“What community radio is all about is connecting listeners to information in a very personal way,” says Norm Stockwell, operations coordinator at WORT 89.9 FM. “We are part of a community radio movement that is growing around the world. People thought the Internet would mean the end of radio as we know it. That’s not true. Radio is still able to reach that last mile when other technologies cannot. Radio is able to function in very important and meaningful ways in times of disaster. Radio is the thing that get people the information they need to live their lives.”

WORT was a low-power station when it first went on the air.  They were truly “Back Porch Radio.” If you didn't live on the studio's back porch, you couldn't pull the signal.
WORT was a low-power station when it first went on the air. They were truly “Back Porch Radio.” If you didn’t live on the studio’s back porch, you couldn’t pull the signal.

Stockwell has been a familiar resident at Madison’s community radio station, WORT 89.9 FM. His signature beard, button-front shirt, and brimmed cap are familiar to anybody who is familiar with WORT.

This week, WORT is celebrating 40 years as a Madison institution highlighted by a 40th Anniversary Party at the High Noon Saloon tonight on Madison’s near east side. Stockwell has been with WORT for 33 of those 40 years.

“All of the founders and the people I have talked to from the early days say that they didn’t believe it would last this long,” Stockwell tells Madison365. “Everybody thought that this was a great idea, but nobody thought this would survive into the next generation. It’s a great accomplishment and a great testament to all of the volunteers and donors that have sustained the station for all of these years moving into our fifth decade on the air.”

In WORT's early years, Warren Woessner was the host of the R&B/Soul show called Smokey Joe's Cafe.
In WORT’s early years, Warren Woessner was the host of the R&B/Soul show called Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

WORT-FM is a non-commercial, listener-sponsored, member-controlled community radio station broadcasting to south-central Wisconsin. WORT volunteers and staff provide quality programming and services to a broad spectrum of the community through promotion of communication, education, entertainment, and understanding. They provide a forum for both the discussion of public issues and the expansion of musical and cultural experience and much more.

WORT is nothing without the more than 300 volunteers who walk through the doors in any given month. “We have people who host the programs. We have people doing things in the background in our record library, phone receptionists and a whole other group of volunteers who come to answer phones just during our pledge drives,” Stockwell says. “Some people might give an hour of their month and some people might give 10 hours a week. It really varies.”

WORT has rolled with the changes through the years as radio has changed.

“Technology is moving along and radio is no longer just radio. We have a full-time web director working to get all of our material out in different formats and different platforms that we are using – podcasting, YouTube,” Stockwell says. “Tonight we are launching a series of video concerts called “At The Stacks,” referencing the big stack of vinyl LPs we have at the station. We’re interested in keeping alive traditional radio but also getting to people in all of these new ways.”

By the way, that’s over 30,000 vinyl records in WORT’s library, Stockwell estimates.

PanAfrica Radio Show on WORT
PanAfrica Radio Show on WORT

The organizational structure of WORT reflects the station’s principles of democratic decision making; the paid and unpaid workers (the volunteers) at the station elect the board of directors. The board sets policy and hires full-time and part-time paid staff. The full-time staff is organized as a collective that operates within sound management practices and written policies established by the board. The staff collective oversees the day-to-day operations of the station. The station is all about bringing ideas and sharing passions together and then sharing that with listeners.

“Anybody can do a podcast. The difference with what we do at WORT – and I think it’s an important one – is that we have a space where people come together and cross-fertilize and share ideas and bounce things off each other,” Stockwell says. “That’s the dynamic space of a community radio station that is now becoming a community media center in a lot of ways because of all these new technologies.”

It’s quite understandable that Stockwell is almost synonymous with daily happenings at the community radio station. If there is a staff meeting, Stockwell will be there. When a printer goes on the fritz, Norm knows about it. Almost anything administrative that is not volunteer coordination, fundraising or programming, Stockwell acts and delegates on. This endless array of responsibility encompasses maintenance, finances, legal compliances, and engineering. It’s a busy job coordinating at WORT and he has been at it for over 20 years.

Stockwell’s story began on the south side of Chicago. In a culturally diverse and busy atmosphere, he grew up socially conscious of the atmosphere that Chicago offered. Stockwell has been an activist his entire life and advocating for more inclusive communities. A key moment in my early activism history was marching in the streets of Chicago in 1966 during the Chicago Freedom Movement and singing “We Shall Overcome” with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“To me, marching down the street in Chicago all singing the same song was a powerful, moving, and life-changing experience. It definitely set me on the road to where I am today,” Stockwell says. “I came to this work because of an understanding and belief in the power of culture to communicate ideas and to work for social change for a just and peaceful world.”

When Norm first arrived at WORT in August of 1983, he wasn’t on the payroll. Norm was running a folk music school at the time. He came to WORT lending his expertise on the folk music scene as a volunteer. Norm recalls how his experiences as a volunteer evolved into a coordinating job.

“I started doing the folk music school and then I started doing folk music programming [at WORT] and then I kind of drifted into doing news stuff and public affairs and then went into doing engineering and administrative kind of stuff and then I got hired in June of 1995,” he remembers.

“I believe that folk music represents the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the everyday working people in the United States,” Stockwell adds. “That’s how I ended up here.”

The annual WORT Community Block Party
The annual WORT Community Block Party

As an integral part of WORT Madison’s only community radio station, Stockwell considers himself a man in a position to help the community give themselves the tools they need to play their part. Their part can be delivering the news from a community member’s mouth or a volunteer Disc Jockey radio hour playing gospel in a city where gospel isn’t mainstream. The community members’ insight and inspiration power the community radio station and the radio station enriches people’s lives by overcoming the boundaries that geography has created. WORT’s radio signal covers a 50-mile radius that keeps the population in touch with its neighbors.

“In the movie Manufacturing Consent, which came out a couple of decades ago now, Noam Chomsky is talking about how you can tell a town that has a community radio station because people are more informed and connected to issues and I think certainly that WORT has played that role in our community over it’s four decades of existence,” Stockwell says.

“We are really pleased at the support the station has received over the years from the community – both individual listener sponsors and local businesses that have sponsored us over the years,” he adds. “Looking to the future, we hope to keep being able to grow and expand in the service that we provide for the community.”