Traverse City – Public: News/Talk, 580 (AM)
|City of license||Traverse City, Michigan|
|Broadcast area||Traverse City–Petoskey|
|Slogan||50,000 watts of News, Talk, and Information|
|First air date||1940|
|Power||50,000 watts (Daytime)
1,100 watts (Nighttime)
|Callsign meaning||Traverse City, Michigan|
|Owner||Midwestern Broadcasting Company|
|Sister stations||WATZ, WATZ-FM, WBCM, WCCW, WCCW-FM, WCZW, WJZQ, WRGZ, WTCM, WTCM-FM|
WTCM is an AM radio station broadcasting in Traverse City, Michigan, operating on 580 kHz. The two stations are owned by Midwestern Broadcasting, which started WTCM-AM in 1940. Today, WTCM, along with FM sister WTCM-FM is at or near the top of the Arbitron ratings, and are part of a dying breed of family-owned-and-operated radio stations.
WTCM has a news/talk format, carrying syndicated talk shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Allen Hunt, and Coast to Coast AM, plus local talk hosts Ron Jolly and Norm Jones. It is an affiliate of ABC Radio.
In 1939, WTCM founder Les Biederman of Pennsylvania and several of his friends – engineer Bill Kiker and financier Drew McClay among others – wanted to start a radio station, but in an undeveloped radio market. They decided that Traverse City, Michigan was a city destined for growth and had no local radio station, so Biederman and Kiker moved to the city and built the 250-watt transmitter that would be Traverse City’s first radio station.
Traverse City “looked like three main streets with false front stores crowded against each other, all built around 1890 and hardly updated since,” according to Les.
WTCM initially broadcast from a small studio at the base of the tower on Morgan (“Radio”) Hill, west of town. The WTCM-AM control console was hand built by Biederman and Kiker, and served the station from 1940 until its replacement around 1980.
When WTCM signed on in 1940, it was a local channel station at 1370 kHz briefly before moving to 1400 kHz. The station was licensed to broadcast 24 hours at 250 watts, but only broadcast from 6 AM to 11 PM. WTCM was an NBC affiliate and like most radio stations at the time, aired block programming – some local shows, network shows, music programs, etc.
They soon outgrew the tiny studio and moved to the Anderson Building in the 100 block of downtown Traverse City in the mid 1940s. Long-time Midwestern employees Kenn Haven and Merlin Dumbrille began working there in the 40’s.
Because WTCM had a limited reach, Biederman wanted to start other small stations aimed exclusively towards the towns they broadcast in. After fighting in World War II, Biederman started WATT 1240 Cadillac, Michigan in 1945, WATZ 1450 Alpena, Michigan in 1946, WMBN 1340 Petoskey, Michigan in 1947 and WATC 900 Gaylord, Michigan in 1950, all collectively known as the Paul Bunyan Network. All but WATC are still on the air today, but Midwestern still owns only WTCM and WATZ.
 1950s and 1960s
In 1954, Biederman signed on NBC WPBN-TV 7 in Traverse City, just months after the Traverse City market got its first TV station, Sparton‘s CBS/ABC/DuMont WWTV 13 in Cadillac, now known as 9 & 10. In 1959, WPBN increased its reach to WTOM 4 in Cheboygan, bringing NBC shows to the eastern upper peninsula.
Big changes came to WTCM and the rest of the Paul Bunyan Network in the 1960s as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed local channel stations to increase their daytime power to 1,000 watts. All of the local channel stations complied, and boosted their power.
In 1964, long time WTCM air staffer Merlin Dumbrille started hosting the popular “Farm and Orchard Time” program, a WTCM staple since 1941. He retired as host of the show on October 30, 2009.
Long time Midwestern employee Bill Gravelin also started working for the station in the 1960s and was the “late night” host of Traverse Citys first “top 40” music in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Daytime at WTCM in this period was mostly “middle of the road” or “MOR” music featuring artists such as Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza and others.
It is a local legend (urban myth?) that the Beatles and other “early rock” was seldom played in the market at this time other than late at night.
WTCM-AM became contemporary (as “14-T“) in 1975 under the supervision of long-time Traverse City broadcaster Jerry Meyer who came from WCCW by the hand of General Manager Jack Walkmeyer, and who soon hired Flint, MI talent Jon McRae as the first program director of the fledgling contemporary radio effort.
A difficult but necessary task was moving “old school” morning show host Kenn Haven to a role as news director.
Havens now-dated morning news and music show featured bits such as “first call” and “last call” to breakfast, and use of the NBC “Chime” and a hand bell.
McRae lasted but a short time, finding frustration in many aspects of bringing a 1960s MOR station into the 1970s. Meyer soon also departed, to purchase “Murray Boat & Motor” on the Boardman River (then moving it), then become news anchor for WWTV 9&10 news (a position he held for many years), and finally run for a state legislative seat in the 1990s before retiring.
In 1977 former WCCW afternoon host Lin McNett (“Michael O’Shea”) replaced McRae and Meyer as WTCM-AM’s program director and morning personality.
Many out of town talents were brought to the market in this short (2-3 year) period for the first time in the stations history as it attempted a metamorphasis from “old school” to “modern” in the face of the growing potential Fm band competition.
Other air staff during this period included Jon McRae, and “Downtown” Ed Brown from WTAC-Am in Flint, MI (Brown is now with “All Access”, a national broadcasting trade publication as its contemporary radio editor); Delbert “Tim” Nixon (now with MacDonald-Garber Broadcasting in Petoskey); Don Schuster (who came from Detroit free-form radio legends WWWW/W-4 and WABX and is now back there 40 years later in sales capacities); local talent Marty Spaulding (later with WRKR in Kalamazoo for 10 year hosting an internationally recognized blues format “netcast” in the early days of internet broadcasting); Jon “Patrick” Rekeweg from Am radio in Fort Wayne; Bob Greenwood (from the legendary free-form rock station WHNN in Bay City); Dave “Leighton” Elliott; and Alan “White” Vasquez, a former host of the avante-garde “Pen Ultimate” late night alternative rock show on competitor WCCW) who went on to numerous roles in broadcast programming where he still resides in Colorado.
Rekeweg is now the longest serving member of the Midwest air/management staff.
The contemporary format was initially successful, but the 1977 format change of WJML-FM, and the 1980 entry of WKHQ-FM, both from north of Traverse City but with strong regional signals into the market caused the predictable result, and listeners gravitated over a period of a couple years to the clear, static-free stereo FM contemporary format signals. It was the fading days of Am radio as a competitor just about everywhere.
WTCM-AM became simulcast to the FM signal not long after that.
WTCM-FM became country in the early 1970s, at the urging of WTCM salesman Leon Purchase, a local country musician, who was convinced that a country format would work in rural northern Michigan. Purchase convinced Biederman of this the old fashioned way, by making WTCM-FM – even though automated other than the morning simulcast period – a highly salable and accepted product in the market. Today that opinion is a well proven fact, as WTCM-FM maintains market dominance as the #1 rated station.
Les Biederman was not a fan of contemporary music or even less so country music, preferring to listen to classical music in his “pad”, a private office in the rear of the adjacent co-owned Midwestern Cablevision building (where their “Radio Center” complex now stands). The “pad” was a regular stop for notable politicians like Governor William Milliken and Senator Robert Griffin, among others. It was a short stroll for Les from “the pad” to the trunk of his car where he typically stored a case of his favored Velvo brand cigars. “They stay fresh out there in the trunk” he was known to say.
Biederman traditionally came to the WTCM studio (almost nightly) after the conclusion of the TV 7&4 newscast and recorded an editorial on topics of the day, and these editorials and his strong sense of local stewardship culminated (among other things) into a local college (Northwestern Michigan College) and other more abstract realities including the city power plant converting from coal to wood as a source of fuel.
In the late 1970s, Biederman also began ambitious plans to increase the power of both WTCM AM and FM. In 1978, Biederman started turning over more of his duties to his son, Ross Biederman. Because of FCC restrictions and WTCM’s growth plans, several properties were sold, including the Petoskey and Cadillac stations (to MacDonald Broadcasting, founded by long-time Biederman broadcast pal Kenneth MacDonald) and the Gaylord station was sold to William Barr, but fell silent several owners later in the early 2000s due to financial troubles.
In 1982, after years of planning, engineering and FCC permitting, a major change was made to WTCM-AM, which had since started simulcasting with WTCM-FM. The station was moved to its current position at 580 and boosted power to 2,500 watts daytime.
The 1400 frequency was donated to a local church, who made the station Traverse City’s first religious station, WLJN (We Lift Jesus’ Name). WLJN broadcast from the original WTCM studio on Morgan Hill (“Radio Hill” to the locals), at the base of the 1400 kHz tower.
Les Biederman still considered Am radio to be “the” signal and made many long-term plans to make WTCM the dominant signal in the region, leaving implementation to his son, Ross.
Many current-day and long-run WTCM air staffers began association with the stations in this “rebirth” period including Dave Gauthier (who had worked there briefly in the 1970s), Carey Carlson, Ryan Dobry, Ron Jolly, and Jack O’Malley.
Lin McNett (“Michael O’Shea”) returned from other out-of-state broadcast employment for a second and long standing stint.
Les Biederman died in 1986 after enjoying much of his leisure time on his boat “Happy Days”.
In the late 1980s, WTCM-AM (and other AMs) were struggling. Although he has Democratic leanings, Ross Biederman decided to start airing Rush Limbaugh‘s program because he thought it would help ratings, and made the station full-time news/talk.
 1990s – present
With FCC restrictions lessening, it created opportunities for the younger Biederman to rebuild the Paul Bunyan Network. In the 1990s, he purchased or erected several stations in other northern markets, and designed them to rebroadcast his Traverse City signals. WBCM 93.5 Boyne City (formerly WCLX) simulcasted WTCM-FM and WKJF 1370 Cadillac eventually simulcasted WCCW-AM. WKJF has since been donated to the same ministry that received the original 1400 signal, Good News Media (which changed the calls to WLJW in March 2004 and has since used it to simulcast WLJN-AM). Also, in the 1990s, Biederman purchased WCCW (AM) 1310 (then standards from ABC’s “Stardust” network, now sports from ESPN Radio) and FM 107.5 (oldies), which had been WTCM’s primary local competitor in the “early days” after being founded by a former Midwestern employee, John Anderson, in 1960.
In 1994, Ron Jolly was hired to host a local morning program between 7 – 10 am. Jolly was an award-winning newscaster for WTCM AM and FM between 1986-1990. Before returning to WTCM to host the morning show he worked at WJIM-AM Lansing, and WLXT-FM, Petoskey/Traverse City. His program features a blend of news, information and interviews with local and statewide figures from politics, arts & entertainment, education, business, etc. Jolly left the station for ten months in 2001 to join the Michigan Talk Radio Network based in Charlevoix.
In 2008, Norm Jones joined the airstaff hosting a newly created local program between 10am – Noon. Jones has been associated with the station on and off since the early 1980s. He recently gained 130 pounds.
In 2010, Merlin Dumbrille, longtime host of the Farm and Orchard Show, retired after fifty plus years at WTCM. Recently, WTCM-AM boosted its power once again, this time to a full 50 kW daytime, allowing its directional signal to penetrate Canada. They, however, only broadcast with 1,100 watts overnight. Because AM transmits mostly through groundwave signals, and Northern Michigan’s terrain is mostly sand, transmission is difficult, although WTCM’s signal footprint is larger than those of other stations due to its low dial position.
Because of two generations of Biederman management and attention, and a faithful northern Michigan audience, WTCM-AM/FM are the clearly dominant stations in their given formats in the market.