“Completely ignoring” conventional wisdom, the WNMC flourishes
Today, this is where local listeners tune their radio dials if they’re in the mood for something a little different from the typical radio fare. But before WNMC-FM (90.7 FM) was a full-fledged station known for its eclectic programming, dynamic team of volunteer DJs, and a broadcast radius that spanned six counties, it was little more than a three Northwestern Michigan College passionate project. (NMC) students. The teleprinter looks back on WNMC’s extremely humble beginnings – and the station’s journey to become one of northern Michigan’s most beloved radio institutions.
According to Eric Hines, station manager of WNMC since 2000, the radio station started in 1967 as a student activity, with broadcast capacity limited to NMC dormitories. “[It was broadcast] through a variety of different means, ”says Hines. “By a very low power AM signal, and I think also by the college electrical system.” Among the students who started the station – Bob Barko, Bob Brandt and Mike Scoville – Hines says two of them took on engineering roles, while the other was the radio personality.
The original mission of the three founding students? According to Hines, it was simple: put rock music on the airwaves.
“I think in 1967 in Traverse City there was very little rock ‘n’ roll on the radio,” Hines explains.
“Rock’n’roll, at that time, had really taken over the consciousness of young people. But here there was nothing; not rock at all on the radio. [WNMC] was founded to remedy this. Hines adds that Barko, Brandt, and Scoville were all at least briefly involved in the growing rock movement, having spent the summer of 1967 as roadies for Marquette-based band The Excels. They channeled that passion into WNMC, and Traverse City’s first college radio station was born.
Those early days were slow. Based on conversations he had with early WNMC alumni, Hines says the 1967 launch ended up being a false start in many ways. “I’ve talked to people who were at the station in 1970, and they talk about it like they’re restarting it,” he says. “As if he’s been completely dying in the meantime.”
Despite the stumbles, the WNMC found its place in the 1970s, when a team of dedicated students – many of whom, according to Hines, “became artists and creators” in their own right – put the station back on track. way. They were greatly helped along the way by local radio titan Les Biederman – founder of WTCM – who donated equipment and was “definitely a great supporter of the station”.
Yet even as the WNMC grew and stabilized, it had one major drawback – low power. The station could reach students living on campus – and broadcast at maximum power, could even achieve minimal “spillover” into surrounding neighborhoods – but venture beyond the few blocks that made up NMC and it was as if the station did not exist. Fortunately for the WNMC and its early cast, the resort’s spillover – though minimal – was enough to spark an organic wave of word-of-mouth.
“People in the community started to hear and care about the station,” Hines says. “People started signing up for classes just so they could participate. In the late 1970s, those involved with the station began to realize that it was something that really should be public media, rather than just a student activity.
The buzz sparked discussions within NMC’s administration and board of directors about “applying for a true radio license” and broadcasting the WNMC to a wider audience. And in 1979, WNMC debuted on FM radio at 90.9. Even with an initial boost, the station remained underpowered – “barely 10 watts,” according to the WNMC website – but it was enough to “have covered Traverse City fairly well.” [at that point]”, says Hines The teleprinter.
WNMC would increase its power twice more. The first took place in 1981, when Hines said a decision by the Reagan administration left low-power plants with no choice but to level up. “The administration has decided to no longer protect low power stations,” he explains. “So you had to hit 100 watts or they wouldn’t protect your channel space; anyone could just come in and take it. An increase in power to 150 watts solidified the local reach of the WNMC, with a radius that covered “Traverse City and a six mile radius of the surrounding territory.”
The next boost would come 16 years later, when WNMC quadrupled its power to 600 watts and switched to its current frequency of 90.7 FM. Since 1997, the station can broadcast in Grand Traverse, Wexford, Antrim, Leelanau, Benzie and Charlevoix counties.
There have also been other developments along the way. In the 1980s, for example, Hines says the WNMC began its transition from a completely college-run station to a college / community hybrid. Eventually, the NMC administration dropped the requirement that residents had to enroll in college courses if they wanted to volunteer at the station. Today, WNMC operates with a team of around 80 volunteers, and although Hines says students still make up a significant portion of that contingent (15% to one-third, depending on the year), the majority are members of the community.
Programming has also changed. While WNMC started out with rock ‘n’ roll, Hines says it didn’t take long for almost every other radio station in Traverse City to embrace this format. This prompted WNMC to expand into some of the alternative programming niches it offers today, from jazz and blues to the hours that revolve around alternative country. Variety – and the potential for musical discovery – are factors that Hines says have helped WNMC retain an following, even in the age of Spotify and music streaming.
“It’s a bit mind-boggling [how much different music we play]”Says Hines.” We have a playlist program that I can pull reports from, and just last week we played [music from] 400 albums made in the last two years, 400 albums of new music… Since 2000, when I arrived here, commercial radio has become more and more narrow [in what they play]. Part of it is just programming theory: everyone thinks every radio station should only ever do one thing. But we are the radio station that completely ignores this advice.