WELY going off the air

Bois Forte Band to close community’s radio station on June 1

Ely’s radio station may soon be silent.
Unless a buyer emerges, WELY will close and go off the air on June 1.
The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa has owned the community’s iconic and eclectic station since 2005 but has lost over $1.7 million doing so, according to a news release announcing the closure.
Those losses, and thus far unsuccessful attempt to find a new owner, prompted the decision to close.
It was a decision the band did not take lightly, according to the release.
“We have been working behind the scenes to find a buyer that could continue operating the station, but our latest plans recently fell through,” said Bois Forte Tribal Chair Cathy Chavers. “While we would have preferred to keep the station open in the hopes another buyer would emerge, we needed to move ahead with this decision.”
The decision to close affects one full-time employee and another eight part-time staffers, who were notified of the decision late last week.
Barring an 11th-hour deal that would keep WELY alive, only weeks remain for a station with a nearly 70-year history.
WELY was first broadcast in October of 1954 and for decades operated on AM 1450 and from a station “on top of the hill” on Central Avenue across from the golf course.
It shut down twice previously because of financial struggles, once in the late-1980s and again in 1995.
New life was pumped into the station when famous CBS Broadcaster Charles Kuralt bought the station just months after the second closure and operated it until he died in 1997.
An FM signal was added and later moved to 94.5 on the dial, and WELY later moved downtown to Chapman Street and Bois Forte purchased it from previous owner Janice Erickson in 2005.
The radio station has operated for two decades from Chapman Street, where radio talent has been known to wave a friendly hello to folks walking past the station.
While the station has maintained some local programming including a morning show, the Trader Craig Show, a Saturday night request program automation now common place in the radio industry has resulted in less local and live programming.
Nonetheless, WELY has been a place for Ely residents and tourists to stay connected via our FCC granted Personal Emergency Messages. It has also been home to dozens of local sports broadcasts every year, ranging from high school football and basketball to the state’s only radio coverage of the Minnesota State High School League Nordic Ski Meet. WELY also carried Minnesota Twins baseball, and Minnesota Vikings football.
Ely was one of the smallest communities in northern Minnesota to maintain a radio station, and the decision prompted much community reaction.
“My initial reaction was heartbreak and sadness,” said WELY’s General Manager Brett Ross of the decision to close. “This station has so much history and means so much to the town. We always hung our hat on the fact that Charles Kuralt owned this station, but the fact is, the people of Ely owned this station and there will be a big void once we leave the airwaves.”
Chavers agreed and said that Ely will be far less rich once the station signs off as WELY has served its community well over the years.
Chavers said Bois Forte would be remiss not to thank the loyal staff who stayed the course through tougher times, namely Ross, who gave his heart and soul to this station. Before COVID-19, the station boasted more employees such as an office manager and salesperson, but in the end, most of the duties fell upon Ross.
“Brett’s dedication, talent, and loyalty are to be commended and we wish him and the rest of the staff nothing but the best as they begin a new chapter in their lives,” said Chavers.
Bois Forte will seek approvals from the FCC to retain its licenses for up to a year while the station is off the air and the Band is searching for a buyer.
“This is not something we wanted to do,” said Chavers. “The best-case scenario would be for a buyer to emerge to keep the station open, but we’re not sure that is realistic at this point.”