Rallying to save WELY

As clock ticks, discussions to save local radio station ramp up

by Tom Coombe
A last-ditch effort to keep local radio station WELY on the air appears to be gathering some legs.
Both Ely’s mayor and the station’s current general manager voiced hope this week that an arrangement could be made to save WELY, which is now set to close on June 1.
The arrangement might include a summer reprieve for WELY and pursuit of a deal that could put ownership in the hands of the city of Ely with operations handled by a yet-to-be-identified non-profit group.
“They want to give it to us,” mayor Roger Skraba told council members on Tuesday. “We would, in turn, lease it to a (non-profit) that could operate the radio station. That’s going to take some time.”
On Thursday, Skraba elaborated further, voicing hope that the Bois Forte Band, which has owned WELY since 2005, would agree to keep WELY on the air through the summer while details of a new arrangement are formulated and finalized.
“What I’m trying to do is keep them going, keep them on the air,” said Skraba. “While simultaneously raising funds on the radio needed to offset the costs.”
Skraba, who was given permission by the council Tuesday night to continue talks with Bois Forte, said he has heard from numerous people concerned about the demise of the radio station.
“I have received a lot of feedback in the community about losing the radio station,” said Skraba. “And a lot of people don’t want it to be lost. They want some way, shape or form for the radio station to continue.”
Skraba met with Bois Forte representatives on Tuesday to initiate the discussions. He said he told them he had no authority to speak on behalf of the city and said further talks would require council authorization, and that any potential agreement “would go before this (council).”
Skraba also revealed that Bois Forte reached out to him last summer about turning the station over to the city.
At least for now, it’s unclear what role or obligation the city would take on if it assumed ownership of the station.
Council member Heidi Omerza was part of a 5-0 vote to support Skraba’s continued involvement in the discussions, but asked “if we are saying yes to this, what are we saying yes to?”
“Right now it’s sketchy,” Skraba conceded.
“They’re saying ‘we’ll give you everything but you can’t sell it.’ And we’re not going to operate it.”
Bois Forte cited significant financial losses, totaling about $1.7 million since its purchase nearly two decades ago, associated with WELY.
Skraba said “maybe there’s a better way,” to operate the station, touting the idea of operation by a non-profit group that could solicit donations and grant funds.
“I had a person from North Dakota email me and say they wanted to give $1,000 to keep WELY on the air,” Skraba told the council.
Timing appears to be an obstacle, with Bois Forte at least for now still planning to shut down WELY on June 1.
Skraba said he’s hopeful the band will “keep it on the air for the summer and you can ask the people listening that if you really like the station you can make a donation to keep it on the air.”
Hopes that a nonprofit group would form to operate WELY also took root earlier Tuesday, when general manager Brett Ross addressed the situation during a presentation to the Tuesday Group at Grand Ely Lodge.
Ross outlined his long history with the station, which included different stints starting in 1998.
Most recently, he returned as a contractor and was to help facilitate a potential sale, one that fell through after the would-be buyer told Ross that it “will be the end of the End of the Road Radio.”
Ross said he shared those concerns with Bois Forte officials, who nixed the sale. He credited them with “managing to keep the station alive and local.”
The station has faced severe challenges the last two years, according to Ross, including technological issues that limited the station’s signal and reach, as well as financial difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ross called WELY “a huge resource,” not only to Ely but the surrounding area when operating at full power, and added he was heartbroken by the news that WELY would close.
“It’s not just about Ely, it’s about connecting all of these communities,” said Ross.
Ross took issue with some of the financial losses cited by Bois Forte, contending they “are a bit dubious” and include the purchase price of the station and capital investments.
“It’s not a true measure of the financial success or failure of the radio station,” said Ross.
Yet Ross said he’s hopeful WELY, which has closed temporarily at least twice before, may rise again.
“The community wants its radio station,” said Ross. “People love it, people count on it and people that go into the Boundary Waters bring their radios. Is there a future for WELY? I definitely believe so. I’ve been through a few different incarnations and I feel there will be another era of WELY on the horizon.”
He cited the potential ownership by the city and operation by a non-profit or a collaboration of local non-profits.
“The opportunity to collaborate between these nonprofit groups can produce some really incredible results,” said Ross.