Talking Off The Air At The Lake

By Jennifer Bradley

“Be relatable all the time,” says Nancy Douglass, the general manager at WLKG 96.1 The Lake, about the award-winning approach the station has taken over the years. This summer, the station is celebrating 20 years of broadcasting, and the people behind the voices talked “off the air” about the ups and downs of two decades in the local radio market.

WLKG-FM broadcasts from Lake Geneva, and station owner and President Tom Kwiatkowski credits relationships as the cause of the station’s initial growth and continued success in an industry-defined “small” market. Lake 96.1’s primary listening audience falls into the 25 to 54 age range, splitting 60 percent female and 40 percent male. The station plays a variety of current and past contemporary hits (in the parlance of the industry, the station is considered a “Hot Adult Contemporary” station) and hosts a variety of topical shows which discuss everything from sports to life issues. Its listening area extends as far east as I-94 in Kenosha, west to Janesville, south into Illinois near Crystal Lake and north to Waukesha.

For the 20th anniversary, the station will host a “96 Days of Summer” party. Radio personalities will circulate in local communities and give away prizes on the air. Kwiatkowski is hoping to recreate the station’s first broadcast from June 6, 1994, on the anniversary this year, even bringing back some of the original staff. He’s thankful for the relationships that have endured and been vital to his station, and second career.

THE ROAD TO RADIO

In 1990, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ran a notice in the local paper saying there was a FM frequency available for Lake Geneva. “How often do you read public notices?” Kwiatkowski asks with a laugh. The Star Center Elementary School principal responded to the notice and received a packet in the mail entitled How to Start a Radio Station. The FCC received twenty-four applications from people wishing to obtain rights to the 96.1 frequency, but thanks to Kwiatkowski’s strong community connections, the agency awarded him the frequency rights.

“I was fascinated by radio,” he says, explaining that his interest was spurred by working for Lake Geneva’s WMIR Radio covering high school football and basketball games.

Lake 96.1 went on the air June 6, 1994. The road to radio, however, was a complicated and challenging four-year process. Kwiatkowski credits close friend Skip Bliss, owner of Janesville-based Bliss Communications, with helping him to establish a new media outlet in the area.

Kwiatkowski says Bliss’ team led by Chuck Flynn and Mike Murray, “literally built my station from the ground up.” With miles of wiring to install, rooms to soundproof and permits to obtain, the process was arduous, but Kwiatkowski says he borrowed (and paid) the best professionals around. Bliss’s radio engineer in Washington D.C., Bob Culver, and his FCC attorney Peter Doyle were the other key players in the WLKG equation.

As with many small businesses, the initial investment did not immediately return rewards. Kwiatkowski says the station lost $220,000 in its first 15 months and ran up bills totaling $500,000 in legal and start-up costs, not to mention the $40,000 tower. The FCC wanted him to build, and pay for, a bigger tower than he needed; one that could support other antennas. It cost extra but in the long run has proven a successful investment for the station, one that has helped sustain cash flow in lean years.

Kwiatkowski says that the first two years presented a learning curve. A lot of time and manpower went into “hitting the pavement,” trying to garner enough sales to keep the station afloat. The turning point came in October 1995 when Kwiatkowski hired Mike Knar, a radio veteran from Rockford, Ill. “He could see the potential,” he says, and Knar laid out a strategic plan for WLKG that set the station up for years to come. Knar was also a big part of the success of WKPO 105.9 in Janesville, which Kwiatkowski bought in 1997 and sold in 2000.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Kwiatkowski had greater ambitions than many of his peers. After high school, he went on to get a degree from Chicago Teacher’s College and then a master’s degree from Loyola University. He taught for four years, and then moved up to principal, a position he held from 1974 to 1994. He met his wife Barb in Lake Geneva in 1967; today they have three daughters and five grandchildren. He is immensely proud of everything he has achieved so far: “This is what it’s about. If I can set an example for somebody else to try and achieve something they didn’t have; go for it.”

ON AIR

Kwiatkowski did some on-air DJ work at WLKG 20 years ago, but eventually focused his talents on the station’s off-air functions. Today, David Michaels serves as program director, in charge of the station’s “product,” though Kwiatkowski still makes guest appearances on some of the radio shows.

Michaels says it’s his job to give Douglass and other sales specialists a quality product to sell, by engaging the listeners and offering a balanced program for all to enjoy. It’s a challenge, but a fun one, he adds, especially when controversial topics like Packers/Bears games or Wisconsin politics arise. Hearing this, Douglass laughs and recalls a caller complaining he was “tired of listening to Packers’ news all the time.” “But he was still listening,” she says with a smile.

WLKG’s strategic plan seems to be working. Lake 96.1 has been named Station of the Year by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association three years in a row (2010-2012); Kwiatkowski is hoping for a fourth nod for its 2013 season. The award is based on quality production and programming, which includes sound effects, music, content and script writing, Douglass explains. The station competes with stations in similar-sized markets throughout Wisconsin in a competition judged by peers in other states.

“We know that we’re treating our clients right, getting their message out and catching people’s ears,” says Douglass. And those ears number an average of 65,000 listeners per week. Their website receives more than 14,000 visits each month as well. “The product is something that is bringing people back,” she says.

“Anybody can play a song on the air,” adds Michaels. “It’s important to remember that it’s not about you, but what the listeners want to hear.”

Kwiatkowski acknowledges that there are other options for radio today, from satellite to digital music, but he says a live radio station offers something those don’t: immediate and live interaction with the community.

School closings and weather announcements draw in a lot of listeners. Douglass says the station has become a trusted partner with local authorities. “We’re not out there trying to scoop a story; we’re a music station,” she explains. “We can, however, tell people that kids are safe or to stay away from a certain area. We are the only media able to stop what we’re doing and start talking.”

All three remember a snowstorm in recent years when plow trucks took them back and forth to a local hotel, so they could report live on road conditions and encourage people to stay safe at home.

In addition to weather, giveaways are the second-most listened-for events. A more recent promotion is a listener-chosen free wedding. “That is very engaging,” says Douglass, who notes that listeners vote on the winning couple and get to choose many details of their wedding.

The quest to draw in listeners is a constant challenge. In the 1990s, Kwiatkowski hired Terry Ledford from Baltimore to be the station’s “shock jock,” under the on-air name of “The Shark Man.” While this phenomenon had a short shelf life, Kwiatkowski says that putting Ledford in the studio quadrupled the listenership at WLKG and tripled the sales, a move he has never regretted and wished he had done earlier. The Shark Man was on air for 14 months and still comes up in conversation by those who remember him.

OFF AIR

Off the air, the group at Lake 96.1 is a family in every sense of the word. They share a goal, but each boasts unique opinions and personalities. Kwiatkowski says he appreciates that and doesn’t want “yes people” around the office.

That’s okay with the rest of the team, each of whom take their roles seriously, but also enjoy their work. To drive this point home, Kwiatkowski remembers that he and Douglass spent a lot of time working sales leads together after she moved from Indianapolis and started at the station in February 2002. “Those next six months we went gangbusters; we were having a lot of fun,” says Kwiatkowski.

“We get along like any other family,” Douglass concurs.

Michaels says it’s his job to develop the station’s programming, and then explain his rationale to the rest of the crew, when they ask. “I get to have fun, crack a microphone for three hours a day and talk about my life,” he says. Michaels began his tenure at the station in November 2004.

In its 20 years on the air, WLKG has seen its fair share of excitement as well: everything from live broadcasts at emergency situations to seeing the backstage workings at live concerts. Kwiatkowski says he remembers a number of plane crashes and even a hostage situation the station covered and reported on from the scene. Douglass enjoys seeing concerts from a different perspective, through the eyes of the backstage crew. She is amazed with the immense work it takes to set up, run and take down a show.

These experiences are possible because of the close relationships the station has nurtured with local law enforcement and venue operators over the years. Douglass credits Kwiatkowski for initiating these police, fire, and EMS relationships 20 years ago, and she says much of it comes from Kwiatkowski’s involvement with the Geneva Lake Water Safety Patrol.

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