The Future of WELY in Ely, Minn.

Small town radio stations are places where you can call in and ask the DJ to wish your kid a happy birthday or report you lost something — WELY in Ely, Minn. is one of them.

The community radio station was slated to shut down on June 1, but there are efforts in the city to save its beloved radio station. Roger Skraba is the mayor of Ely and one of the people working to keep WELY alive. He joined host Cathy Wurzer to share some of the latest updates on his efforts.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: I'll admit. I love-- love small town radio stations. Back in the day, they truly reflected the areas they served. They had local news and high school sports, swap shops where folks would call in trying to sell or give away stuff, on-air obits, and farm market reports. There are still some stations around where you can call and request a song or ask the DJ to wish your kid a happy birthday or report that you've lost something.

RADIO HOST: --WELY. This is the End of the Road radio. It's time for community events, the job search file, and personal and emergency messages. All dogs that we had missing are now home. I would guess there's still a dog running around out there somewhere, but we don't have any messages regarding them.

So Lars made it home. And the other dog-- the yellow lab that we have missing this morning-- made it home as well, so-- success. Someone's still looking for their drone. It was in a gray case the size of a book. They lost it leaving the Garden Lake area on Monday. If you happen to have found this drone in a case, call 218-365--

CATHY WURZER: I love this. That's from WELY community radio in Ely, Minnesota. The iconic station was supposed to shut down June 1, but their efforts in Ely to save the beloved radio station. Roger Skraba is the mayor of Ely-- one of the people working to keep WELY alive. And he's on the line. Mayor Skraba, how are you doing?

ROGER SKRABA: I'm doing great. It's hotter than a pistol up here today.


Yeah, you know, you played that clip. And I guide canoe trips. And sometimes I play my morning-- I have earbuds in. And no one can hear, and I'm listening to the radio. And once in a while, they'll say, can we hear? Can we listen? So I put it on, and they hear the 6:30 AM report-- you know, emergency personal messages. And they're like, what is that? What? You know, and I'm like, well, because we're located in an area that doesn't have a lot of coverage, the federal government allows us to broadcast these as a service.

And I said, it's very unique. There aren't very many places in the world that have this-- you know, in the United States. And, you know, again, to segue into the story, when I became mayor last August, I got an email from the tribal council workers-- the people that work for the tribal council-- saying, hey, would you be interested in receiving the radio station. And I'm like, as in giving it to us? And they're like, yeah.

CATHY WURZER: Giving it to you. OK.

ROGER SKRABA: Wow, that's a load because-- is that what government needs to do? So as the time has gone on, they finally came to us. In May, they called up the station manager and said, June 1st-- we're done. And then, when I found that out, I'm like, hey, hey, wait, wait-- what happened to the deal? And they're like, what deal? I go, OK. Let's say it didn't happen. We can't lose our radio station. It's too important to the community.

CATHY WURZER: I was going to say, Mayor, because WELY has been around for a while in town, right? I mean, it's got a cool history-- 1960s?

ROGER SKRABA: The '50s-- late, early '50's. As a kid, the station used to be-- I lived on Beacon Hill. It was like a block and 1/2 away in the tower. We grew up with the tower in our front yard or whatever. And we used to listen to it, you know, in the fifth, sixth, seventh grade, calling in the requests. And you'd be sitting in the dark with your girl. And you'd be like, this is our song-- then "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

It's just is all those things that happened with a small radio station because you'd call. This is for Roger and Cecilia or Roger-- it's like, whoo! It's like Facebook except it was on the radio, you know? And now there's a chance that we could lose it. And it was like, no, not right now-- not on my watch. I don't want to see that happen.

CATHY WURZER: But you don't want to get city government involved, right?

ROGER SKRABA: It would be nice if we didn't have to, yes. I mean, that's the last resort. The scenario we're playing out is, if the tribal council wants to give it to the city of Ely and the city of Ely only for whatever reason, we would accept it. And we would find a 501(c)(5) or a 501(c)(6)-- a 501(c)(6) seems to make the most sense-- and then find a group that would operate it. And then that's how it would operate.

Since that conversation, I've tried for the last two days to contact anyone. And just no one's calling me back. I mean, I've left messages. I'm not getting anything. So I know there's no less than five private groups that are interested in purchasing the radio station from the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. And the only caveat that I have-- and that's one of the reasons I brought this all up-- is whoever buys it needs to keep it a small-market radio station, you know?

As much as I like KQDS out of Duluth, I would hate to see a big company buy it and then run it like that. There's nothing wrong with that if you have five other radio stations to listen to. But when you only have one, this is what we get. This is what we have. It's nice when it still has that local flair.

CATHY WURZER: Right. I was going say, yes, because many stations-- as you know, some of the larger stations run via satellite. Oftentimes the DJ is not even in town.

ROGER SKRABA: No. And my plea to the members of the committee that I spoke to was-- I said, here's how I view it. This is my personal view. I view it like-- there are parents that have kids in the school system that just can't afford time off from work or the dollars to drive to Grand Marais or to International Falls to cook or whatever. They have other family members, and they just can't make their kids' games.

But WELY shows up, and they broadcast them live. So the family member is listening to the radio station while their kid is playing. If, for whatever reason, we don't get that coverage anymore, to me that's just one more nail in the poverty coffin. Poverty works in different ways, and it demoralizes people. But when you take that away, I can't sit back and watch it. I can't let it happen.

Like I said, I know of three small-town, small operation radio stations-- private-- that are trying to get ahold of the folks over at Bois Forte that assured me they would operate it like it is right now. And I'm like, oh, please do. I mean, if you can buy it and you can make a go at it, by all means, I would appreciate you keeping it a small-town radio. I mean, I don't know of another radio station anywhere in the United States that broadcasts live cross-country ski meets.

CATHY WURZER: I have to say, I have not heard that. And that's why WELY truly-- it is a gem. It is a gem. Truly, it is. But I'm wondering. You know, obviously, we're talking here on a non-commercial radio station. I mean, is there a possibility that this could be a community-based radio station like WTIP or KAXE in Grand Rapids?

ROGER SKRABA: Yes. And I talked to Scott over at KAXE. I'm on a board with him. I'm on Club Mesabi-- the bike trail board. I'm the president. And Scott Hall, who helped set up KAXE-- and he's like, Roger, when it gets to that point, please include me. I will help you.

He goes, it's phenomenal. It's taken us 20 years, he said, but we're finally running on all cylinders. And It's an absolute wonderful feeling when it's working. And he goes, I have no doubt that your community could do that. So, again, if that happens, that is part of our exit strategy in our plan so that the radio station-- that WELY [INAUDIBLE] will still work.

CATHY WURZER: Now, as of now, WELY is set to be on air until September 1st, right? So it's had a bit of a reprieve.


CATHY WURZER: OK. That's positive.

ROGER SKRABA: Yeah, there's not a lot of live radio on Sunday night. The couple that does the call-in requests-- they were on Sunday night. Usually, they're Saturday night. And Trader Craig is usually every morning, although I have not heard him in the last couple of weeks, if he's doing it or not.

It seems like the radio station right now is on autopilot. Again, I haven't been able to talk to Brett, the manager-- or anyone. They're ghosting. It's hard to just get ahold of anyone and say factually what's happening. But you can turn it on and get-- what do you call that news? The Minnesota--

CATHY WURZER: The Minnesota News Network-- Minnesota News Network, yeah.

ROGER SKRABA: Yeah, and that's up-to-date. That's current-- and then the "Associated Press" news. So there's someone moving around making sure that works.


ROGER SKRABA: But there's not a lot of people or on-air personalities like we're used to. There's some irony to this because people I never dreamt-- I mean, these are hardcore locals. They have their first dollar from Confirmation. And the guy's like, what's going on at the radio station? Can I still get a mug or a T-shirt? Can I help? I'm looking at him like, really? I mean, it's so wonderful to see.

It's like, people I never dreamt that wanted to help the radio station are out there going-- and it means something to them. It's kind of like part of them. So I'm going to stay at it. I'm going to keep at it. I'm going to stay in the loop. The small-market radio stations that are interested in it-- the ones that have contacted me have talked to me at length about it. They've heard my spiel, like what you're hearing. And they're like, yes, sir, that's kind of what we want--


ROGER SKRABA: --same thing. And, hopefully, our local businesses will keep it going.

CATHY WURZER: That's the key though too is mayors to have local support and that means financial support too thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. And we're going to have our fingers crossed for WELY.

ROGER SKRABA: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you. Take care.

ROGER SKRABA: Have a great day.

CATHY WURZER: You too. Roger Skraba is the mayor of Ely, Minnesota.

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