GRAND MARAIS, MINN. – It was a short but hair-raising anecdote, a kicker to his weekly 5-minute radio broadcast updating North Shore listeners to the wonders of daily life along the Gunflint Trail.
With a folksy, understated delivery, the North Woods radio personality known as “Wildersmith” narrated the close call involving “trail gal,” who, startled after bumping into a bear while picking blueberries, took off running down a hill.
“Now, everyone knows you’re not likely to outrun a bear,” Wildersmith said, calmly stating the obvious. But in this case, he said, “trail gal” got lucky. Exhausted from her sprint, she looked back expecting to see a bear nipping at her heels, he said, only to discover that it, too, had fled, scampering up the hill in the opposite direction.
“This was her lucky day,” Wildersmith said. “Perhaps she should have headed to Grand Marais and bought a Powerball ticket.”
That deep-woods tale is just the kind of radio charm that listeners near and far have come to appreciate and expect from WTIP, the little community station broadcasting on the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead: encounters with forest flora and fauna, hyperlocal news and even lost pet announcements, many told with the long “o”s of a Minnesota accent.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, WTIP has built itself into a small radio powerhouse, winning regional journalism awards and commanding a loyal following among locals, seasonal cabin owners and even people streaming broadcasts online from afar.
“People love to take us home with them,” said Executive Director Matthew Brown. “They want to become a member just because they spent their whole vacation listening to us, and they really like it. ... They’re going to listen back at work because it gives them little bit of the Boundary Waters, you know, a little flavor you can’t get anywhere else.”
WTIP broadcasts an eclectic array: everything from music — some performed in-studio — to documentary-style stories, snippets from a community birding expert and announcements of birthday wishes. Much of its programming is hosted by volunteer announcers.
Boasting a full-time staff of nine people and a budget of more than $600,000, the station has catapulted into relevancy beyond its community. It recently won a regional Edward R. Murrow award for a story looking back on the devastating 2007 Ham Lake wilderness fire.
That success has some in the community radio industry taking notice.
“The fact that they have been able to go from just starting on the air to actually be looked at nationwide as a leader, that to me is incredibly powerful, and incredibly impressive,” said Joel Glaser, chief executive of the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations.
The birth of a station
Long before WTIP, radio listeners across the vast stretches of Cook County could catch stations from Duluth or Thunder Bay, Canada. But some wanted a broadcast vehicle for all things local.
“We have the weekly newspaper ... but we were interested in getting news stories out more than once a week,” said Mary Igoe, one of WTIP’s many founders.
Enthusiasm for creating a local radio station was almost immediate. About 20 people showed up at a first meeting in the early 1990s to discuss the idea, Igoe said.
The community radio station at the University of Minnesota Duluth, KUMD, helped the station launch by allowing WTIP to use its towers and run its programming. Over time, local volunteers expressed more interest and were trained to go on the air. Local programming now airs about 13 hours a day.
The studios have expanded, too, moving in 2008 from something the size of a closet at the local school to a refurbished outfitter building, all with money raised through a capital campaign.
Part of the charm
While WTIP is technically a public radio station and receives state and federal funding, it is not affiliated with Minnesota Public Radio. Instead, it is part of a separate network of 18 community radio stations in the state.
On a recent weekday, workers and volunteers inside the station buzzed under wood ceilings and North Woods decor while guests popped in for interviews.
Although volunteer broadcasters are trained in the do’s and don’ts of radio work, awkward transitions and flat-out flubs sometimes slip in, even from the most seasoned hosts.
On WTIP, it only adds to the charm.
Listeners heard dead air one recent day when volunteer host Carl Solander was at the controls when the music ended abruptly ahead of schedule. Solander fessed up to his error with a groan.
“Ughhh. Did I just blow that?” he said, chuckling while talking to himself and his listeners. “Honest to goodness, I can’t believe it. That was a request, too! ... That’s bad news, Carl. How could you do that? Oh. Um. Well, we’ll try to recover.”
Inside Studio A a sign reminds hosts to “Let the listener hear your SMILE over the airwaves.”
Volunteer Marnie McMillan’s cheerful voice has been doing that for years.
Now co-hosting the “North Shore Morning” program from 8 to 10 a.m. on Thursdays, McMillan carefully enunciates a calendar of events interspersed between music, interviews and prerecorded segments. After reading grim crime news from the Associated Press, she changed the tone:
“Bob, we should tell what’s for lunch today!” she chirped to Bob Padzieski, her co-host.
“I think people would like to know, and especially since it sounds so good,” he said.
The Cook County Senior Center was offering a menu of “potatoes stuffed with ham and cheese, peas, dessert and milk,” she said before reciting a phone number for reservations.
The two traded pleasantries for two hours between segments while Padzieski sat behind a dashboard of dials and switches, producing his sixth show ever.
There were a couple of hiccups, but they were small.
“We’re not sloppy, but we’re not trying to be perfect,” said Padzieski, who became impressed with the station’s local bent after moving to Cook County a few years ago from Rochester.
“It’s community radio. If somebody finds a dog or loses a dog, they’ll call here. If the sheriff needs to get information out, they’ll call here.”
Tackling tough issues
While much of the station’s programming is quirky or featury, its four news employees don’t shy away from tough subjects.
Recently, after a racist incident involving students at the local school, the station hosted guests to talk about the climate for people of color in Cook County. It has also taken on issues such as the community divide between quiet sports and motor sports, filling a worker shortage, and the pros and cons of people renting their homes and cabins to vacationers.
“We make sure we give both sides of the story. We try not to take a stance,” Brown said. “We would lose half of our listening population.”
This time of year, the station averages 1,000 listeners per day, with a couple hundred more listening to programs posted on its website and a handful streaming it online.
More than a third of the station’s budget comes from business underwriters and 1,200 listener memberships, a third of which are from other ZIP codes.
Larry Wooding, who has a cabin on the Gunflint Trail, listens from there and at home in Peoria, Ill. The station initially became a lifeline for staying abreast of firefighting details during forest fires, he said. Now, he listens to keep up on the community. He enjoys the music, too.
“You could get Luciano Pavarotti followed by Willie Nelson, and then you might get Enya and you might get a symphony,” he said. “It’s not a cookbook like most stations.”
While station employees and volunteers are well aware of their far-flung following, serving local residents is the priority, they say.
“You don’t want to be catering too much to other people because then you alienate the local ones,” said Jay Andersen, a news employee and former editor of the local newspaper. “In a small town ... you can’t do the job you want to do without the trust of the people.”
Sometimes, however, the local stories and essays serve listeners both near and far, offering a glimpse of what draws people to Minnesota’s North Woods — and keeps them here.
In one radio essay, titled “Gus’ Wild Side,” a volunteer broadcaster captured that magic with tales of paddling.
“I could sit quietly in one spot, but I’d rather guide my canoe slowly along shore while scanning rocks and trees, watching for unsuspecting wildlife,” he said slowly. “It’s a time to be still, a moment of meditation, a slowing of our fast-paced life ... It’s my vehicle for escaping to reality.”
For many listeners, so, too, is WTIP.