By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Dec 04, 2009 at 11:00 AM
HARTFORD -- Nestled on the second floor of a non-descript building along Main Street in Downtown Hartford, radio station WTKM represents, in many ways, what radio used to and is supposed to be.

There's local talk in the morning, complete with school lunch menus and agricultural reports. There is a radio bulletin board for those looking to unload space-clogging nick-knacks or peddling household wares.

And, of course, there's music, a collection of classic country hits and, perhaps the genre that defines the station most, plenty of polkas.

In the "old days," stations like this were considered full-service. In today's world of researched and ratings-driven programming, WTKM is considered by some to be archaic.

"WTKM is still the place that local radio exists as it should for small communities, hyper-focused on Hartford and the community, businesses and schools," says Mike Kristof of Metro Networks, a radio content provider to a number of area stations, including WTKM.

"Being in touch with their audience in a way no other medium than radio can offer, a free wireless way for people to get local news, information and entertainment that does not require you take your hands or eyes off the steering wheel, computer screen or dishes."

Today, you can hear high school sports on the station, which also has a large presence at area county fairs, fireman's picnics and other events. Parents tune in mornings to hear about possible school closings and lunch menus. WTKM is intertwined in the area.

It's that community connection, says station owner Scott Lopas, which sets WTKM apart.

"If you look at what broadcasting was mandated to do, that's where we feel broadcasting serves its greatest purpose," station manager Scott Lopas says. "Unfortunately, over time, corporate broadcast entities have moved away from that idea. They still work to satisfy that community service in some ways, sometimes it seems to be more of an afterthought than your true station mission."

WTKM-AM signed on in 1951, broadcasting from the basement of a farm house on land where the station's transmitter tower still stands today.

"They renovated the basement to create a studio there," says Lopas. "There's a rumor that they had to sign off for awhile on Wednesday afternoons, but I think that story may have been blown out of proportion over the years."

In 1959, WTKM moved to Downtown Hartford, occuptying about 1/4th of its current facilities. From the beginning, polkas were a big part of the station's playlist though, during his early years, Lopas dipped into his personal record collection, and added rock to the playlist.

That, though, quickly came to a halt.

A member of the ownership group was driving back to Illinois after a meeting when he called the station and asked Lopas if he was the person playing the record on the air at that moment.

"When I told him yes, he told me to turn that (stuff) off, and we went to polkas on the weekends," Lopas says.

The station today, though it does play a good number of classic country and big band tunes overnight and in the mornings, is almost synonomous with polka music. Aside from a few remaining ethnic programs, WTKM is about the only place listeners can hear Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Yankovic and Vern Meisner today.

It was during the 1970s that WTKM decided to go polka, full-time, in an effort to offer something out-of-the ordinary and stand out from other area stations.

We thought we could capitalize on it a little bit," Lopas says. For us, we've thrived on the fact that we're doing something different than everybody else."
No doubt, the demographics skew older, leaving many to wonder what the station will do when it's core audience begins to dwindle in numbers. But, Lopas says, that was already a question being asked during the station's early days as other stations began to swich from a wide array of music -- including polkas -- to more rock and modern formats.

"I said we'd cross that bridge when we get to it," he says. "Now, it's almost 40 years later and we get the same question. My response is still the same; we'll see where it goes."

Aside from polka, WTKM has also played contemporary music. Legendary Milwaukee DJ Bob Barry, before he became a household name at WOKY-AM (920), was spinning Top 40 hits at the little station in Hartford.

Barry is just one of the "legendary names" of Milwaukee radio that has worked for WTKM. Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame member Tom Shanahan, who cut his teeth at WEMP-AM (1250), spent the last 15 years as WTKM's station manager before retiring earlier this year, well into his 80s.

Lopas still gets calls today from radio veterans looking to use WTKM to get back on the airwaves from time to time.

"It's flattering to me how we've been a magnet for some radio masters," Lopas says. "Old broadcasters don't die, they just come knocking on our door here in Hartford."

WTKM has a lot of long-time and veteran employees, especially behind the microphone. There are also some youngsters, high-school students working part time, who are looking to get their foot in the door on the staff.

Lopas can see a little of himself in those kids as he's been involved with WTKM since he was just a high school sophomore, practically growing up with the station.

He was just 15 when a friend of his, already working at the station, said there was an opening. In those days, employees needed to obtain a third-class FCC operator's license; something that turned Lopas off the idea.

"I was walking past the station one day and stopped in to see my friend," Lopas recalls. "The receptionist said they were still looking for somebody and I filled out an application.

"They called me back and asked if I could start that Saturday."

And so he did, taking some weekend on-air shifts through high school. When the FM license was approved in 1973, management asked if he'd be interested in doing some sales to help fill the new station's commercial inventory and he gave it a shot, pounding the pavement in nearby towns like Hustisford, Jackson and Allenton where he says "few people had ever met a radio sales guy before."

Lopas continued working part time for the station on weekends while studying broadcasting at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and, upon his graduation, took on a full-time sales role. That's when he realized that there was a career in radio.

"I wasn't smart enough to figure out what I was getting into," Lopas says. "I realized you could actually make a living doing this. I did pretty well."

Lopas bought the station nearly two decades ago. At the time, the station was owned by Iroquois County Broadcasting, based in Wayzeka, Ill., which had just named Jerry Grasenz general manager.

When Grasenz suffered a heart attack in May 1988, the company named Lopas GM and let him know that, within a year or two, it would be putting the station on the market and offered Lopas the opportunity to buy WTKM. With the help of a local bank -- one which he now is on the board of directors -- Lopas put together the financing and took ownership in April 1990.

"By that point, I'd done everything at the station already, including tarring the roof and painting the transmitter shack," Lopas says. "I figured why not."

Like many of its bigger counterparts, WTKM is trying to find ways to survive a slow economy, as advertisers are scaling back their budgets. WTKM doesn't attract a lot of major, national sponsors, but has managed to weather the storm.

Lopas is hoping the newsest venture will eventually provide a new revenue stream. On Monday, WTKM flipped it's AM signal - which had long been a simulcast of the FM channel - to "Crusin' 1540," an oldies format. With longtime Oldies station WEMP now and WZTR abadoning the format for sports talk and classic hits, respectively, there were no Milwaukee-area stations playing true, '50s and '60s oldies.

"It's not that we had to do it, but that's a resource that just wasn't being fully utilized," Lopas says. "It's a resource that we're kind of letting go to waste if we don't let it find its own persona and build an audience with."

The station is more than just a way to keep people entertained; it's practically a member of the family for long-time listeners.

Lopas has heard stories from listeners who have built antennas just to pull in the station's signal in remote loactions. With the internet, WTKM's signal is carried world-wide thanks to streaming.

And the listeners, he says, are incredibly loyal and dedicated. Surveys have found that the average WTKM listener spends nearly two-and-a-half hours a day tuned into the station, as opposed to just 20 minutes during their morning or evening commutes, or while getting ready for the day. Listeners go out of their way to patronize the station's sponsors and feel such a close attachment that they will contact WTKM if an advertiser's services or goods aren't up to standards.

It's a powerful enough connection that follow-up calls from the station often result in a quick resolution.

"People think of us as a friend," Lopas says. "We've very careful as to what kind of advertisers we take on."

WTKM rarely shows up near the top of the Arbitron ratings, but thanks to it's community-driven focus and interactive format, has built a loyal following over the years.

"Arbitron hates us because we don't fit into their cookie-cutter categories," Lopas says. "we keep checking 'other' because it's what the people want.

"They're the ones who have taken ownership of the station."