Deep in the Lake

This article was initially written for/published in the Wisconsinite, a now-defunct alt-biweekly newspaper in Madison, WI.
The newest addition to Madison’s commercial radio dial is WHIT-FM, otherwise known as 93.1 “The Lake.” Similar in format to 101.5 WIBA-FM, the addition of “The Lake” brings the number of stations owned by Mid-West Family Broadcasting in Madison to seven, topping Clear Channel’s local stable by one and making it the largest station owner in the market. Mid-West Family Broadcasting is based in Madison, but it also owns clusters of stations in LaCrosse, Benton Harbor, MI, Springfield, IL, and Springfield, MO. Its other Madison properties include 94.1 WJJO, “Magic” 98, Q-106, WTDY-AM (1670), WTUX-AM (1550), and “La Movida” WTDA-AM (1480), which Mid-West Family owns but leases to Hispanic programmers.
The route by which “The Lake” was built is a long and somewhat convoluted story, but it shows how local and regional radio station companies have had to band together to remain competitive in an industry which has seen explosive consolidation over the last eight years.
In 1997 there were eight separate applicants for the 93.1 frequency (which is technically allocated to DeForest). Mid-West Family was not the only Wisconsin-based broadcast interest to apply for the channel: others included Dale Ganske (a prospector-type who makes a living by applying for open radio frequencies around the country and then selling the construction permits to other station owners), William O’Donnell (has radio station management and brokering experience) and Dave Magnum, owner of the Magnum Radio Group, which includes radio and TV stations in the Wisconsin Dells, Green Bay, and Tomah. Magnum is also running against Tammy Baldwin this year in a bid to become the Second District’s representative to Congress.
The multiple applications for 93.1 languished for more than four years until the FCC accepted a settlement/compromise. It came in the form of “Great Dane Broadcasters,” a corporation of convenience established to break the logjam at the FCC. The primary stakeholders of Great Dane included Ganske, O’Donnell, Magnum, and two representatives of Mid-West Family Broadcasting: company president Thomas Walker and chief financial officer Jolene Neis. In the eyes of the FCC, four of the eight applicants had agreed to work together on the station; it awarded Great Dane the construction permit to build a 6,000-watt FM station in DeForest in 2001.
Just a few months later, the “merger” of Great Dane Broadcasters into Mid-West Family was announced. Thomas Walker “bought out” the shares of Ganske, Magnum, and O’Donnell, leaving the way clear for 93.1’s assimilation into Mid-West. Documents filed with the FCC to approve the transfer did not cite a sale price. Little is known about the other four applicants for the DeForest frequency, including the quixotically-named “B-93 Ladies of DeForest,” who (according to FCC information) seemed prepared to fight for the frequency until Great Dane Broadcasters came onto the scene.
Current radio station ownership rules allow one company to own a maximum of eight stations in a market the size of Madison. Mid-West Family already has its eighth station in the planning stages. It will appear on 106.7 FM, although its bona-fide debut has not yet been scheduled. Technically licensed to Mt. Horeb, the station may provide a fair signal to the Madison market. However, as Mid-West also owns the station at 106.3 (Q-106), the company may move Q’s transmitter location so as to more advantageously site the 106.7 transmitter/tower complex for better coverage of Madison.
Stations of this type – licensed to a smaller community but marketed and programmed toward a larger city nearby – are called “rimshots.” Rimshot stations have been the fastest-growing niche of commercial radio in the post-1996 Telecom Act world, as companies like Mid-West (and their bigger brethren) target the largest audience base possible with the most radio signals. That the practice deprives a smaller community of a radio frequency allocated to it is not important – radio’s a business, remember? It’s not every day someone out-Clear Channels Clear Channel, and considering the state of the industry, Madison may consider itself lucky that the dominant station owner in the market is at least a local entity.