This is one in a series of profiles of successful stations in all market sizes.
It is no secret that some small radio stations struggle financially. This certainly is true for many that operate in the shadow of larger markets, a situation that leads some to go silent or rely almost entirely on syndicated programming.
Then there’s WATD(FM), in Marshfield, Mass., about 30 miles from Boston. WATD feels increasingly like a rarity: It has had the same local owners, Edward F. “Ed” Perry and his wife Carol, since it debuted in 1977, and still offers live and local programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is an active and visible presence in the communities it serves; it has won numerous awards for its news and public affairs programming. And the station is financially successful; in fact, according to Perry, “We’ll have our best billing year ever [in 2016]. We’ll bill over a million dollars this year.”
Stations photo courtesy Mariel Reed/WATD As a Class A FM station with 3,000 watts at 95.9 MHz, WATD serves an area known as the South Shore — cities and towns to the south of Boston, including Marshfield, Pembroke, Abington, Duxbury and Plymouth.
The call letters tell an interesting story too: They stand for “We’re At The Dump.” When Perry first tried to put his station on the air, he ran into various objections about where to locate the transmitter. He was finally able to find some land near the Marshfield town dump; after the zoning board approved it, he and the staff chose the call sign.
The station officially went on the air on Dec. 6, 1977; thirty-nine years later, WATD’s 460-foot tower remains in the same location, supporting the main two-bay antenna. There is also a 330-foot tower supporting the single-bay 1,000-watt auxiliary antenna. WATD has several backup generators, another part of what makes it unusual for a station of its size; even during extreme weather, including blizzards and hurricanes, WATD stays on the air when other stations have lost power.
“That’s the key to community service,” Perry said. “People know we will be there for them. And if you’re always there, people trust you.” (The station even maintains a web page that explains its technical infrastructure to visitors in layman’s terms; see it at http://959watd.com/how-watd-works.)
LOVE OF RADIO
The station’s studios are in a Marshfield office park, and from the moment you enter the building, it is immediately obvious that Ed Perry loves radio. For one thing, the vestibule contains a collection of antique radio receivers, and the door features a bumper sticker that says “Kill Your Television.”
When you walk into the lobby, you see a jukebox, and then several walls filled with plaques, displaying the many honors WATD has earned over the years. Among them are numerous Edward R. Murrow Awards, given annually by the Radio Television Digital News Association for excellence in such categories as breaking news, investigative reporting, feature reporting and overall excellence in news. WATD has also won awards from the Associated Press, including AP Station of the Year in 2014. Perry was awarded the Broadcaster of the Year Award by the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association in 2014 and was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame the next year.
Perry remains a dominant figure at WATD; in addition to running the station, he does on-air commentary three times a week and helps with the engineering, though he is quick to say that his staff makes the station’s success possible. For instance, mid-day host Larry Nelson also sets up remotes and does some of WATD’s tech work.
“I’m pretty good at finding good people,” Perry says, including folks who are as passionate about radio, and as loyal to the station, as he is.
Managing Editor/News Director Christine James has spent 25 years here. Morning show co-host Rob Hakala has put in 16 years; and Larry Nelson arrived in 1991. Afternoon drive personality Cathy Dee has the most longevity other than Perry himself; she has been with the station since it went on the air except for a two-year hiatus when she worked in Boston radio. Music Director John Shea started out with the station as an intern and has been there for 12 years. Jackie McGoodwin, a 32-year station veteran, is vice president and sales manager, overseeing three full-time salespeople; several announcers sell part-time.
The reason for such longevity, says Cathy Dee, is “the station is like an extended family. It’s a great place to work.”
The station is proud of its numerous news awards. In 2010, Managing Editor/News Director Christine James accepted an RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Award for best audio newscast from Harry Smith of CBS.
Lisa Azizian and Rob Hakala are morning co-hosts.
WATD’s format is what used to be called full-service, a blend of adult contemporary music (with a target audience of 35–54), along with lots of news, local sports and specialty programming.
Dave Skill, who has spent 25 years with WATD in news and sales, hosts a Saturday afternoon oldies show. When John Shea is not music directing or helping with public service programs, he hosts a popular local music show called “Almost Famous” on Tuesday evenings. It features interviews with local bands, as well as in-studio performances from the best new and up-and-coming musicians. Station announcers have the flexibility to play some requests, as long as the song fits the overall sound of the station.
The station is known for thorough coverage of politics and current events. While the recent presidential election was making big news, there were also local races and state ballot initiatives that mattered to people on the South Shore. WATD hosted a debate between Republican and Democratic candidates for the state legislature as well as a debate between advocates and opponents of legalizing marijuana. In fact, the station aired about 12 political forums and debates. Says News Director Christine James, “Along with the debates, we [had] big primary and election night shows with live coverage starting at 7 … and typically going until 11 or 12, and sometimes later. We [had] close to 20 reporters covering campaigns, others at key town halls, a newsroom crew to compile the numbers, post them, keep me updated, and write stories for the next day.”
WATD has about a dozen full-time employees, plus a number of stringers and freelancers, which allows the station to cover every kind of political event, large and small: There are reporters at school board and city council meetings, and the station covers stories that would not be covered by the Boston media. “We do the news that matters most to people,” James says. “We’re not just looking for stories about cops, crooks or politicians. We’re also looking for quirky stories.”
James says perhaps WATD is something of a dinosaur in that it focuses on doing radio the way it used to be done, by being a presence in the market. She speaks of the importance of credibility, of keeping your word and of building relationships in the communities the station serves: the mayors, librarians, chiefs of police and the coaches of the local teams.
Local sports coverage, especially high school football, is another area where WATD excels. Sports Director Bill Wilhelm even hosts a high school sports show that features conversations with the student-athletes and their coaches. The sports programs are popular with the parents of the players, but also with advertisers, who get good results from sponsoring high school sports. Said Perry, “People who are listening to high school football want to support the advertisers, since they are helping to bring them the games.”
BACK IN HIS PIRATE YEARS …
Ed Perry in an undated photo on the station website. Ed Perry grew up in Natick, Mass., the child of two teachers. He tells the story of receiving a wireless mic as a birthday gift at age 7 and entertaining neighbors on the AM dial by broadcasting songs played on a wind-up Victrola that is now in the station lobby.
During high school he and some friends set up a more powerful unlicensed signal that drew the attention of the FCC, which shut it down. According to a bio on the WATD website, Perry later worked as a DJ and in various writing, teaching and sales jobs; he taught himself about radio engineering and “became reasonably good at finding places and frequencies for new radio stations.” He became a consultant and eventually an owner.
The idea for WATD came about during a prospecting trip in the early 1970s with Carol Ebert, who would become Ed’s wife. “We discovered an FM channel then in use on Martha’s Vineyard could be used in a wide area of Cape Cod and the South Shore if the FCC would agree to assign a different frequency to the Vineyard station,” Perry wrote. “Our mission on the trip was to try and guess which areas would offer the best chance for economic success five years later. … After touring a dozen towns we decided the Marshfield area held the greatest promise. In February 1973 we filed the first round of paperwork with the FCC.”
They secured funding help from neighbor Bill Blackmore and Rockland Trust bank, and secured an FCC construction permit despite objections from other area stations and early concerns from locals about the tower site. WATD’s coverage of the Blizzard of 1978 was an early success that helped build audience. That same year, WATD also began operating the first studio radio reading service for the blind in New England; Talking Information Center airs on an FM subcarrier and grew into a statewide network.
The station moved into its own new studio facility in 1986. A postscript: Carol Perry passed away at the end of December 2016, shortly after the print version of this story went to press.
NOT A NUMBERS GAME
WATD may seem old-school in its programming approach but it has embraced social media; its Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts and website are maintained by Perry’s son Will, assisted by Mariel Reed. The website generates revenue from features such as a sponsored “WATD Pet of the Week” box ad. WATD also offers streaming audio; this too has been a hit, because listeners can stay connected to the station (and to their community) even if they are outside of the station’s coverage area.
WATD does not subscribe to a ratings service, and that is intentional. “Radio is not a numbers game for us, like it is for the Boston stations,” Perry says. “As a non-rated station, we can do things that other stations might not.”
Sales Manager McGoodwin says, “Most Boston business comes from ad agencies, and they use the ratings. At WATD, we establish a personal relationship with our clients, and that means the ads we produce are personal to the [South Shore] area.”
Perry also once owned an AM in Brockton, Mass., and he plans a return to that community with another AM that he has acquired that is now silent. This will be WATD(AM), expected to go on the air in the spring. According to a 2015 story in Northeast Radio Watch, Perry plans a news-talk format.
Ed Perry is always watching for changes in what his audience wants. He understands that a successful radio station must provide good content; it’s the content that gets both loyal listeners and long-term advertisers. His management philosophy is simple: “We invest in people who can produce the content, treat them fairly, [and] pay them fairly.” He also encourages his on-air people to care about the audience. “The listeners are your customers. Worry about them first.”
Despite competition from social media as well as those Boston stations, Perry remains optimistic about radio thanks to its unique ability to be a friend to its listeners. “Because we can make decisions locally, we can be there whenever our audience needs us; we are their community station. And we can be there for the advertisers. In fact, there is a demand to advertise on WATD.”
For 39 years, WATD has continued to be a friend to people on the South Shore, proving that a live and local radio station can not only survive; it can thrive.
Got a suggestion for this series? Email [email protected].
Donna L. Halper is a former broadcaster and radio consultant who spent more than three decades in radio. She is a professor of communication and media studies at Lesley University, Cambridge Mass. She wrote here recently about Hubbard Radio’s KSTP(FM) in Minneapolis/St. Paul.