Radio Free Ely

Dark evergreen silhouettes loom against a wash of indigo sky on both sides of Minnesota Highway 1. Driving southwest out of Ely, toward Tower, the early autumn moon is so bright, so close and full, that driving without headlights seems only appropriate. 

After a news update from ABC Radio, the voice of late-night DJ Brett Ross takes over. Ross sounds surprisingly present: “From Alan Watts,” he intones, “‘When everyone recognizes beauty as beautiful, then there is ugliness. When everyone recognizes goodness as good, then there is evil.’” Ross’s conspiratorial baritone is the night’s perfect complement: ominous and comforting and mysterious; distant, yet intimate.

An electronic beat—a tune called “Salted Fatback” from a DJ named Mocean Worker—begins pulsing in and around a sound collage of snippets from the First Amendment, Martin Luther King, Jr.—“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord!”—and other revolutionary sources. After the beat runs on its own for a minute or so, Ross is back: “End of the Road Radio W-E-L-Y,” he announces, “at 94.5 over the FM airwaves, streaming live at w-e-l-y.com, around the globe on the World Wide Web.

“It’s The Feast. So very good of you to drop in for another course.”

That’s WELY as in: owned by Charles Kuralt in the 1990s; saved from Minnesota Public Radio homogenization by a local buyer after Kuralt’s death; now owned by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa; it’s a station that is inevitably compared to KBHR from the TV show Northern Exposure, primarily because they’re both eclectic community bastions in wilderness towns populated by plenty of delightfully eccentric and intellectual people.

Introductions accomplished, Ross launches into an hour of music and words: “Rolling” by Soul Coughing; “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” and “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads; Pink Floyd’s “Fearless.” He reads Emily Dickinson’s “To fight aloud, is very brave” over the tune “Invocation” by an Italian ambient-electronica duo called the Dining Rooms, then spins Pearl Jam’s “Footsteps” and “W.M.A. (White Male American),” Sara Softich’s “Whiskey,” and “When the Ship Comes in” by Bob Dylan.

Perhaps none of that would be remarkable anywhere, on its own or during daylight. But late at night, driving through a forest in northern Minnesota, it’s perfectly unique, unexpected, and thrilling.

Since 2004, Ross—who’s 32—has broadcast The Feast on Wednesdays from nine o’clock ’til midnight, hunkered under the glow of a small reading lamp mounted on a well-organized console crammed with broadcasting gear, a couple of computers, and neat, thick stacks of CDs and books. A huge stuffed walleye hangs on the wall over his left shoulder.

A late-’90s version of The Feast was mostly an excuse for playing full-length bootlegs from Phish and other bands in the hours after midnight, when the station was on the air but free from advertising obligations. After Ross returned from a four-year WELY hiatus—during which the Iraq war started—the show became both more focused and spontaneous. It provides what Ross calls his equivalent to church, psychotherapy, and other forms of artistic exorcism.

“It’s expression of my personality,” he says. “It’s really selfish. I just explore my interests on the radio for three hours.” Hence those opening quotes, that snippet of Dickinson, excerpts from Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” over a track by politically charged DJ duo Thievery Corporation, and other intriguing combinations of words and sounds.

“Some nights I get my library loaded in here ten minutes before nine, and I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Ross says. “Those are often the times when I sit back after the show and say, ‘Wow. That went well.’”

He consciously and effectively cultivates an Orwellian tone, infused with the creepy, defensive sense that subversion is dangerous in a society where the masses can choose to either acquiesce or suffer the consequences. One of his faux sponsors is 1984’s Victory Gin, “because,” as spoof ads during The Feast contend, “the machine won’t run without proper lubrication.”

“I want every show to have a message, whether it’s obvious or not,” Ross says. He says he always tries to play material that offers insight, conveys some sense of spirituality, and challenges listeners.

“I’ve made my bosses [at Bois Forte] nervous once in a while,” he says. “But that’s the nature of the show. If I’m not rattling someone’s cage, I’m not doing what I should be doing.”

WELY is administered by the Bois Forte’s Development Corporation, whose CEO, Andy Datko, says he appreciates The Feast because “it’s never the same thing. Sometimes I listen and I think, ‘This is great.’ Other times I don’t care for it, but that’s always a matter of my personal taste. You could listen to it every night it’s on and always expect to be surprised.”

The station’s programming is eclectic: five hours of Polka Pal Don on Saturday mornings; personal announcements multiple times a day that help people communicate with those outside telephone or computer range; surprisingly engaging audio classifieds every morning on the End of the Road Trading Post; shows devoted to blues, folk, and birding; and, twice on Sundays, The Lutheran Hour. Yet even within that odd and folksy mix, the Feast offers strange and almost subversive radio.

“I’ve been surprised by the amount of positive feedback,” Ross says. “At first it was a lot of high school and community-college kids. Then people a couple generations older; they’d say, ‘Man, you play some weird shit, but it’s kinda cool.’”