UW-Madison’s student radio station WSUM, currently transmitted over the Internet, may soon find a permanent home over the airwaves at 97.1 FM, ending the UW’s long-standing position as the largest university in the nation without its own radio station.
After years of legal battles and endless debate, construction of the WSUM radio tower could begin as early as this week, according to LaMarr Billups, special assistant to UW Chancellor John Wiley.
Plans for the 403-foot-tall, 4-foot-wide tower have been stalled since 1998 when the town of Montrose first successfully appealed a decision by the Dane County Zoning and Natural Resources Committee to approve the issuing of a conditional use permit for the tower’s construction. The permit, which was granted under a “governmental use” exemption, eliminated the town’s normal ability to approve or reject the building of the tower.
Much of the town’s appeals have focused on the issue of whether the tower qualifies as a “governmental use” in efforts to halt its construction.
Due to the extensive court battles, the permit was not issued, despite previous approval, until last April. In August, the town filed an appeal in the Dane County Circuit Court. According to Billups, the court has yet to schedule a hearing in response to the town’s appeal, and UW is taking active steps to move forward with plans for the tower.
“[An] injunction has neither been requested nor issued at this point and so we’re proceeding,” Billups said. “It’s very possible that the tower could be completed yet this fall. But at a minimum, we’ll get started on the road and maintenance shed construction in addition to the tower itself, and hopefully some of these things will be getting started in the next week or so.”
The legal battles date back to late 1996 when WSUM obtained approval for a broadcast license and construction of a radio tower from the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC allows licensed radio stations to operate under strict restrictions, so as not to interfere with other radio frequencies. As a result, the tower location is confined to a four-square-mile area in Montrose, about 15 minutes southwest of Madison.
The tower site is located on a portion of private land leased by a dairy farmer. Despite this business agreement, residents have voiced much opposition to the tower, often citing its disruption to the aesthetic, rural quality of Montrose.
Although the focus has been on the legal battle between the UW and the town of Montrose, WSUM General Manager Dave Black said the real issue is the tower’s importance to UW students and the surrounding community.
“The thing that seems to get lost in this long struggle is that it’s about the students, and students doing service learning, doing some curricular learning and co-curricular learning, and students taking responsibility for something pretty big,” Black said.
The spectrum of WSUM’s potential offerings, according to Black, involves incorporating the vibrant Madison community and the utilization of the station’s ability to be a forum for public debate, not just for the campus, but the community at large.
“There’s a lot of great things that will happen here and will be the product of students and the perspective they bring that no one else can,” Black said.
For WSUM program director Jake Heule, the pending certainty of the tower’s construction means the possibility of a larger audience discovering the high-quality programming that WSUM has always aimed to broadcast. As a non-commercial music station, WSUM will continue to “air some of the best and most interesting programming you will be able to find in Madison,” Heule said.
“Hopefully, when we get on the air, people who have never had the chance to listen to what we have been doing will realize that we are doing great things, and we will be able to secure a strong student and community listenership.”
The WSUM Internet broadcast can be reached at wsum.wisc.edu.