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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Building community in spite of ourselves

Betty Firth
Posted 5/18/22

This week Brett Ross gave an excellent presentation on the history and present circumstances of WELY radio with which he has been affiliated since 1998, rarely taking some time out for other work and …

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Building community in spite of ourselves


This week Brett Ross gave an excellent presentation on the history and present circumstances of WELY radio with which he has been affiliated since 1998, rarely taking some time out for other work and sanity breaks. It was a compelling saga of an evolving team of participants who loved the idea of community radio and were willing to work to keep it going, some paid employees, some as volunteers. Brett said with a chuckle that through the years he had no shortage of feedback from the community, often from listeners who were not shy about letting him know they didn’t like what he was doing. He benefitted by developing a thicker skin. They may not have been diplomatic, but they cared about our local radio, and they kept listening.
Brett was and is passionate about the importance of community radio, and although he’s looking forward to his first completely free day off in a very long time on June 1, he said he would love to continue working with WELY if it manages somehow to reconfigure and survive. Gil Knight, who was involved with WELY since the 70’s, said he’s sure that like the dying phoenix, it will rise again. “You just can’t kill WELY.”
There was a lot of interest and many good questions about the future possibilities from the full house of Tuesday groupers. Some wondered about what made other community radio stations successful, particularly WTIP out of Grand Marais and KAXE/KBXE out of Grand Rapids/Bemidji. Both are membership, non-profit community radio stations, which have income from membership contributions and are eligible for fundraising from grants and other sponsorships. WELY is a commercial station relying on advertising for income, and the Covid shutdown also shut down advertising
Some optimistic participants said they thought it would be very possible that a coalition of non-profits could work together to revive the radio station in a new configuration. That set me to wondering with familiar questions. What are the crucial elements that make or break efforts to organize and work together? Why is it so difficult for human beings to pull together in the same direction even when the goal is shared and desired by all involved?
Many answers come to mind: interfering egos, stubborn independence, underlying emotional issues, poor listening, poor planning, conflicting sub-agendas (spoken or unspoken,) just to name a few. I do know some essentials: there must be people who are willing to take leadership who have skills in pulling together, people, agendas, and details; who know how to facilitate meetings and the overall process; who are excellent listeners. Without good facilitation, people will lose patience and mentally drift away or give up completely. Leaders need to be committed to the health and success of the project without personal agendas distorting their motivation and actions. And, of course, there needs to be a core of people who are willing to work, not just talk.
We are seeing extreme levels of polarization in our country right now, often instigated and fertilized by so-called leaders who have something to gain from the dissension. They are very skilled at manipulating people through skillful distortions and outright lies, pushing emotional triggers on issues like gun control, abortion, and immigration. Their aim is to engender fear and distrust in the “others,” anyone who looks different or thinks differently. They attempt to create a false sense of belonging, of brotherhood or community through distrust while at the same time stroking egos with the message that “you’re smart and you’re on the right side.”
To my mind, these efforts are always destructive. I have trouble finding anything positive in them. My concern is that the so-called trickle-down theory is finally working as it never did as an economic theory, (which held that reducing taxes for the wealthy and the corporations would have benefits that would trickle down to the rest of us.) Never happened, but it’s still touted as a justification for giving more benefits to the aforementioned people and companies. The trickle-down does seem to be working with hate-mongering and polarization, as evidenced by a recognized lower level of civility generally and overt acts of violent protest or violence against others. I think presenting this model of and permission to act irresponsibly and selfishly is possibly the worst legacy of ex-President Trump, or at least it’s in the top ten of a long list.
Locally, we certainly have seen disagreement and dissension on issues of mining, school curriculum, and military force in Iraq, but we also see daily examples of the community working together. Just look at any local paper. There are people planting trees, putting together plays and musicals, raising funds for individuals with medical issues, installing playground equipment in the park, supporting local sports teams, and working on trails. When trees come down, the chain saws come out. When snowstorms dump inches of snow, neighbors with plows help others who need their help. Not to mention the hundreds of people who volunteer with over forty-five non-profit organizations in the Ely area, benefitting young and old in so many ways.
We do know how to do it. We just need to get out of our own way and perhaps hone up on some skills that would benefit us. Did I mention listening?
I would love to see WELY rise from the ashes, and I particularly would love to see more opportunities for local people to contribute to programming as has happened in the past. I remember Diane, who brought her vast collection and knowledge of jazz to do a weekly program; members of the local writer’s group who would read selections on Sunday night; Sonya, who offered her vast knowledge and wisdom about nutrition and natural remedies, and many others.
Can we do it? With a true American spirit, I think we can accomplish whatever we can envision and have the will to accomplish. If you expect to miss the music, community announcements, coverage of local sports, Saturday morning polka, hearing the voices of your friends and neighbors on the air, and so much more, think about it for a while, and then let Lacey Squier know at Lacey@NEMinnesotansfor that you’re interested in helping. that you’re interested in whatever effort evolves.