An upcoming FM signal boost for Lakeshore Public Media in Merrillville, Ind., will greatly expand the station’s coverage throughout Northwest Indiana and reach into Chicago’s southern suburbs.
“This is a long overdue reset for our signal to be able to cover all of Northwest Indiana,” said VP of Radio Operations Tom Maloney. “From there we’re doing our best to offer counterprogramming that they can’t get on [Chicago’s] WBEZ, and of course our reporting team is staying true to continuing to cover Northwest Indiana.”
WBEZ and Lakeshore’s WLPR already overlap in both broadcast coverage and news reporting. The Chicago station broadcasts over a large swath of Northwest Indiana, and WBEZ reporter Michael Puente covers Chicago and Northwest Indiana while hosting Lakeshore Public Radio’s weekly news show Off Mic, with Michael Puente.
For some listeners, nearby Chicago stations interfere with WLPR’s signal, and its coverage is spotty elsewhere in the region. Lakeshore purchased a directional antenna designed by Chicago-based engineering consultancy Public Media Engineering and a slightly larger transmitter, increasing power from 2,000 watts to 3,000 watts, for $28,525. The stronger signal, which powers up in March, will expand WLPR’s population coverage by 75%.
“It means increased coverage to Northwest Indiana, which is a growing suburb of the Chicago DMA [Designated Market Area],” said Peter Femal, president of Public Media Engineering. “But it will also put … a lot more coverage down I-65 basically from Northwest Indiana as you’re traveling toward Indianapolis, so it benefits a lot of the highway travel, benefits the local audience and commuter traveling.”
Station leadership has seen a significant increase in donors from those communities, as well as others across Northwest Indiana. Some of the funding for the signal expansion came from the Porter County Community Foundation and John W. Anderson Foundation, which are both located in Valparaiso, and the Barbara White Family Foundation in Merrillville.
Maloney and LPM CEO James Muhammad focused on upgrading the signal after an outside consultant highlighted it as key to the station’s long-term sustainability.
“What was hurting us was the fact that people in the populated areas either couldn’t hear us well or couldn’t hear us at all,” Muhammad said. “We’re going to be concentrating on getting into those population centers, and that’s where we have the greatest likelihood of support if we’re reaching more people.”
Even in an era of streaming and podcasts, Maloney notes that the over-the-air signal still has the power to establish relationships with new listeners.
“There is something to be said for people who stumble on us,” Maloney said. “It is an election year in Indiana, we get more feedback, more people discover us because Chicago isn’t really covering Northwest indiana. We know in early May and early November, there’s a lot of people finding us over the air.”
Lakeshore Public Media is also planning improvements on the television side. After finishing the radio upgrade, it will deploy an elliptical TV antenna that will improve reception and respond better to poor atmospheric conditions, a recurring issue along tempestuous Lake Michigan.
Funding is in place for ATSC 3.0 improvements, including a new 1,000-foot tower. Lakeshore will use its existing TV antenna as a backup. “We’ve never had a backup — that all feeds into improving the overall infrastructure,” Muhammad said.
Another key to Lakeshore’s longevity is making the community aware that it has a local public television station that won its first Chicago Emmy and four Telly awards in 2021, he added. Muhammad wants to expand Lakeshore Public Radio’s news operation, including the addition of two reporters to cover business and feature stories highlighting the region’s agriculture and steel industry.
“We’re pretty small, and Chicago is a pretty large market — usually an operation like ours would never stand a chance of winning an award like that here,” he said of the station’s Emmy. “With infrastructure and content, we’re really ramping up and trying to be a better service.”