the station participates in a number of charity efforts throughout the year, there is one big project that has year-round visibility. It’s called “Hometown Hope,” and it provides a marketing grant every month to a different local nonprofit organization. Each October, the station calls for the next year’s entrants over the air and through social media. There is a six-week application window.
“Nonprofits can all apply for the grants of $3,700 each,” said Koehn. “These grants include radio spots, interviews on our morning show, a live broadcast and a social media presence.”
One of WLEN’s more recent initiatives involves local students creating their own anti-bullying public service announcements that air on the station.
TELL ME ABOUT IT
Why don’t more radio stations or groups put an emphasis on community service?
Community Action Squad makes pasties for Habitat for Humanity of Lenawee. They sell approximately 5,000 pasties, all made by volunteers for $5 each as a fundraiser for Habitat. Pictured, foreground, are Kathy Williams (sales), Leslie DeCapo (administrative) and Julie Galazka (morning show).
“I think most stations are doing great community service, but they are not documenting it or making it generally known. It’s not a big market/small market thing, nor is it a corporate versus independent ownership kind of thing.
“I have friends in Detroit radio and TV who are doing amazing things, like raising money to pay for funeral expenses for a shooting victim, stocking soup kitchens or sponsoring events that raise funds for cancer research,” said Koehn. “I especially admire the community service culture at Hubbard Radio and Bonneville International.”
WLEN documents nearly all its public service activities, and Koehn personally puts this “scrapbook” together each year, complete with photos and narratives of the events. The 2014 edition was 12 pages, professionally designed, and included a list of awards and recognitions the station received during the year.
“We call it ‘Report to the Community’ and we present it to our elected officials. We also use it as a marketing tool to let people both inside and outside our community know who we are and what we stand for,” said Koehn. “Documenting our efforts also helps us to gauge what we’re doing and make sure we’re going in the right direction with our community service.”
THE BUCK STOPS HERE
“There are times when we get underwriters to help us pay the direct expenses of our larger projects, which allows us to cover personnel costs and keep the lights on,” said Koehn. “Many times we donate a portion of these underwriting efforts directly back to the charities themselves, like our Toys of Lenawee campaign. We get underwriters to help cover personnel expenses at the broadcast and make a monetary donation back to the Toy/Food drive.”
Koehn is a 30-year radio veteran; her father, John W. Koehn, founded WLEN in 1965 and, five years later, the station that is now WMIM(FM), Luna Pier, Mich. He passed away in 1990. She has served on the Michigan Association of Broadcasters board of directors for many years, serving as chair in 2005, and as the District 13 (Michigan) representative to the NAB board of directors through June of this year. She has also been a featured speaker at national conventions for both the NAB and the RAB.
Ken Deutsch says he still has fun writing for Radio World, even after 30 years.