WHMI-FM Proves Radio Can Come Home(town) Again

With so much attrition in the media business, it’s not every day that you come across a radio broadcaster with more than 30 years of experience on-the-air (and counting). Perhaps rarer still is a station with a small market approach reaching into a major market. That’s why we talked to WHMI (93.5 FM/Howell, Michigan) and Morning Show co-host Jon King – a mainstay of the station, including with co-host Mike Marino, for nearly 20 years. Over a career that began at Specs Howard School and subsequently took him up and down the dial to Boyne City, St. Joseph, “Tower 98” in Monroe and, in Detroit, WWJ-AM and 97.1 FM, King has manned the mic as a newsman, air personality and everything in between. He was gracious in spending some time recently to talk shop and provide some industry perspectives:

TANNER: WHMI is “Classic Hits” and really feels “old school” – in a good way. It reminds me of my childhood listening to the radio in my hometown of Champaign, Illinois.

KING: The original and longtime owners, Greg and Marcia Jablonski, began a great tradition (in the late 1980s) of doing radio a certain way. Greg realized that the station sat in between four markets: Flint, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit and that Livingston County – wealthy and growing fast – yet, Howell was not really being served by any particular broadcast outlet. You could get stations in from all those markets, but none of them were devoted to Livingston County. As a smart businessman, Greg saw this as tremendous opportunity. His philosophy was to focus on “live and local.” Our job is to reflect this community. And a big part of that to him was we will always have someone here. There will always be someone in this building to, if nothing else, answer the phone. And I remember he would use the example of, “Look if there’s a tornado at 3:00 in the morning, or there’s a plane that crashes in downtown Howell, we need to be able to let the audience know what’s going on and they need to be able to know they can tune us in and they’re going to get that information immediately.” Rod Krol purchased the station in 2015 and continues that tradition today.

TANNER: I recall the first time I came across the station many years ago, I was struck by an FM music station doing local news at the top of the hour, every hour, all day long and well into the evening. That is so rare, if not unheard of, in the industry today for a non-news focused station.

KING: We report on the workaday happenings of local government, local agencies, local people. So when you tune in any day on WHMI, you could very well hear a newscast that consists of a discussion about sewer infrastructure in a local township followed by a nonprofit’s fundraising effort, followed by a police investigation of something else. And the thing is, we’re not necessarily going to lead with the police investigation or the fire or whatever. So, over the years, and as the news director, I’ve really tried to advance this idea that we are the eyes and ears of this community when it comes to all of these local units of government and these agencies and these various entities. It’s our job to be as many places as we can and bring that information back to the listeners.

TANNER: You guys also broadcast live with on-air talent at most prominent community events and happenings through the year, not necessarily tied to paid advertising.

KING: That’s a big part of our identity. Absolutely. Being at all of these community events. We have a portable studio. It looks like a big boom box and we call it the “Box That Rocks.” And we haul it out in a normal year. This past year, of course, we were unable to do so but traditionally we make the rounds over the course of the summer to all of the area festivals. We know we have to be relatable and have a connection with our audience. They can get their music from so many other places.

TANNER: In my book, “No Static at All,” many years ago, I referred to WHMI as “the little station that could.”

KING: What WHMI represents to me is the kind of radio station that used to be everywhere. Every radio station did news. Every radio station had some form of local news and information and that’s just no longer true. We really are a throwback. A unicorn.

TANNER: A hometown classic maybe? Whatever you call it, it works.

KING: If you invest in the quality of your programming, do the right thing, and take care of the community, the community will come back and take care of you.

You can listen for yourself here.