EDITOR'S NOTE: We will provide an updated version of this article by July 1, 2020, that addresses some historical inaccuracies and provides a more detailed overview of the origins of WOJB.
A mighty voice emanates from a small place in northwestern Wisconsin. Woodland Community Public Radio, better known as WOJB, is an independent FM radio station operated by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe. Available online and with a range of about 80 miles on the FM dial at 88.9, WOJB is one of only sixty radio stations (out of 15,330 stations nationwide) licensed to tribes or tribal entities. Broadcasting from the town of Reserve, just ten minutes south of Hayward, WOJB provides listeners with an intriguing mix of Northwoods news, talk, and music—all with limited advertising.
The station draws its news from National Public Radio-produced shows such as Morning Edition and Democracy Now! as well as native-produced shows like National Native News and Morning Fire Ojibwemowin. While its music programs feature indigenous music and drumming along with American folk, bluegrass, jazz, and rock music, WOJB is perhaps best known for folksy talk segments that reflect the character (and characters) of this part of Wisconsin.
The idea for the station came about in the late 1970s, when Lac Courte Oreilles tribal leaders were looking for ways to build a bridge to the wider community to help area residents better understand Lac Courte Oreilles life and culture. This was an era marked by conflict and distrust between the tribes and non-native residents of northwestern Wisconsin, mainly surrounding where and how much the tribes were allowed to hunt and fish. While federal law guaranteed the Lac Courte Oreilles spear fishing as well as other hunting and gathering rights within ceded territories, a few residents—whether through ignorance or malice—viewed these harvests as illegal and harmful to wild game and fish stocks. A few would shout obscenities and throw rocks and bottles, even shoot guns, at native fishing parties exercising their treaty rights.
Paul DeMain, a Lac Courte Oreilles journalist and Indian Affairs Policy Advisor under Wisconsin Governor Anthony S. Earl, was working as community director for the tribe at the time. He recalls how the idea of creating a radio station arose almost organically—not just as a way to reflect the tribe’s identity, but as a way to communicate shared values surrounding important native issues, including their commitment to sustainable and responsible hunting and fishing. DeMain recalls how the establishment of WOJB was just one of the ways the Lac Courte Oreilles sought to build trust and understanding with the non-native community in the region at the time. “Our efforts resulted not only in the founding of WOJB, but [also] a school on the reservation, a clinic, and, eventually, a college.”
DeMain and the other WOJB organizers sent a few Lac Courte Oreilles members to UW–Stevens Point to take broadcasting classes but quickly realized they would need an experienced producer to get the station off the ground. Organizers made an exception to their usual policy of hiring tribal members first when they brought on Dick Brooks in 1980. Brooks made the move from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Hayward, where he remained with WOJB for the next fifteen years as program and news director.
In April 1981, WOJB went live on air with a mission “to reflect the values of the Lac Courte Oreilles nation, respect for tribal sovereignty, and build a bridge to other cultures.” Progressive in both their mission and views, WOJB brought together volunteers from the tribe and the larger community to create original and interesting programming. News, diverse perspectives, interviews with community members, and segments on local art and artists filled the airwaves. Their goal then was the same as today: to show respect for all cultures and honor the diversity of northwestern Wisconsin.
As the station began to draw more listeners and volunteers in the mid-1980s, tribal elders encouraged Brooks to find a public affairs director who could also handle hosting the 5:30 am early morning show. Brooks found his perfect candidate in Eric Schubring, a journalist who began his on-air career as the host of WATW’s “The Mellen News Hour.” It was at WATW in Ashland that Schubring discovered his passion for radio. He took some broadcasting courses and eventually worked for radio stations such as WEKZ in Monroe and, later, WHSM in Hayward. At WHSM Schubring impressed then-station producer Dick Brooks with his talent and integrity.
After clearing it with DeMain and the tribal elders, Brooks invited his old friend and colleague to join the WOJB family. Looking back over the past 35 years, DeMain says they made the right choice in hiring Schubring. “He has political sensibility, and he brings diversity—no matter if he is Native American or not—and a following that is good for the tribe. He is dedicated to the principles that indigenous culture reflects—and he knows radio.”
For many listeners, Schubring is the voice of WOJB, and he creates an ideal environment for engaging conversation, whether broadcasting from the studio or his favorite local haunt, Koobie’s Coffee Shop. Listeners are free to call in to talk through political, environmental, and cultural issues with Schubring and local personalities such as Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Council member Jason Schlender, Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission executive director Mic Isham, and former Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Chairman and LCO College president Dr. Russell Swagger, as well as national figures like Ed Garvey and Matt Rothschild.
According to DeMain, one key to Schubring’s success as a host is his ability to “give the opposition the mic,” even when the topics are controversial, which is a core philosophy shared by station and tribe alike. “This is about more than just WOJB or Native American identity,” says DeMain, pointing out that there are Native Americans as well as non-natives active both on staff and working as volunteers.
General manager Carissa Corbine, an Ojibwe member of both the Lac Courte Oreilles and the Bad River Reservation, has been with WOJB for three years. Initially employed with the station as membership director, Corbine says she had “fallen in love with the station and community radio.” When the position of general manager opened, she pounced on the opportunity. “I saw a lot of potential for the station,” says Corbine, “but the decade-long struggle to secure funding for a new transmitter and upgraded equipment was challenging.”
Indeed, as with many public radio stations, funding is a challenge for WOJB. The station is maintained and supported by individual pledges from the listening public and through federal grants. But it also receives some funding from the tribe. It took all of these funding sources pulling together to build a powerful new transmitter, which began operation in the fall of 2019. Schubring says that the old transmitter was operating at as little as a couple of hundred watts. But the new transmitter has restored the station’s power to the FCC-authorized 100,000 watts, increasing the radius of its FM range from around 15 miles to over 80.
The extended range of the station draws in new listeners from as far away as Ashland and Manitowish Waters, which “stabilizes our future and enables us to be more self-sufficient,” says Corbine. “We’re now able to reach our audience in ways that in the past were limited, if not all too often disabled.”
While the range of the station has more than quadrupled, its actual paid staff is just four people: station manager Corbine, station engineer Mark Lundeen, program director Jeff Jones, and public affairs director Schubring. The everyday function of the station also relies on over twenty volunteers, managed by Corbine, who take on a variety of roles that are essential to the delivery of top-notch radio. Corbine works closely with the WOJB Board of Directors and Community Advisory Board to ensure the success of the station, and she meets regularly with the Lac Courte Oreilles Elder Council to plan and develop ideas for news stories and interviews. The Council often suggests subjects for Schubring’s Koobie’s interviews that spotlight the wealth of talent found in the area as well as opportunities available through reservation programs and activities, especially in health and education.
For many listeners in this sparsely populated part of the state, WOJB keeps them informed, engaged, and connected to the community. But this tiny station with a mighty voice also provides listeners with a sense of pride in their place on Earth. “It’s made a huge difference in the life of the community,” says Brooks. “These are real people on the radio—members from all of the community, Indians and non-Indians. This is who we are.”