He does some on-air work, station imaging and production, community contact and lots of engineering, yet he describes his main job as “keeping everyone happy.” The station where he works is a profitable stand-alone AM with a large staff.
After some 48 years at the same place of employment, Tom Niven has one rule that trumps everything else: “Don’t annoy the audience!”
Niven, 75, is operations manager at the slightly contrary WGHT(AM), Pompton Lakes, N.J.
Within the walls of this 1,000-watt daytimer are 21 working cart machines, several of which are used on the air, and some classic turntables, all housed in an attractive wooden building with a flag out front. If it weren’t for the signs (“North Jersey 1500-WGHT”) one would think he had stumbled onto the set of “Leave It to Beaver.”
Just like Martin
“From the listeners’ standpoint, sometimes the old ways are best,” said Niven.
“We’re 20 miles from Manhattan and you have everything on the dial around here. Going back to the early days, our motto has always been to give the listeners something they can’t get somewhere else.”
Niven, who owned WGHT between 1982 and 1993, desired to be in radio almost all of his life.
“When I was four, I wanted to be Martin Block, the guy who hosted ‘Make Believe Ballroom’ on WNEW(AM) in New York,” he said.
After working as a teenager at a few stations, Niven was recruited by Bob Kerr, who was just putting WKER(AM) on the air in 1964. Niven was at the station on its first broadcast day, he was there when the station was rechristened WGHT (“Greatest Hits”) in 1993 and he is still there today.
He started as an announcer but he also promoted live concerts, bringing in such artists as the Shangri-Las and local favorites the Happenings.
“The kids would come to the shows from all over, and it was a great thing for the station,” he said. “Here’s this stinky little station going up against NYC’s WABC(AM) and we were killing them in this area. We just connected with the audience. We weren’t cutesy on the air and we never put anyone down. Those are the worst things you can do besides having dead air. If we couldn’t think of anything to say, we would just shut up and play the music. I learned how to hold an audience from Bob Kerr, the guy who brought me here, and who also published a programming newsletter back then called ‘For Stations Only.’”
The home of ‘North Jersey 1500-WGHT.’
A typical oldies station may play about 400 records in normal rotation, but WGHT is far from typical.
“We have a much wider selection of hits including about 2,000 carted oldies in the studio.” he said. “And I personally replaced the pads in every single one of those carts. While most of our music is played from CDs we also use turntables. I have three RCA turntables and they still run, even though they spent a little time underwater in the last flood we had.”
It’s about our town
WGHT, owned by John Silliman since 1993, still plays the hits. It also has a strong connection to its north Jersey community.
“We have a lot of local sports, and on Saturdays I can have up to 20 people working,” said Niven. “We do one high school football game live, and that takes four people. In the studio we have a guy working the board and two hosts, and another guy who records all the people we have calling in to update the scores every quarter. Not many stations do this.”
In addition to covering the local sports scene, WGHT participates in such charitable events as the Arthritis Walk, Flood Aid and the March of Dimes’ March for Babies.
“Radio’s biggest challenge is getting back to the basics,” he said. “You can’t get away in the long term with a one-man operation. You need people, and you have to touch people, and that’s why we don’t voice-track.”
Niven said the station employs five salespeople. He declined to discuss the station’s revenue. As far as the question of ratings: “We’ve tried Arbitron, and it doesn’t work,” he said. “We’re 20 air miles from Manhattan. Arbitron goes by counties, but we are spread over three counties. Each of the county seats, we don’t specifically cover. That’s why we don’t get into [ratings services]. In almost 50 years, no rating has ever proved worthwhile.
“I think we’re like a lot of stations would like to be, but they don’t have news departments anymore. It’s a sad reflection on radio. … So many stations just are interested in the bottom line. They don’t give a damn about what anything means to the community.”
Tools of the trade: Cart tapes, cassette decks and CD players vie for space at WGHT. The program pie chart reminds jocks to ‘give time and temp as much as possible.’
The station is not on Twitter or Facebook, but it live-streams on the Internet 24 hours a day.
“We record all day long and play it back overnight using a Marantz PMD570 rack-mount audio recorder. Our studio is equipped for stereo and the device records stereo, although our AM broadcast is mono during the day,” said Niven.
“We have regular listeners in Australia, in some little godforsaken town! They listen to us [via streaming] while they’re driving snakes out of their building or whatever they’re doing down there.” The station can be heard online at www.ghtradio.com.
Niven grew up in Long Island and has been married to his wife Anne for more than 45 years. He lists his favorite musical artists as James Brown and Pavarotti. Talk about a “wide variety of the hits.”
On-air and production people rely on their voices to earn a living, so imagine how Niven felt when his raspy throat refused to get better.
“I was distraught,” he said. “But I kept working, even though I had to voice my promos by recording short pieces and editing them together. I finally had myself checked out in March 2011 and discovered I had throat cancer.” He went through nine weeks of radiation treatment. A followup scan in November showed no cancer and the lesion in his throat gone.
“I’m a lucky one.”
Cutting teeth cutting lawns
Niven has also served as a mentor to many over the years.
“We’ve had a lot of people pass through my little ‘school of broadcasting,’” he said. “Kevin Burkhardt went from here to work for WCBS(AM), then WFAN(AM) both in New York, doing sports. Several of our people went from here to Metro Traffic, which provides on-air reporting services to a lot of stations. Most stations don’t hire full-time people much anymore. They have empty newsrooms and they actually contract out their news.”
Another well-known alumnus of WGHT is Gregg Whiteside.
“The guy walked in the door here in the 1970s looking for a job,” said Niven. He had been all around the world but was for some reason interested in having me teach him radio. I could tell right away the guy ‘had it.’ He was a DJ here for a few years and then got a job at WQXR(AM) in New York City, where he lasted for about 20 years. He was a fixture on the classical music scene.”
WGHT Main Studio Equipment Otari MX-5050 Reel to Reel
Comrex DH30 Hybrid
dbx 215 Equalizer
Wheatstone A-300 Console
Denon DN-951 CD Players (4)
Broadcast Electronics Duratrak/Phasetrak Cart Machines
EV RE27 Microphone
Shure SM78 Microphone
Technics Turntables SL-1200 MK2 (2)
Tascam 112MKII Cassette Machines (2)
Marantz PMD570 Recorder
Tieline TLR-300B Commander G3 Codec
Gentner/Comrex TS-612 Phone System
EV Monitor Speakers Sentry 100A (pr)
Crown Monitor Amp
Sony MDR-7506 Headphones
AudioScience cards for computer
Jim Stagnitto, director of engineering for both the New York and New Jersey Public Radio groups, is a graduate of the unofficial Tom Niven school of broadcasting.
“I was doing morning announcements in high school when Tom called the school office and asked if they could send over a student who could sound natural while reading,” said Stagnitto. “The school sent me to WKER to read, and I was thrilled. I had listened to the station since it signed on.”
Niven was impressed by the youngster and asked him to work weekends filing records, collating news copy, learning the board, attempting production and reading two-minute news briefs on the air.
“Oh, yeah, I also cut the station owner’s lawn for a few extra bucks a week,” Stagnitto added.
This led to an air stint and eventually a full-time job that lasted four years.
“Tom is easygoing, and I can say that to this day I’m still using some of the stuff he taught me,” he said. “For example, he taught me to think 20 minutes ahead, and he reminded me that there is only one person listening at a time. Basically, Tom took me in as a young high school kid and by the time I was out of college I had five years of real professional experience. He never treated his station as ‘small town.’ He was the perfect teacher.”
Ken Deutsch is a former DJ who says he wanted to use the air name “Beethoven Smith” until his program director told him what a stupid idea that was.