Baker Hums On Low Power

November 10, 2003
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ZEELAND — The idea first came to him while he was camping in Ludington more than 20 years ago.

Traveling in the fall during the slow off-season, Bill Baker’s group found little information available on what to do, what to see, or even where to go for camping supplies. A disc jockey at a radio station in Moline, Ill., across the Mississippi River from Iowa, Baker thought about the potential for starting a radio station that would broadcast continuous messages for visitors to the area.

“You don’t know what’s going on up there. I didn’t even know where to buy firewood,” Baker recalled of the 1981 trip to Ludington State Park.

“It occurred to me that it would be cool if there was a little radio station in the park — ‘Hey, you campers, here’s where to buy wood,’” he said. “I had to do something.”

After returning home, Baker investigated and then pursued the idea. Two years later he formed his own company to install low-power AM radio stations that would provide information to tourists.

Twenty years later, the owner and president of Information Station Specialists in Zeeland is as busy as ever. His idea has evolved from providing information for tourists visiting an attraction or community, to informing motorists about road conditions or construction ahead and travelers about parking conditions and security requirements at an airport, to providing an important and easy-to-use communications link to the public during a crisis.

The technology behind low-power AM stations was “already on the shelf. All we did was apply a little creativity to integrating, assembling and making it accessible,” Baker said. “It’s a great use of technology and spectrum.”

While tourism and interpretive stations remain the largest sources of business, emergency uses have grown substantially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States. In the more than two years since, Baker has installed 20 low-power stations for emergency management officials around New York City.

The massive power outage across North America on Aug. 14 that left 50 million people without power provided a subsequent surge in interest from emergency management administrators. The low-power stations can operate on battery power for up to five days.

“People have called non-stop since the outage,” said Baker, whose company has installed more than 1,000 low-power stations across the country. “If your power goes out, the mayor still has a way to talk to people, and that’s what we’re selling — a big megaphone so they can talk directly to citizens.”

Information Station Specialists, with just six employees and annual sales of about $1.5 million, installs 100 to 200 of the so-called “advisory radio stations” a year that are easily maintained and programmed, and cost from $12,000 to $25,000 (depending on the use) to set up, including equipment, installation and FCC licensing. The stations have a broadcast range of three to five miles. An organization or community can broadcast over a far larger geographic area through a network of stations.

A 1977 graduate of Indiana University with a degree in communications, Baker initially dabbled in advisory radio stations as a hobby while he made a living in radio as a DJ. After learning through “trial and error” the technical side of setting up low-power stations, he landed his first customer in the summer of 1982 when he convinced a park manager in Illinois to try out his idea by offering to set up an advisory station at a campground for free.

It worked. And in 1983, after Baker left the radio business behind when the station changed formats, he formed Tour Radio Co., a name that was later changed to Information Station Specialists.

National parks and tourism bureaus were the early customers for Baker, using the company’s low-power stations as a way to provide information to visitors. The industry is rooted in tourism uses, with the first stations showing up in the 1970s at Yellowstone National Park.

An Ohio native, Baker and his wife, Megan, the company’s bookkeeper, moved the business to Michigan in 1986. They didn’t have any connection to the area, other than vacationing here from time to time.

In looking for a new place to settle down, the couple saw West Michigan as a place that was located equidistant between his hometown in Ohio and hers in Iowa, as well as offering “fun recreation we wouldn’t see in central Indiana or western Kentucky,” Bill Baker said.

Baker ran the company from his home for eight years before moving into an office in 1994 on 88th Avenue in Zeeland, and he has seen Information Station Specialists grow steadily over the years.

Baker credits the company’s success, particularly in the early going, to a no-nonsense approach with potential customers that is devoid of any gimmicks or inflated promises. His sales style, he said, stems from his Christian faith.

“Business is actually a spiritual thing because you work person to person,” he said. “I just discovered that people recognize the truth when they hear it.”

In the 1990s, highway departments began to buy low-power stations (known in that setting as highway advisory radio, or HAR) to broadcast road and construction information to motorists. The popularity of the stations to provide information to tourists and travelers also grew.

Baker counts among his clientele the Michigan Department of Transportation, which uses low-power stations to provide information to motorists approaching the Mackinac Bridge from either direction, as well as the Ambassador Bridge at the U.S.-Canada border in Detroit and the Blue Water Bridge that connects Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario.

Among his customers in West Michigan are the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and Gerald R. Ford International Airport, which uses a low-power station to broadcast (on AM 1610) parking information, directions, security measures and travel tips for passengers.

In 2000, Information Station Specialists introduced units for emergency advisory radio stations that communities and organizations can use to broadcast vital information during emergencies or severe weather, such as hurricanes or the intense windstorm that struck West Michigan in the spring of 1998.

The stations are accompanied by roadway signs that are equipped with flashing lights to signal to motorists to tune in. Portable stations also are easily deployed in problem areas to help disseminate public information, Baker said.

Baker sees emergency management uses as “the future” for Information Station Specialists. In that arena, he counts as his customers a Dow Chemical plant in Texas, a nuclear power plant in Washington state, the city of Sterling Heights in suburban Detroit, and several military installations and federal agencies, including the CIA.

In emergency management administrators, Baker has a customer base that possesses keen understanding of the potential for low-power stations as a communications tool, “and they are much more motivated than someone using it as a PR function,” he said.

Amid the seriousness of the emergency-management uses, there are some unique applications that are just plain fun. Among them: A dog-mushing club in Maine that uses a low-power station to inform participants that the race is about to begin.

“It’s a product that has so many applications that it’s fun to go to work every day,” Baker said. “You never have two days alike in a row.”    


Name:

Bill Baker
Company: Information Station Specialists
Position: Owner
Age: 48
Birthplace: Xenia, Ohio
Residence: Hudsonville

Community/business involvement: Member of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and several trade organizations, including the International Association of Emergency Managers and Associated Police Communications Officers.

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