Twenty years ago, Bill Baker (left), then 28, received a surprise: his employer, MidAmerica Media, an Illinois-based radio station owner, decided to change its entire staff. The young station program manager, suddenly found himself out of a job. Today, AM radio dials, nationwide, sound much different, due in part to how Baker responded to that 1983 occurrence. (Baker credits Jeff Cantrill with mentoring him in the early days. Cantrill answered technical questions and conferred confidence that initial efforts would produce. Cantrill had also been with MidAmerican Media and had been chief engineer at WQUA in Moline, Illinois.)
Baker decided that instead of working for someone else he would try to turn an “avocation” into a “paying vocation.” His daring paid off, as Information Station Specialists, begun on a lowly kitchen table in Iowa, blossomed ever so slowly. The specialty? A niche communication solution: AM-band public broadcast radio stations for the burgeoning number of Americans “on the go” in cars.
The fledgling company in 1984 marketed its first “Information Station,” a 10-watt, AM-band radio station with a 3-5-mile-radius range. Since every vehicle has an AM radio receiver, these information radop stations became a simple, affordable way for agencies to reach the public on a familiar medium.
National parks and departments of tourism, the first buyers, used the stations primarily to communicate visitor information. In fact, nearly every national park now has one or more of our information radio stations.
In 1986 Baker moved his company to Michigan. To date, the company has installed more than a thousand stations in the US but even so remains lean with only six employees. And that’s just the way Baker likes it.
Later, in the 1990s, highway departments with federal funding for “Intelligent Transportation Systems” began using information radio stations in conjunction with a mix of cameras and changeable message signs installed on freeways. In contrast to newer computerized systems that require time to be designed and implemented, Highway Advisory Radio (HAR), as departments of transportation call the stations, was, according to Baker, “a technology already on the shelf. All we did was apply a little creativity to integrating, assembling and making it accessible.”
Information Station Specialists, located in small-town America (Zeeland, Michigan, population 6000), like its well-known neighbor (Fortune 500 office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller), has become adept at working big − in all 50 states − to garner enough business to survive. The company eventually was able to obtain the 65% national share it enjoys today in this niche market.
Like most companies, Information Station Specialists developed a website (theRADIOsource.com in 1999) and expanded its product line (in 2001) to include “Emergency Advisory Radio Stations” communities use to talk to citizens in the event of any kind of emergency − natural or manmade − just in time for the homeland-security focus following the World Trade Center incident.
Dubbed “ALERT AM,” the Emergency Advisory Radio product automatically broadcasts targeted 'All Hazard' National Weather Service warnings and national-level emergency messages (EAS) as well as locally-generated live or recorded messages, allowing community leaders to address citizens directly on conventional AM radio channels − before, during and after an incident. In 2003, when Hurricane Isabel hit, ALERT AM was “the subject of rave reviews throughout the event," according to Captain Jeff Doran of the
Brigantine, New Jersey, Police Department. Don Williams, a talk-show host on Station 1400 WOND in nearby Pleasantville, lives in Brigantine and listened to the ALERT AM station himself. During his own broadcasts on the commercial station, he told people to tune to the Emergency Advisory Radio Station for hurricane information. Says Williams, "I feel the Brigantine Beach emergency advisory radio station was a great service to the community, keeping us up to date on the latest storm developments and what they meant to Brigantine. All the information was there. I believe it had a calming effect. No rumors. Just facts, repeated so you could tune in every now and then and know just what the conditions were and what was expected.”
Emergency Advisory Radio Stations take a variety of shapes, including individual stations with a range of 25-75 square miles, synchronized networks of stations to cover complete counties and portable stations that can be deployed to trouble spots as needed. The stations are used in conjunction with flashing signs that alert motorists to tune in. Numerous Emergency Advisory Radio Stations already populate the map (click thumbnail map left to see a list of stations). See also case studies of emergency advisory radio stations in use.
The ALERT AM product is popular because it survived the disaster. That is, it continued getting the word out despite power outages, using four days of battery backup power. And since most AM radio receivers operated on batteries, especially in vehicles, people picked up the signal, even when power was down.
This worked well also in the recent blackout across the Northeast, according to Mike Crimmins, broadcast services manager for the Sterling Heights, Michigan, Emergency Operations Center. “We used our radio station extensively during the 'Blackout of 2003.' …Even when the City phone system went off line, we were able to update the messages with the phone at the transmitter location.” Unlike proposed notification systems that depend upon high-tech solutions, the ALERT AM product does not have to be solely PC-based and therefore is not vulnerable to an Internet cyber-attack. But the biggest area of interest, according to Baker, is the fact that Emergency Advisory Radio allows public safety officials to speak directly with those they are charged to protect without the need to go through third parties, such as commercial radio/TV.
This positive response in the emergency-management market has caused Information Station Specialists’ tiny group of employees to regularly crisscross the country to serve clients. So Baker set up a network of strategically located manufacturer representatives to visit customer sites and plan and install Information Station Specialists systems.
The Federal Communications Commission allows local, state and federal governments to license Emergency Advisory Stations in the 530-1700 kHz frequency range. In some instances, industries, such as the HAZMAT firms Dow Chemical and the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant, have collaborated with communities to fund stations in vulnerable areas. Other users, such as airports and universities, usually establish stations for security and parking purposes. Federal agencies have included, for example, the CIA and several military bases (e.g., Fort Lewis, Washington; Ventura County Naval Base in California to name two). International points of entry such as the Ambassador Bridge (at the US-Canada border), border crossings at Mexico and large bridges, such as the Mackinac Bridge (connecting upper and lower Michigan) operate information radio stations from Information Station Specialists, as well.
The universal and character of AM radio continues to place Information Station Specialists in demand in a world that has shifted its focus since 1983 from tourism to terrorism.
In addition to information radio stations, the company offers notification signs, portable radio stations, FCC licensing, installation and training services and a portable power source called PowerSTAT. See the product array.