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WHAV Radio Going Back to FM

A Q&A with WHAV President Tim Coco

The original WHAV transmitter building and tower on Silver Hill in Haverhill, Mass., circa 1947. The new WHAV(FM) will house its transmitter in this very building, but will use a newer tower built to the left of the original, which is still standing.

After a long hiatus, nonprofit AM radio and television station WHAV, will soon be back to broadcasting on the FM band, thanks to an approved LPFM permit from the FCC. In anticipation of the return, WHAV is holding a fundraiser hosted by some of the historic station’s former star broadcasters, June 8, at Maria’s Galleria Banquet Room, in Haverhill, Mass.

The WHAV call letters have a long history, and the return of those letters to FM is significant. In order to truly understand this significance, one needs to know the history of the WHAV call on the radio spectrum in the Haverhill area. To help with the history lesson, Radio World got in touch with WHAV President and General Manager Tim Coco.

Radio World: When did WHAV first come about in Haverhill?
Tim Coco: Haverhill Gazette Publisher John T. “Jack” Russ formally placed WHAV on the air March 16, 1947. During the inaugural broadcast, he said, “WHAV is going to be your station — a station for the people of Haverhill and the people in our surrounding towns. What concerns you directly, your lives and businesses, your community betterment will always get first priority on the WHAV airwaves.” We find it hard to improve on that message and will work to fulfill its promise.

Interestingly, in 1947, the WHAV call letters weren’t available. They were assigned to the city’s police shortwave station, but Police Chief Henry J. Lynch agreed to trade. Oddly, as history tends to repeat itself, the new incarnation of WHAV found itself in a similar situation last year. During the time the original radio station dropped the call letters in 2002 and last year when the FCC granted the new LPFM license, the U.S. Coast Guard controlled them. Thanks to Kim E. Demory at the Coast Guard’s National Vessel Documentation Center, the call letters were returned.

RW: How has the ownership change of WHAV over the years affected the way the station broadcasts — whether it be on AM, FM, or even the internet?
Coco: A generation ago, FM overtook AM radio in terms of listeners, and the current generation is relying more on their smartphones than their car dashboards. Meanwhile, legislative and regulatory actions led to greater consolidation. By 2002, the WHAV call was abandoned, as its AM frequency was needed to serve a different audience. Happily, the then-owners allowed what would become Public Media of New England Inc. to continue the WHAV tradition as an internet and cable television station until an FM window was opened by the FCC.

The one constant — despite the changes in technology, listener habits and regulation — has been the demand for local news and information, especially during times of emergency. Local radio uniquely fills this need and WHAV takes this obligation seriously.

Former WHAV personality Pat Johnson, AKA Pat Sprague, beside a plaque dedicating the Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, in memory of her husband, the longtime WHAV news director. They met at the station and their 1954 wedding was actually broadcast over the WHAV air.

RW: What has the station become since being a Public Media of New England-owned station?
Coco: During the last decade, especially with the decline of newspapers, residents of Haverhill found themselves without a reliable source of local news. The last local newspaper office in the city closed in 2012 — seemingly unimaginable for a city of 62,000 residents. Even though the new FM wouldn’t even be permitted for a few years, the WHAV news department was enlarged, a dedicated newsroom built — the “Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom,” honoring a 34-year veteran of the station, and reporters placed on the street. The public has heartily embraced the operation, delivering more than five million web page views monthly. Another change is the lack of commercials. Today’s WHAV is nonprofit and noncommercial. Listeners and local businesses have stepped up to underwrite the cost.

RW: WHAV has produced a number of well-known regional broadcasters. In your opinion, what is it about WHAV that’s allowed that to happen?
Coco: Intentionally or not, small radio stations are breeding grounds for great talent. Lacking large staffs, on-air talent has the ability — if not the obligation — to learn new skills and grow into roles even they may not have envisioned. Tom Bergeron, television host of the popular “Dancing with the Stars,” got his start at WHAV in 1972. Bob Clinkscale worked at WHAV during the 1950s, became program director and ultimately moved into news. He became one of the pioneer anchors at WCVB Channel 5 in Boston. Similarly, Joe Clementi worked at WHAV around the same time and became a distinguished name in news at WHDH, Boston. Clinkscale and Clementi are among those coming back to WHAV June 8 for a “Reunion of the Radio Stars.” Bergeron has also agreed to be honorary chairperson of WHAV’s “Make Waves — Bring Local News to FM” campaign and made an initial, generous contribution to kick it off. Radio people are loyal.

RW: Are there any other fascinating facts about WHAV’s history?
Coco: There almost wasn’t a WHAV on AM radio. Before World War II, the Haverhill Gazette was enamored by Edwin H. Armstrong’s FM work. It vowed, as soon as wartime controls would permit, to build an FM radio station. What the Gazette didn’t expect was the move of the FM dial from 42–50 megahertz to the current 88–108 megahertz band in 1945. With few FM radios in existence, the newspaper put a 250 watt AM station on the air. The first WHAV (FM) signed on with Transit Radio Inc. The company was formed to provide “music as you ride” with FM radio receivers placed in buses. In a case that went all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, passengers objected to being a captive audience. General Manager Russ threw in the towel and shuttered WHAV (FM) by 1953.

Those tough times during the late 1940s and early 1950s brought some belt-tightening too. At first, the station didn’t even own a transcription lathe to make recordings. It sent staff down to a radio store to cut records when needed. Finally, the introduction of a Presto magnetic reel-to-reel recorder led management to try cutting all but two staff members. A beleaguered Ed Johnson and weatherman, Earl “Bud” Smith, made and played recordings all day until management relented.

RW: Tell us about the fundraiser on June 8?
Coco: Fundraiser quests can expect great food, wine tasting, raffles, and the chance to be in the company of some of WHAV’s biggest stars: Paul Bellefeuille, Michael Burns, Joe Clementi, Bob Clinkscale, Joanne Doody, Patricia Johnson, Marc Lemay, Dave “Mack” Macaulay, Bill “Maxwell” Macek, Eric Scott and Mark Watson.

Remember, the fundraiser is on Wednesday, June 8, at Maria’s Galleria Banquet Room, in Haverhill. Tickets to the fundraiser event can be bought on the WHAV website.