DULUTH — The Ely radio station that's known for covering high school Nordic ski meets live, acts as a weather lifeline for area paddlers and was once owned by Charles Kuralt is set to go off the air June 1.
WELY, owned by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, has been a money-losing venture, the band said in a statement.
"We have been working behind the scenes to find a buyer that could continue operating the station, but our latest plans fell through," Tribal Chair Cathy Chavers said in the release. "This is not something we wanted to do."
But not all hope is lost: Ely Mayor Roger Skraba is attempting a last-minute save combining public and private interests.
"Some are saying 'hey, it's the end of the line,' but I am not ready to give it up yet," he said.
WELY, known as "End of the Road Radio," first began broadcasting in 1954. Financial problems forced a closure in 1987, until CBS journalist Kuralt, known for his "On the Road" program, bought the station in 1995. He operated it until his 1997 death. Bois Forte bought WELY in 2005.
The station employs a full-time general manager, Brett Ross, and eight part-time workers.
Its reach extends across the upper Arrowhead, and is the local source of Minnesota Twins baseball, regional news, emergency messages and area high school sports. Saturdays are known for polka and requests, and the Trader Craig show is a favorite among residents. The station even shares what's for lunch in Ely schools.
"It's kind of the hub of the community," Ross said, and losing that connection would be "devastating."
A sign on the western side of Ely alerts visitors entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that emergency weather information can be found at 94.5 FM.
"People bring crank-up radios into the Boundary Waters. They plan their trips with the guidance of WELY," Ross said.
Despite a national decline in radio station revenue, "radio still thrives in small, rural communities" like Ely, he said.
But a sales position was cut during the pandemic and expensive upgrades are needed. Ross said he's been using "technology duct tape" to keep the station on the air. Bois Forte lost $1.7 million on the endeavor, it said, including the purchase amount.
It's a tough market to sustain a radio station, Skraba said, but it's worth "rallying" the town to keep a station that is so often seen as providing a community service. Ely students play sports in towns sometimes two or three hours away, and parents count on hearing a ball game over the radio if they can't make the drive on a given night.
"How do you put a price on that?" Skraba asked.