McLane: N.J. and Radio, Perfect Together

Organizers hope to open the New Jersey Radio Museum this summer
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Organizers hope to open the New Jersey Radio Museum this summer

Exit 11. Woodbridge Mall. Westfield High School.

Yea, I'm from Jersey. What about it?

My Garden State roots are on my mind today after chatting electronically with Carl Van Orden. If he and his colleagues have their way, they will debut the New Jersey Radio Museum this summer in downtown Dover, about an hour west of New York. The group has space in a historic house and is seeking money, volunteers, equipment - even photo frames.

"The New Jersey Radio Museum is dedicated to presenting to the public a general 'when radio was radio' version of radio, showing the difference between what it was up to the '70s vs. what it is today," said Van Orden, the project manager. "As such, it will also appeal to people interested in radio outside New Jersey."

The idea has its beginnings with George Laurie, a trustee of the Dover Area Historical Society, the parent of the museum, which holds the lease on the four-story house owned by the Dover Presbyterian Church.

Like-minded enthusiasts

Like Van Orden, Laurie is a former employee of WRAN(AM), a 10 kW station that operated in Dover until the late 1980s. They and Lew White, now with WRNJ(AM) and WGHT(AM), started brewing the idea and began contacting as many WRAN alumni as they could. Things grew from there.

"We actually got together in a Dover diner where we could meet face to face. For some of us, it had been way over a decade since we had seen each other."

Of course. All great ideas in New Jersey involve a diner.

At first the nonprofit group planned a small display of WRAN memorabilia. Then they expanded the scope to include the former WDHA(FM), then all of radio in North Jersey. Eventually the planned museum adopted a statewide mission.

Thus a group of like-minded Garden State folks who have worked in radio or are deeply interested in it have gotten together to create the organization.

"We have program directors, music directors, engineers, Webmasters, all a part of the NJRM executive committee," Van Orden told me.

Lease and maintenance details are being worked out; the historical society is taking care of much of that work. Meantime, plans are developing for the museum infrastructure and its special events.

Museum listening booths will enable visitors to choose from different stations and formats. Program directors have agreed to speak. A reunion dinner for N.J. radio people is contemplated. The museum hopes to raise money by selling a CD of airchecks, most of which have been donated.

Dick Taylor, vice president of South Jersey operations for the museum and the GM of WOND(AM), WUSS(AM) and WTKU(FM), called it "the only place in New Jersey that anyone can visit to remember the kind of radio they grew up listening to, and to let those not so fortunate to grow up in those days a glimpse at how things used to be."

Live from Dover

Most ambitiously, they plan a low-power radio signal, and also have applied to the FCC for an AM license.

"The original Dover stations, WRAN 1510, now dark and gone, and WDHA 105.5 FM, are no longer in Dover," Van Orden said. "We would like to serve Dover as its local station. ... We have plans to put on the air a '70s-type format, complete with local news. The area is heavy in Spanish-speaking people, and there is a need there as well."

A soundproof studio room is planned in a minaret on the top of the historic Silas Condict House. The studio would be a showpiece for the museum and a spectacular statement for N.J. radio, Van Orden feels.

He says the group needs financial support. It also needs equipment - cart machines, tape and CD decks, mics, booms, you name it, for its exhibits and its studio. And why photo frames? Because thousands of pages of documentation need collating, filing and mounting.

Unfortunately, radio stations themselves seem reluctant to take part.

"I do not know if it is because of day-to-day business; but of the stations I have contacted, many seem very distant. In fact, it would be to their benefit to join with us; it is free advertising for them," Van Orden said.

"Imagine having your banners posted all over the walls of a radio museum. However, the owners and operators of N.J. radio stations have been difficult for me to get involved."

I hate to say this, but Van Orden's problem doesn't surprise me. Many radio managers have little appreciation for radio history and lore; indeed they seem obsessively worried that anything associated with "old" is "bad." For every heritage station that celebrates its history, a dozen want nothing to do with even last year's formats.

Among stations that have supported the effort, however, are WDHA, WMTR(AM), WHTG(AM-FM) and WOND. Local papers have been helpful, as has Scott Fybush through his regional newsletter.

For the time being, the collections are being built. John Yanagi, museum vice president for airchecks via the Web, said there is a wealth of old radio audio online, and his job is to track it down. He is an avid aircheck collector and trader.

"I'd like to ask all your readers, professionals and amateurs alike, if they have any airchecks of N.J. licensed stations to please consider donating a copy to the museum," he said. "Any aircheck, large or small, unscoped or scoped, new or old, even clips and jingles are welcome." Donators will have permanent recognition of their gifts, which are tax-deductible.

The most significant donation so far: Mike Feriola, chief engineer of WMTR/WDHA and Greater Media, gave three working broadcast boards - one each from each station plus a heritage WDHA broadcast board used at the original studio on Route 10 in Randolph.

'Better radio'

Rich Phoenix was program director of WRAN for almost 10 years. He describes himself as one of the crankier vice presidents of the organization.

He said all participants are volunteers, and that there have been headaches along the way. For instance, plans for an earlier museum space in a shopping center fell through when the prospective benefactor found a paying tenant.

"This created the necessity for our various members to store equipment, files and recordings in their own digs and on their own computers, much to the chagrin of their spouses," Phoenix said.

"We have hopes of preserving in our museum the evidence of what made local radio broadcasting great in the 20th-century, pre-deregulation days of the profession," Phoenix said.

"The evidence will present itself as airchecks, photographs, press clippings, videos, functioning 1970s-vintage studio equipment, a low-power broadcasting station and live performances by local personalities who made radio great in New Jersey despite all the competition that Philly and NYC could dish out."

Phoenix has little good to say about recent trends in radio management and regulation. Localism, he laments, is all but forgotten in radio. He thinks the museum's mission includes this message.

"We hope to persuade and convince interested radio listeners of all ages that they can demand and get better radio from their local broadcasters."

Van Orden called on the local radio community to help.

"My biggest fear is to not get the support of our local N.J. radio stations. We need WVNJ, WGHT, WRNJ, WJRZ, WOBM and all the great N.J. stations we want to showcase. We will showcase them, but we need their help," Van Orden said.

Anyone interested in helping with this project can contact Carl Van Orden via e-mail to carlvanorden@webtv.net or call (570) 253-0848.

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