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Bliss Communications to sell newspapers, radio stations


The biggest shift in the local media landscape since 1883 was announced Monday when the Bliss family revealed its intent to sell The Gazette and radio stations WCLO and WJVL to two other family-owned businesses.

Bliss Communications is selling its newspapers to Adams Publishing Group and its radio stations to Ben Thompson, CEO of Big Radio.

Sidney H. “Skip” Bliss, president and CEO of Bliss Communications, made the announcement at employee meetings Monday in Janesville and remotely through video links.

“The opportunity to operate these companies for a very long time as a family business has been remarkable and satisfying for five generations,” Bliss said.

“Along the way, certainly, like any business, we’ve had some ups and downs, but over that span of time have loved the businesses we operate,” Bliss said.

The company’s two daily newspapers—The Gazette in Janesville and The EagleHerald in Marinette—and its weekly community newspapers—The Janesville Messenger, The Wisconsin/Illinois Stateline News and Walworth County Sunday—are included in the pending transaction with APG Media of Southern Wisconsin. Bliss expects the final transaction with Adams Publishing Group to take place in mid-June.

Mark Adams, Adams Publishing Group CEO, said, “We are very excited to have the Bliss newspapers join the Adams family of newspapers. The communities served by Bliss are exactly the type of cities and counties that we look for as we continue to expand our company, and each of these markets fits well with other publishing properties we own in the great state of Wisconsin.”

The Janesville radio stations are being sold by Southern Wisconsin Broadcasting, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bliss Communications, to Ben Thompson, who with his father operates eight radio stations under the Big Radio brand.

“These two stations, WJVL and WCLO, both have an incredible legacy in Janesville. I think they have a great brand, a great standing. They epitomize what we believe local radio should be,” Thompson said.

“We’re honored and humbled to be just the second owner in these radio stations’ history,” Thompson said.

Terms of the agreements were not disclosed.

Adams and Thompson said all Bliss employees will be retained.

The Gazette was established in 1845. It is the oldest continuing business in Janesville. Members of the Bliss family have owned the newspaper since 1883, and five generations of the family have operated the company.

The Gazette, a 14,000-circulation daily, is the flagship newspaper of Bliss Communications. In 2007, the company built a state-of-the-art commercial printing and production facility in Janesville. The facility prints not only The Gazette, but also publications from Chicago to northern Wisconsin.

In 2008, Bliss acquired Community Shoppers, a group of weekly newspapers in southcentral Wisconsin.

WCLO began broadcasting in 1930 under the leadership of Skip’s father and was the first radio station operated by the Bliss family. WJVL began broadcasting in 1947.

Mary Jo Villa, Bliss chief operating officer, said: “I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with Mark Adams and Ben Thompson, and I am confident both organizations have the same values and ideals. We have a lot of long-term employees, and I am grateful that Skip Bliss and his family made that a priority.

“I’m excited both Ben Thompson and Mark Adams agree collaboration between the radio stations and the newspaper is important for our employees and the community. We deliver information in different mediums, but when we work together and share resources, we create a better news product, and that is going to continue even though we will have separate owners,” Villa said.

Villa will continue to be responsible for all former Bliss newspaper properties.

‘Resources to invest’

Skip Bliss said the timing is right for his family.

“We had a number of interested parties and had the opportunity to select what we believe to be good stewards of the company,” he said. “Our family’s desire is to do what we think is appropriate to try to assure the communities we serve a continuing source of local news coverage, and we believe this transaction will continue that.”

He identified changes in retailing as among the reasons for the sales.

“The media world of newspapers and radio broadcasting have had a business model that relies heavily on local advertising support. Radio has been supported by a strong base of local advertisers as have our newspapers,” Bliss said.

“Newspapers, however, have for years relied on big-box retailers, and as retailing has changed in recent years, we’ve seen a decline in that time of retail with the growth of online sales,” Bliss said.

“Our business has been built around print and broadcast media, and today larger media companies are more diversified. They have the resources to invest in a broader revenue base,” Bliss said.

Adams Publishing Group has 30 daily newspapers, more than 100 nondaily newspapers and other enterprises operating in 20 states, including Wisconsin.

In a Monday letter to Bliss employees, Mark Adams wrote: “APG and Bliss decided months ago that this would be a great fit for all. APG has numerous newspaper and digital operations in Wisconsin, and the cultures and traditions of both companies are very much aligned.

“The Bliss family has done well to navigate the challenges facing the newspaper industry, and it’s our hope to continue to build on that strength and commitment to the communities served by the Bliss newspapers,” Adams wrote.

“We’ll continue to work closely with the radio operations, as this collaboration has allowed both the radio stations and newspapers to be even stronger,” he wrote.

Jeff Patterson, president of Adams Publishing Group Central Division, said the company does not exercise influence over the content of its newspapers.

“Our content philosophy is local that’s made by the local editors and publishers. The Adams family has not directed any content in any of their publications for as long as they’ve been in existence, and they won’t do so in the future,” Patterson said.

Other Adams family enterprises include outdoor advertising, radio, wine, Camping World, Good Sam Club and Gander Outdoors.

Ben Thompson is part of a father/son team operating eight radio stations from offices in Janesville; Beloit; Monroe; and Freeport, Illinois.

Scott Thompson founded Big Radio in 1996 with the purchase of two radio stations in Monroe. Ben Thompson spent four years with a Chicago-based hedge fund before moving to Beloit and being named CEO of the family business in 2014.

Scott lives in Monroe, and Ben lives in Beloit.

Ben Thompson said the proximity of the Janesville radio stations to their other holdings makes a good fit.

“We like being in the office every day. We like knowing our staff and having a personal relationship with everybody—knowing their families, knowing their situations. That’s really important to us,” he said.

“I was 7 when Dad bought the first two radio stations, so I really did grow up in the radio stations, and a lot of people I grew up with are still working for us in Monroe and Freeport,” Thompson said. “So, in reality, it is like my family. I grew up around these folks. They’re like all my aunts and uncles.

“A lot of companies say they are a family, but for us, I guess, we really do feel that way. We don’t just say that.”

Thompson said listeners should not expect much change in the country music format of WJVL or the news and talk format of WCLO.

“What they are doing now, we are not going to lean away from. We are going to lean in, just expand upon what they have been doing. What they have been doing is admirable. It is, I think, right on the mark of what local radio should be doing,” he said.

Bliss and Thompson filed a joint application Monday requesting the Federal Communications Commission consent to the transfer of the broadcast licenses associated with the radio stations. FCC consent is generally granted in 45 to 60 days.

‘A value proposition’

Bliss said he believes the buyers will take good care of his company’s newspapers and radio stations.

“The Thompson family operates good radio stations all around the Janesville market, Beloit and Monroe. They’re family owned. They are not a large, national broadcast group. They are entirely local,” Bliss said.

“Adams is a family-owned organization. They’re not publicly traded. They’re not owned by investment groups. They’re a very diverse company, and they have a significant ownership presence in Wisconsin newspapers. We already have been doing business with other newspapers they recently acquired through our printing facility,” he said.

“My family and I have enjoyed being stewards of this important community institution the past 136 years. We believe we have selected a new owner that will carry on in the best interests of our markets,” Bliss said. “We want to thank our readers and listeners and our wonderful employees.”

Bliss said his family stayed in the media business so long because it believes in the importance of what local newspapers and radio stations do.

“If people want to be well-informed citizens of this country, they have to make a value judgment about whether they want a truly trusted, local source of information or not. If they do, it’s expensive to provide.

“In my opinion, there’s nothing more important than knowing whether your schools are performing, whether local government is judicious with the taxpayers’ funds, whether local law enforcement is effective, whether your child scored the winning basket. It’s a value proposition that each and every household needs to assess,” Bliss said.

He will retire after the sales are complete.

“I’m going to be a subscriber and a listener, and I’m not going to be a stranger. This stuff is ingrained in me. I’ll never forget it or the people,” Bliss said.

“For me, I love these entities, and even though they’re inanimate things, they don’t seem that way to me.”

About Bliss Communications

The Bliss family has been involved in the local media industry since Howard F. Bliss bought The Janesville Gazette in 1883.{span class=”print_trim”}(tncms-asset)5f90d376-8659-11e9-b10e-00163ec2aa77[0](/tncms-asset)

In 1909, the newspaper moved from the corner of Main and Milwaukee streets to the first building of its own at 200-204 E. Milwaukee St. That location is now the front plaza of Bliss Communications’ current location at 1 S. Parker Drive.

Harry H. Bliss took over from Howard Bliss, serving as publisher from 1919 to 1937. Harry’s sons, Sidney H. and Robert W., later became co-publishers. They oversaw the construction of a new facility in 1966, which was built behind the old building and still stands today.

The new facility was known as the Gazette Printing Company until 1996, when the name was changed to Bliss Communications.

Sidney “Skip” H. Bliss Jr., the current president and publisher, is the fourth generation to continue his family’s media heritage. Representing the fifth generation is his son, Kyle, who works at the Bliss Communications printing and distribution facility, built in 2007.

The Blisses have operated much more than just newspapers. The family brought WCLO, an AM radio station, to Janesville in 1930 and added WCLO-FM—which eventually became WJVL—in 1947. Other radio stations also have been part of the family’s holdings over the years.

Bliss Communications also owns EagleHerald Publishing, a daily newspaper in Marinette; CSI Media, a variety of community newspapers located in Rock and Walworth counties; and Southern Wisconsin Broadcasting, which operates WCLO and WJVL.

About Adams Publishing Group

Adams Publishing Group was launched in late 2013 by Mark Adams with support from his family, according to the company website.

The company owns 30 daily newspapers, more than 100 nondaily newspapers and other enterprises operating in 20 states, including Wisconsin.

Mark Adams is CEO of Adams Publishing Group and is “quarterback” of the company’s acquisition activities, according to the website.

Adams Publishing Group is “driven to provide high-quality products and services that make a positive difference in the lives of its constituents, which are, in prioritized order: its readers, its customers/advertisers, its communities, its associates (employees) and its shareholders/owners,” according to the website.

The company in December acquired the Watertown Daily Times, the Daily Jefferson County Union and the Hometown News Group of nine newspapers, including the Milton Courier. That followed Adams’ purchase of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram in June 2017.

Other Adams companies include Camping World/Good Sam, Adams Outdoor Advertising, Adams Radio Group, Adams Wine Group and Adams Vineyards.

About Big Radio

Father and son Scott and Ben Thompson do business as Big Radio.

Here is a partial timeline of the company:

1996: Scott Thompson buys WEKZ-AM and WEKZ-FM in Monroe.

2002: Scott buys WQLF-FM in Lena, Illinois.

2006: Scott buys WFPS-FM and WFRL-AM in Freeport, Illinois.

2011: Ben Thompson graduates with degrees in finance and accounting from the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University in Chicago and begins working at a hedge fund in Evanston, Illinois.

2014: Ben leaves the hedge fund and moves to Beloit to rejoin the family business. Big Radio buys WWHG-FM, WBEL-AM and WGEZ-AM in Beloit and Janesville.

June 3, 2019: Ben announces intent to purchase WCLO-AM and WJVL-FM from Bliss Communications.

Angela Major 

Milton’s AJ Gray tees off on the last hole Monday, June 3, 2019, at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison during the Division 1 state boys golf tournament.

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Pair accused of making meth might have been doing it since 2015


A man and woman accused of making methamphetamine south of Janesville last month might have been doing it for several years.

Criminal complaints filed in Rock County Court on Monday allege the pair had been buying a key ingredient in the meth-making process—cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine—since 2015.

They also recruited others to buy the cold medicine, the complaint states. One of the buyers had bought pseudoephedrine 22 times during the previous year.

Federal law limits how much pseudoephedrine a person can buy and requires sellers to keep track of purchasers.

James E. Bjork, 47, of Redwood Motel, 3912 N. Hackbarth Road, Janesville, and Stacey R. Utterberg, 45, of 233 Kellogg Ave., were arrested after sheriff’s deputies raided a building at 1101 S. County D (Afton Road) in the town of Rock on April 29.

The Rock County Sheriff’s Office said at the time that deputies found materials suggesting a “one-pot” method, also known as “shake and bake,” was used to make the illicit stimulant.

The complaint indicates children had lived with adults in the building, which was not zoned as a residence. Meth-making produces volatile chemicals and toxic vapors, but the complaint does not say the children were exposed to those.

Bjork is charged with manufacture of methamphetamine. Utterberg is charged with party to manufacture of methamphetamine. The complaint does not indicate any selling of meth to others.

The two appeared briefly in court Monday without lawyers and were released on signature bonds. Their next court appearance is set for June 26.

Sudafed, lighter fluid, mineral spirits and lithium batteries, all used in the process, were found in the building along with traces of suspected meth, according to the complaint.

The complaint lists videos from Janesville Walgreens stores on West Court Street and Milton Avenue that show Utterberg, Bjork and several of their buyers buying pseudoephedrine.

Bjork has bought pseudoephedrine 99 times since 2015 and was blocked from buying it 10 times, while Utterberg had bought it 92 times and was blocked eight times in that period, according to the complaint.

A witness told investigators that she and the building’s owner, who lives out of state, sometimes stayed at the building with their child on weekends and that Utterberg’s four children lived there, as well, but they had moved out after a Janesville fire marshal inspected the building in January.

They had been staying at the building for at least a year, the complaint indicates.

One of the pseudo- ephedrine buyers told investigators he had ingested methamphetamine with Bjork and Utterberg, according to the complaint.

Oil worker is turning valve on the oil pipeline, oil deposit on the background.

Obituaries and death notices for June 4, 2019

Russell B. Atkinson

Virginia M. “Ginny” Ellsworth

Ruby M. Gregus

Virginia L. Koehn

Linda M. Logue

Stephen C. Sedwick

William J. Skelton Jr.

Alex Brandon 

Queen Elizabeth II, first lady Melania Trump and President Donald Trump look at items in the Royal Gifts collection at Buckingham Palace, Monday, June 3, 2019, in London. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A beginning, a middle and an end: A letter from the Bliss family

The story of Bliss Communications began in 1883, when Howard Festus Bliss acquired The Janesville Gazette. He could not have known that the risk he took would lead to 136 years and five generations of family ownership of what would become the oldest daily newspaper under the same flag in Wisconsin.

Over those years, it has been our family’s great privilege to tell the stories of Janesville and Rock and Walworth counties. In 1930 and 1947, the company bought WCLO and WJVL, respectively, enabling it to bring the wonders of AM and FM radio broadcasting to Janesville and Rock County. Subsequent years brought additional acquisitions, including the Marinette EagleHerald, CSI Media and a state-of-the-art commercial printing facility in Janesville.

The 13½ decades of Bliss family ownership have included good times and bad. Through them all, the true joy for us has been in knowing that every single day, the talented, committed and caring people of this newspaper and WCLO/WJVL have entertained you, informed you and challenged you. At times, they have even made you laugh and cry.

As sources of increasingly biased information have proliferated, we have remained steadfastly independent. We have always respected your right to the truth and kept the mission of providing it sacred to the best of our ability. Any media franchise that has lasted this long is special indeed, and its success and longevity are a true credit to all of those who have been a part of it.

But we live in a world where change occurs at a rapid pace, and diversification and innovation are critical. Today begins a new era, as our family has made the decision to sell our companies, and I look forward to sunsets and grandkids. We are selling our publishing group to Adams Publishing Group and our radio stations to Ben Thompson of Big Radio group. Both are family-owned and -operated companies that have the resources and fresh ideas to serve our communities exceptionally.

We want to take this opportunity to thank all of our advertising and commercial printing customers for their confidence and loyal support. We also want to thank our loyal readers and listeners. All of you are so critical to our ability to hold our schools, local governments, law enforcement and county officials accountable. The newspaper and radio stations are fragile franchises. Without their communities’ support, they could be lost, leaving a void that could not be filled. We hope you will welcome and embrace the Adams Group and Big Radio. If you are not a subscriber or listener, please consider becoming one.

Mark Adams and Ben Thompson are good people who operate good companies, and our family believes the time is right and this decision is the right one for us and our incredible employees. To all of you, we are forever grateful for your hard work, for your professionalism and, perhaps even more, for your friendship. You are the best, and we thank you for all you have done. We look forward to reading and listening to you in the future.

To all of you who have supported us so loyally through the years, we bid you the fondest of farewells.

The Bliss family

Sidney “Skip” and Linda Bliss

Kyle Bliss

Tracy Bliss Lentz

Evers won't rule out paying for roads without gas tax hike


Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Monday wouldn’t rule out the possibility of paying for roads without his coveted gas tax increase.

Evers called for an 8-cent per-gallon increase as the centerpiece of his roads-funding plan, along with a variety of other vehicle fee increases. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Republicans were not going to accept the gas tax hike but were looking at a variety of other fee increases.

Evers campaigned on raising the gas tax, saying it was the most reasonable and sustainable way to pay for roads. Republicans in the Legislature, particularly in the Assembly, have been open to the idea of raising gas taxes in the past. The gas tax in Wisconsin hasn’t increased since 2006, despite a road-funding shortage that has led to deteriorating conditions and delays in major projects across the state.

“Clearly the people of Wisconsin told us during the campaign to fix the damn roads,” Evers told reporters at a news conference to announce a new effort to boost insurance enrollment. “Now if Republican leadership has an idea how we can magically do that without increasing the gas tax, we’ll certainly be looking for that. But it has to be a sustainable future around this issue of finding money to fix our damn roads.”

Evers said he wanted to review the entire transportation funding plan, and the larger two-year budget, before deciding on what he will accept or reject. Evers has held out the possibility of vetoing the entire budget, a dramatic and highly unusual move that would almost certainly delay implementation of a budget well past the July 1 deadline.

Evers also has powerful partial veto powers, which allow him to make significant changes to the budget as passed by the Legislature without rejecting the entire $83 billion spending plan.

“Frankly, it’s not soup yet, either,” Evers said of the budget. “So it’s hard for me to respond to something when we don’t know what the soup is.”

The Republican-controlled budget committee planned to vote Thursday on transportation funding. It was meeting today to vote on funding levels of Medicaid and health-related initiatives. It could wrap up its work next week, finishing with decisions on potential tax cuts and what building projects to fund.

More on Medicaid expansion

Republicans have previously rejected Evers call to expand Medicaid, a move that would insure an estimated 82,000 more poor people and leverage $1.6 billion in federal money that Evers would use to fund a variety of health care initiatives.

Evers on Monday said he still hoped to convince Republicans to accept Medicaid expansion even as they were looking at other ways to pay for health care needs.

“We still will be fighting for expansion because it’s the easiest route, it’s the most effective route and it will use the federal money that the people of Wisconsin have already paid for,” Evers said.

At the same time, Evers was moving ahead with a new partnership between the state Department of Health Services and the insurance commissioner’s office to increase health insurance enrollment.

Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said the targeted audience is people who are at or just above poverty and often float between being eligible for Medicaid or federally subsidized private insurance sold through the marketplace. Palm said the state, working together with the private insurance market, community groups, advocates and others, wants to prevent those people from falling through the cracks.

Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the budget committee, said he supported Evers’ efforts to connect poor people with federally subsidized insurance sold on the private marketplace but not the governor’s call to expand Medicaid to cover them instead.

Under current law, Wisconsin’s Medicaid program covers a single person earning less than $12,490 a year. Evers wants to expand Medicaid coverage to someone making $17,236 a year, or 138% of poverty.