End of the Road Radio

Welcome to Ely, where campers rely on deejays to deliver personal messages—and animal-traffic updates

FOR LONGER than anyone cares to remember, the people at WELY 94.5 FM in Ely have been the voice of the Boundary Waters, broadcasting music, news, and weather updates. But the station is also one of just a handful in the country with a special permit to transmit “Personal and Emergency Messages.” Up to five times a day everyday, deejays read messages that are sent in, called in, or hand-delivered by listeners.

“Some of them are vitally important,” says station manager Bill Roloff. “Others are, well, let’s say less important.”

Important: the warning from a woman to her father-in-law in the woods about a change that his doctor had made in the dosage of his blood-thinner medication.

Less important: reports of some “amorous” moose holding up traffic.

In his seven years at the station, Roloff’s heard it all, from tales of docks that floated away to on-air wedding proposals to calls about people, pets, and parcels gone missing.

To get their messages on air, people call, e-mail, or sometimes just poke their heads in one of the opened, screenless windows at the station’s offices on Chapman Street.

“It’s kind of a cross between Northern Exposure and Green Acres,” says morning-show host Joany Haag.

Haag remembers the time the station had to round up a couple who had dropped their child off at summer camp and then went canoeing in a remote corner of the Boundary Waters. Turns out the parents had forgotten to sign a permission slip, leaving the youngster in a lurch, unable to participate in any activities. Informed of the problem, WELY’s staff sent out an emergency message that, miraculously, the couple heard. They returned to town, and the camp—which was nowhere near the North Woods—faxed the paperwork to a local business. In no time, the kid was having fun and the parents were back in the wilderness.

For locals, the P&Es can be particularly entertaining. Rarely does a day pass without someone calling in to report a sighting of a pooch named Petey (so named because he looks just like the dog from Little Rascals). Easily recognizable due to a missing eye, Petey is a relentless escape artist. It’s become so commonplace for the dog to wander away from home that, upon spotting him, people either call WELY or even bring Petey to the station.

But while many messages are funny, others are just downright strange. “There are people who call in with a code, like ‘The blue moon rises at 4 a.m.,’” says deejay Matthew Fetterer. “When we get a weird one, we get a lot of weird ones. It ebbs and flows.”

“It kind of has A Prairie Home Companion feel to it,” Haag says. “Only it’s real.” MM

Photo by Becky Olstad

The Mash Pit

“It’s the most fun you can have in a unitard,” says Steve Barone. And he’s not talking about sweating to the oldies. Barone was the guitarist and keyboardist for the popular local rock band Lifter Puller; now he’s Steve-O Gratin, Mashed Potato Wrestling Champion of the Universe.

Recruited by Minnesota’s tourism office to visit various festivals and videotape his exploits, Barone grabbed a buddy and a Borat-style “singlet” and hit the tater-wrestling pit at Potato Days in Barnesville—hard. “Your shoes fill up really fast,” he says. “It’s like cinder blocks on your legs.” Afterward, he was hosed down by the local fire department and awarded a championship belt fashioned from foamcore. The video, displayed on a quirky offshoot of the tourism office’s website called My Favorite Minnesota, has become a YouTube hit and drawn attention from CNN.

That’s good news for the tourism office, whose $8.7 million budget is decidedly below-average—and even better news for Barone. He’s bought the domain name Mashedpotatowrestling.com and plans to attend this year’s Potato Days, on August 24 and 25, to defend his spud-stud title.