Long before the fictional Wayne and Garth started broadcasting their weekly public access cable TV show, Jim Hermanson was operating a real live nightly radio show — on his own station — from the basement of his family’s home on Turner Street in Columbus.
“It was a very small FM station that essentially carried around the neighborhood in western Columbus,” said Hermanson, who started WCFM in 1973, using a bare-bones system that he patched together with a shoestring budget and a wealth of ingenuity.
Just a junior in high school at the time, Hermanson became something of a local celebrity as he broadcast nightly on 89.9 FM — dubbed “The Super CFM” — with help from his friends and others who were intrigued by his little station.
“It amazed me how it caught on,” Hermanson said. “It drew the interest of classmates, neighbors and anyone that could hear it. High school athletes and classmates had guest shows. Over the years, there were Cub Scout troop tours. The high school science club brought in a group.”
In fact, the tiny station had all of the trappings of its larger commercial cousins — jingles, request lines, DJs, contest giveaways, newscasts — everything except for the commercials, that is.
The station operated on a portion of the FM band that was reserved for non-commercial use and wasn’t licensed by the FCC, so even if Hermanson could have found businesses willing to support his venture, industry rules prevented him from cashing in.
Instead, he relied on an army of volunteers to serve as DJs and on-air guests, which wasn’t hard. Radio was the social media of the day back then, and kids from school lined up to get involved.
“People would stop by, and I’d put them on the air,” Hermanson said. Usually it was just a couple friends at a time, but he remembers one night when the line of teenagers waiting to get into his underground studio extended out the door and to the street.
His parents put the kibosh on the crowds after that, but small groups of friends continued to gather to listen and take part in the show.
Students who were willing got guest DJ gigs. School athletes were tapped to record station promos. A friend who played the drums and a couple of other fans of the show who could sing wrote and recorded jingles.
“People just agreed to be a part of it,” Hermanson said. “Everybody seemed to have fun with it.”
How does a teenager start a radio station? For Hermanson, it was a pretty natural, gradual progression that began with an interest in pop music and electronics when he was a kid.
As a teenager, he and his friend Joel Kasper would play around on Kasper’s CB radio, talking to people in different towns. Later Hermanson bought a Radio Shack wireless transmitter, and he and Kasper started experimenting with that.
Hermanson would talk into the microphone at his house, and Kasper would get on his home radio across town to try pick up the signal. Then they tried putting the transmitter’s wire out the window and discovered the sound carried even further.
Meanwhile, Hermanson built up a mixer with a microphone, a cassette deck and a turntable that he got for Christmas.
He also got a lot of advice and support from teachers and mentors. Among them were CHS Science Club adviser Adolph Priester, whose brother was chief engineer of WLS in Chicago; science teacher and AV supervisor Harry Sarbacher; and speech teacher Ed Zahn, who encouraged him to attend a summer broadcasting workshop at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he was able to work with the college radio station.
Little by little, Hermanson put together the knowledge and the equipment he needed, and on Jan. 19, 1973, The Super CFM was born.
When he and Kasper went on the air with their first broadcast, they offered a small amount of cash to anyone who heard them and called in. Unfortunately, the cash went unclaimed that first night.
But as word got out about the little station, people across the city started tuning in — or at least trying to. Even with the wire out the window, their broadcast range was limited.
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“On a good night, the signal would carry five or six blocks,” Hermanson said.
But those who wanted to listen found a way. Some people had big TV antennas that they would swing around and hook up to their FM radios to hear the station, Hermanson said. Others would drive by or park nearby for a few minutes to catch the broadcast on their car radios.
Hermanson and his crew of volunteers rarely took a night off. Even on weekends and holidays they’d be on the air from 8 to 10 p.m. — or until the requests ran out.
“I didn’t want to disappoint my loyal listeners,” he said.
The peak number of requests reached 68 one evening.
Hermanson kept the station up and running for three years, but after he graduated from high school, it got harder to keep up with the demands of a nightly radio program.
He got a job at WBEV in Beaver Dam, where he was an on-air announcer on nights and weekends, and he started taking college classes in electronics at Madison Area Technical College. Meanwhile, a lot of his friends, who’d been listening at home or hanging out in his basement during broadcasts, started moving away from home.
And just as he was considering signing off, a new station — WORT-FM — signed on in Madison, broadcasting at 89.7, which was a little too close to WCFM’s frequency and caused interference.
Hermanson took it as a sign that it was time to call it quits.
His last show aired Jan. 19, 1976 — three years to the day of his first show.
Memories live on
The little station had a big impact on Hermanson’s life and on the lives of some of the others who were involved in it.
Hermanson, who lives in Middleton today, worked in radio for most of his professional life. He earned degrees in electronics, radio/TV/film, audiology and IT. After his stint at WBEV, he did technical support for approximately 30 radio stations in Wisconsin; worked as a broadcast engineer for WKOW-TV, WTMJ, Television Wisconsin and WHA-TV; and was chief engineer of WTSO and Z104 Radio.
Today, he works in the information technology field for UW-Madison, where he keeps about 1,000 computers running in the labs there.
Levy O’Brion, a frequent visitor and guest DJ, landed a part-time job at WBEV after his experience with WCFM. Another friend that helped with the station, Mark Woodward, went on to study electrical engineering and work for HP in California.
Sadly, a couple of his other high school buddies who were part of the WCFM family — Mickey Fahrenkopf and Bill Arnold — died at relatively young ages.
Hermanson still has a lot of his equipment, documents and records from the station, and about 10 years ago, he decided to convert some of the old recordings that he had on cassettes to MP3 files and put them up on the web to share.
The site is still there — http://jimhermanson.com/wcfm/ — and every Jan. 19, when he thinks about the first and last days of the station, he’s inclined to remind his old friends about the fun times they had and encourage them to revisit some of the recordings.
It’s now been 40 years since WCFM signed off for the last time, but Hermanson still remembers it fondly.
“It was a good start for me,” Hermanson said. “I was a shy guy and an only child, and it got me out of my shell. I made a lot of good friends from it, and some of them I’m still in touch with.”