- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

NEWBERRY, Mich. (AP) - He had an old CD tower to sell. And it was priced to move.

“It’s about 4 foot tall. I’m asking five bucks for it,” a guy named Justin said to everyone in town.

He was a caller on the “Trading Post” show on WNBY 1450 AM, in Newberry, population 1,489 or so. Locals call every weekday morning at 9:30 to this on-air swap meet to sell or trade something, or describe their breakfast, or share their feelings about the late November rain. It’s been on the air for 50 years, and it’s immensely popular.

The host remembered Justin from a previous phone call to the show. “How about that couch? You still got that couch you want to trade for a chair?” he asked Justin.

“Yes I do!” Justin replied. “Yeah, it’s about 5 feet long, sits real low to the ground, and Paula and I can’t use it. Wanted to trade it for a recliner chair.” He gave listeners his phone number.

Everything about WNBY is summed up in that exchange. The 1,000-watt radio station is all Newberry, from the hosts to the callers, and chances are they know each other. No item is too small to sell, no anecdote too minor to share. The caller mentions his girlfriend as if everyone knows the couple personally, a habit of small-town life’s familiarity.

But mostly, it shows that in this part of the Upper Peninsula, old-fashioned AM radio is still a vital part of daily life.

“I think it’s the focal point, at least of our local community,” said Travis Freeman, the host of the show. “There’s no daily newspaper here, there’s no local TV station here, and so we kind of serve as the media.”

The Detroit Free Press (https://on.freep.com/1NdDVnN ) reports WNBY has been broadcasting to Newberry and its wooded surroundings since the mid-1960s from a little building on a state highway, and hasn’t changed much since. People call about lost dogs and found tools, or phone in a request to hear a song, or to report that the elementary school’s lizard got out.

It’s what radio used to be before the Internet - a way for people far from each other to connect, and to be part of a shared experience.

“I think it’s essential to have a local community radio station that serves the community,” Freeman said. “It may sound scripted, but it’s true. It’s being able to help people out and connect people. It’s the original social media.”

The next caller was Mary, who needed a hand with some gift baskets for the needy.

“If anyone out there has got a half-hour to kill, around 11 o’clock, maybe you can come help me unload the truck?” she asked.

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Jack of all trades

In many ways, Freeman actually is WNBY. He’s the station’s general manager, and its market manager, and national sales director, and a daily on-air personality.

He’s been obsessed with radio since he was a kid growing up in nearby Engadine, when he’d listen with his grandma to a radio contest on a station in faraway Petoskey. He used to tape popular local DJs and learn from their banter. He’s still got the old cassettes boxed away somewhere at his house.

“I’m a radio geek,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to be in radio.”

He made his first radio appearance on a Houghton station when he was 15, and a few years later was working regularly for WNBY in Newberry doing a Sunday high school sports show. When new owners took over the station in 2003 they remembered him, and called him at college to see if he’d sub during the holidays. He’s been there since.

Since then the owners expanded from this one little radio station to own 14 others throughout the Upper Peninsula, and Freeman now runs an Up North media empire of sorts.

He’s a busy man. On top of “Trading Post,” he hosts “Deer Hunters Round-Up,” another massively popular, half-century-old show in which callers report how hunting camp is going for them. He hosts a four-hour afternoon music show across the hall at WNBY’s FM sister station, as well as its “Good Buy Shopping Hour,” a radio version of QVC in which listeners buy items and drive to the station to get them.

And between all those tasks he drives all over the U.P. as he tends to the business of the company’s other 14 stations. “It’s a lifestyle,” he said of the long hours. He stressed that he wasn’t complaining at all.

“I haven’t worked a day in my life, but they keep sending me paychecks,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”

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A family affair

WNBY always had a mom-and-pop feel to it - partly because a mom and pop run most everything here.

During Trading Post, for example, Freeman, 35, co-hosts with his wife Sarah, 32, who’s the station’s office manager, and who has no formal radio training. They’re joined by their friend Jerry Carnes, 61, a retired corrections officer from the town prison, just because it’s fun to have your buddy in the studio. He has no training either.

Radio veteran Casey Cook, the morning DJ who plays old-time country classics, is one of the few there with formal radio training and experience. He hosts the “Casey and the Coffee Crew” show in the mornings, which features a crew that consists of him and the characters he voices and tapes at his house.

There’s Bubba (“He’s a big, old burly guy,” Cook said), Buddy (“A little sarcastic fellow, but Bubba always keeps a rein on him”) and weather forecaster Rain Forest (“That’s just me making a girl’s voice as best as I can.”)

The 60-year-old got into radio on a $10 bet and worked for years at downstate stations before moving to Newberry to care for his ailing father. Besides his morning show, he does play-by-play for the Lady Indians basketball team from the local high school, as well as all four high school boys sports teams. He also reads local funeral announcements every morning.

And of course, he too works Deer Hunter’s Round-Up, during which the whole Coffee Crew goes to camp in the area and offers on-air hunting recipes for listeners.

It’s all the best of small-town life carried over the airwaves - friendly, corny, helpful and harmless. And it’s just what the residents have always wanted from their local radio station, he said.

“They want to know what’s going on in the community,” Cook said. “They want to know who died, they listen to the obituaries and what kind of events are happening in the area, meals and benefits and things like that. I just think there’s kind of an old school need for that up in this area.”

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Friends and neighbors

Next caller. “Yeah I got some used tin there,” the man calling Trading Post said in a thick Yooper accent. “It’s 12 foot long, about 3 foot wide. It’d be good for walls on a woodshed or something.” He wanted $75. He gave out his number.

The rules of Trading Post are simple. One call per person, per day.

Not five minutes later, the guy called again.

“I just called,” he admitted. “I know you said only one phone call. But I got a 2002 Trailblazer for sale. There’s something wrong with the four-wheel drive, but I want a thousand dollars for it.” Again, he gave out his number.

People call the show not just to buy and sell, but also just to spread the word about something, like announcing that Ziggy, the elementary school’s iguana, had escaped (they located him in a tree not long after); or report a power drill they found in the road (the owner came forward after hearing this on the radio), or ask about the car that plowed into a local mom-and-pop hotel the night before.

Sarah noted that her grandma was inside at the time, attending her General Federation of Women’s Clubs monthly meeting. “Grandma said when she got home her legs were still shaking. It sounded like a bomb going off,” Sarah said, embodying the essence of hyper-local news.

They’ve modernized WNBY somewhat by adding a “Trading Post” Facebook page on which the station can do online what it does over the air: announcements for a community group’s potluck dinner, and the town’s Christmas tree lighting and Santa visit, and the winner of the WNBY Pumpkin Prowl for best carved pumpkin.

“Say, let’s give away a prize!” Freeman said cheerfully. “Get your thinking caps on, get ready to win. What year did the American Civil War end in?” he asked. “First person with the correct answer is crowned the smartest person in the eastern U.P.”

The phone rang. It was Justin again, the man with the couch to swap. “April 2, 1865,” he answered, missing the correct answer by a week. But who cares? What’s a day or two here or there among friends over the airwaves.

“You got it!” Travis exclaimed. “You are the smartest person in the eastern U.P.”

“And I Googled it!” Justin announced merrily. And that was fine too. This show, after all, like the station, doesn’t follow the stricter rules of big-city broadcasting, nor does it try to be slick and polished. It’s a genuine reflection of the area it serves, a longstanding virtual gathering place where people can get together and talk the way neighbors do, however distant they may be.

“Everybody’s friends,” Cook said. “It’s a pretty neat little deal. I guess they love that part, that we’re friends with them, we’re neighbors with them, we speak with them on the street every day, we live next to them. They know who you are. You’re not just a voice on the radio.”

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com

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