WORT’s History

Here’s to “the uns:” unabashed, unafraid, uncensorable, unconventional, uninhibited, unorthodox, unpretentious, unstinting, unsung, untiring, and finally, definitely unique!

The Early Days at Back Porch Radio

From a speech delivered by John Ohliger at the 1994 WORT Annual Station Meeting

Bonnie Kalmbach asked me to talk briefly about the early days of Back Porch Radio at WORT‘s annual meeting. I delved into my far-from- perfect memory, with the help of a 20 year old cassette tape and a couple xeroxed pages.

In the early 1970s W-O-R-T is just a gleam in the eyes of five of us. In fact it isn’t WORT we’re dreaming about. It’s WOMB ! W-O-M-B, those are the first call letters we wanted (rejected at an early open meeting), then W-A-R-T which we request from the Federal Communications Commission. But the FCC turned us down because WART had just been reserved by another station.

There are the five of us. There’s Pat Ryan, an engineer at WHA Radio. Pat lives in one half of the same house as I do, near the corner of Drake and Mills a few blocks from the present site of the station.

I had been involved in non-commercial radio off and on since 1940. In the early ’60s as news director at the original listener supported stations of the Pacifica Foundation in California. In 1973 I moved to Madison for a one-year appointment on the UW-Extension faculty. There was a married couple, the Deveraux-Weber’s, who had tried valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to get a similar project started here earlier with the name “The Human Radio Corporation.” The husband works at the local cable TV company. Finally, there’s Pat Ryan’s engineering colleague at WHA, Mike O’Connor. Mike is the main reason there is a community radio station here. He had been active with listener supported stations in St. Louis. Mike is a young, human dynamo, but he is deceptively relaxed about it.

The foundation’s name, “Back Porch Radio,” expresses Mike’s philosophy of an easy going, unpretentious, down-home, approach to broadcasting. It’s Mike’s $10,000 in stock, a gift from his father, that is pledged to get the construction permit. The stock is never needed, because of local fund raising.

Mike, and the rest of us, envision a modest operation with no paid staff, no staff or titles at all. A friendly collective group making all decisions by consensus. The station would cover only Madison, it would be FM with no stereo, at a different frequency — 89.7. Our studio and transmitter would be located high atop the YWCA building near the state capitol.

Soon we get more people involved in program committees and other meetings. As Mike writes, a month before we go on the air, in our newsletter, *Spread the Wort?*: “We have been very concerned with the problem of how a radio station such as this can be organized to reflect the opinions of all its members and yet decisions can be made reasonably quickly. A question,” Mike concludes, “which hasn’t been answered.”

One major change before we go on the air is the station’s location. The unused studios and transmitter of the commercial FM station W-M-F-M on Winnebago street in the Atwood neighborhood become available. The small main studio is great because it has a large window looking out onto the street. Passersby often call and wave to us.

Finally, after many thousands of hours of unpaid volunteer work, comes Monday, December 1, 1975, at 8 pm. Mike O’Connor flips a switch, makes some nonchalant remarks, and we’re on the air. We play a ten minute demonstration tape mike and I put together from stations we’d been active with. Earlier we’d taken the tape around to organizations and played it at home meetings to get people involved and to raise funds.

Within a few weeks there are many locally produced programs on the air, including: “IN AMERICA THEY CALL US DYKES”; “WHAT IS TO BE WILL BE, WHAT AIN’T TO BE, JUST MIGHT HAPPEN”; “THE MADISON REVIEW OF BOOKS”; and Bob Lynn with his “THURSDAY NIGHT FREE UNIVERSITY.” Some that started in the first weeks are still going strong, including Bonnie Kalmbach’s “TWO FOR THE BLUES” and Rockin’ John McDonald’s “I LIKE IT LIKE THAT.”

What’s kept the station from either going broke or going mainstream for 19 years? My hunch is it’s because of “the you-ens”—”the uns.” The hundreds of people involved over the years who have been: Unabashed, unafraid, uncensorable, unconventional, uninhibited, unorthodox, unpretentious, unstinting, unsung, untiring, and finally, definitely unique! Here’s to “the uns.”

My dream is that in a couple years, when WORT celebrates its 21st birthday—its “maturity”—there will be published a multi-viewpoint history of the station called *WORT’s And All*. I’d like to be part of a group writing that history.

WORT Celebrates Twenty Years Of Community Radio In Madison, Wisconsin

From NFCB News, October 1995

When a small group of community activists and radiophiles got together in the earlier 1970′s, they had no idea their notion of a small community-controlled radio station would, twenty years later, be a major fixture on the dial for all of south-central Wisconsin. Back Porch Radio Broadcasting, Inc. was incorporated in 1973, and at 8:00 pm on December 1st, 1975 went on the air with 4000 watts of power from a small studio on Madison’s eastside, however, three days later the transmitter burned up and the station was down to 50 watts.
Today WORT has its own building, and serves about 25,000 at 89.9 on the FM dial with 2000 watts of power and a strong signal over a 50 mile radius. WORT went to 24 hours a day in the late 1980′s, and installed a microwave studio-to- transmitter link (STL) in 1992.

Today’s WORT is different in many ways from the early days. Programming is much more structured, moving from a freeform schedule to what some of us have come to call “stratified block programming” (strips of blocks) where five different hosts do programming in a similar genre at the same time of day throughout the week. This style allows for all of the best things in community radio (diversity of hosts and styles) while learning the lesson from commercial radio that people like predictability in the day’s schedule. This approach has allowed WORT to build strong listenership in parts of the day not normally considered “prime time” by radio experts. (One example of this is the noontime public affairs call-in programming.)

However WORT has kept many of the ideas of its founders alive and strong through a commitment to diversity and access. WORT’s mission statement calls on the station to challenge the intellectual and cultural assumptions of its listeners and provide a voice for those under-represented by other media. This commitment to community involvement and participation at WORT has helped the station build a strong base of support in the community it serves.

WORT is currently operated by a collective of five fulltime and four parttime paid staff; a very active nine member Board of Directors, whose combined years of experience in both business and community organizations would be invaluable to any organization; and most important of all over 200 volunteers doing a wide variety of tasks ranging from answering phones and stuffing envelopes to unique on-air programs of words and music.
Programming on WORT seeks to be as diverse as the listening community itself with over eighty different programs of folk, jazz, rock, blues, soul, gospel, and classical music; news and public affairs shows including a women’s news and information program called “Her Turn”; a literature show featuring local authors; and a program of news from a Third World perspective entitled “Third World View.” In addition special programs serve Madison’s Hmong community with a Hmong language community news and music program; a Spanish language program for Madison’s Chicano community; a program of women in music called “Her Infinite Variety”;and three different programs of tropical rhythms, salsa, and latin jazz.

While the primary focus is on locally produced shows, WORT also airs some satellite programming including BBC News and Pacifica Radio News. Other satellite shows include the gay and lesbian magazine show “This Way Out”, and “Second Opinion” which originated at WORT.

WORT, like other community stations across the country is always concerned about funding. About 60% of the total operating budget of $280,000, comes from listener donations, about 25% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the rest from smaller grants and underwriting. Cuts to CPB funding will definitely impact the station, but the Board and staff are already developing plans and strategies to deal with these almost certain reductions of government support.

This year is WORT’s twentieth anniversary and a special “Platinum Anniversary Committee” has been assembled to help commemorate the event. The committee is looking for past WORT staff and volunteers to share their memories of the early days, if you are one of those, or know someone who is, call or write us at

118 S. Bedford Street
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 256-2001

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