Saturday, September 18, 2021

Boston Radio: WBZ-AM Reaches 100-Year Milestone

WBZ NewsRadio, a pioneering voice in the early days of radio and a fixture in the Boston media landscape, is marking its centennial anniversary this weekend, reports The Boston Globe

The station’s first broadcast hit Massachusetts airwaves 100 years ago on Sept. 19, 1921, from the fairgrounds of the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield. It’s one of the oldest radio stations in the U.S. and was the first in the country to receive a commercial license, according to records.

To mark the occasion, tidbits of history from previous broadcasts have played on WBZ airwaves over the past 100 days, and the celebration will culminate on Sunday.

In a nod to the station’s centennial year, Governor Charlie Baker issued WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM a governor’s citation Wednesday and President Joe Biden, who has given interviews on the station’s broadcasts a number of times, sent a personalized note.

“Radio has long been an important aspect of American life — narrating the triumphs and tragedies that have defined America as well as the day-to-day news that keeps listeners engaged with their communities,” Biden wrote. “Over the decades, radio stations like WBZ NewsRadio have been on the forefront of journalism, providing entertainment and valuable information to people who tune in throughout the day.”

“For a station to broadcast for 100 years is nothing short of amazing,” said Alan Chartrand, Market President of iHeartMedia Boston. “Listeners and advertisers consistently utilize this heritage brand as evidenced by WBZ’s continued ratings and revenue success. People lean into objective news sources to remain informed and none has been more dependable than WBZ NewsRadio.”

“WBZ NewsRadio is defined by our strong, unmistakable presence in the communities we serve,” said Rob Sanchez, Vice President of News, Talk & Sports for iHeartMedia Boston. “As the media landscape continues to evolve, our reach has only increased as WBZ listeners have adopted streaming on smart devices and the heritrix app.”

WBZ radio, which now broadcasts at 1030 kHz AM and is the oldest surviving commercial radio station in New England dating back to 1921.  The station signed-on broadcasting from Springfield, MA.

The station has long been one of the highest-rated stations in the Boston area, and covers much of the eastern United States and Canada at night with its 50,000-watt clear-channel signal from its transmitter location in Hull, Massachusetts, which has been used by the station since 1940. The transmitter is a two tower directional array where each tower is 160 meters (520 ft) tall. The signal is intentionally directionalized from their coastal location for maximum power transmitted into the continental United States, giving WBZ outstanding multi-state coverage after sunset.

WBZ's initial license, for operation in Springfield, was issued by the Department of Commerce to the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company on September 15, 1921; it was the first license to specify broadcasts on 360 meters (833 kilohertz), and was subsequently deemed to be the first license for a commercial broadcast station. However, other stations, such as WWJ in Detroit, 1XE/WGI in Medford Hillside, and sister station KDKA in Pittsburgh, were already broadcasting under different license classifications.

The station's original transmitter and studios were located at the Westinghouse factory on Page Boulevard in East Springfield. However, WBZ's inaugural program, on September 19, 1921, was a remote broadcast from the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield.

The original format was general entertainment and information, which included live music (often classical music and opera), sports, farm reports, special events, and public affairs programming. Despite WBZ being housed in Springfield, it somewhat difficult to attract top-flight artists to the station,  leading Westinghouse to open a studio at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston on February 24, 1924.  WBZ also expanded its news programming via a partnership with the newspaper Boston Herald and Traveler.  It also carried a considerable amount of sports broadcasts, including Boston Bruins hockey, Boston Braves baseball, and Harvard Crimson football.

Because of its comparatively wide reach, the station often referred to itself as "WBZ, New England" as opposed to associating itself solely with Springfield or Boston. However, even after several power boosts (the station broadcast at a power of 100 watts in 1921, but was using 2,000 watts in April 1925, the station still had some trouble reaching Boston, leading Westinghouse to sign on WBZA, a 250-watt station at 1240 kHz, on August 20, 1925.  Efforts were soon made to operate WBZA as a synchronous repeater of WBZ, by then at 900 kHz; this process was difficult, as the two transmitters often interfered with each other even in Boston, and WBZA went back and forth between the two frequencies for nearly a year before finally going to full-time synchronous operation in June 1926.

WBZ also continued to boost the power of its primary East Springfield transmitter; it was granted permission to operate with 5,000 watts on March 31, 1926, and by 1927 it was operating with 15,000 watts. Meanwhile, a combination of WBZ's growth and continued difficulties with the WBZA signal led the station to move its Boston studio to the Statler Hotel (now the Boston Park Plaza Hotel & Towers) on June 1, 1927 and activate a new WBZA transmitter on June 9.  The Federal Radio Commission (FRC) moved WBZ and WBZA to 990 kHz on November 11, 1928.

Amidst the technical changes, WBZ also began engaging in network activities. By 1925, it often shared programs with WJZ in New York City (which Westinghouse had also started in 1921, but sold to the Radio Corporation of America two years later), and a WBZ special commemorating the 150th anniversary of Paul Revere's "Midnight Ride" was also fed to WRC in Washington, D.C. and WGY in Schenectady, New York. This paved the way for the station to become a charter affiliate of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) on November 15, 1926, carrying the WJZ-originated NBC Blue Network beginning on January 1, 1927.

“For a very long time, we were called the spirit of New England,” said Bill Flaherty, WBZ NewsRadio’s director of operations. “That was the slogan for WBZ and I think that has never gone away. That Boston spirit, the Boston personality is still here.”

Countless legendary broadcasters have appeared over the decades on WBZ radio. There was Don Kent, the innovatory meteorologist, who split his time between WBZ’s TV and radio mediums for nearly three decades beginning in 1951. Carl DeSuze was the signature morning host for more than 40 years, beginning his tenure in 1942 and retiring in 1985.

WBZ radio has shifted in ownership twice in recent years, becoming a CBS affiliate in 1995 after Westinghouse acquired the TV giant, then shifting again in 2017 when it was sold off to iHeartMedia.

It’s news hours still feature the same, fast-paced news hits they did 100 years ago. What has changed, Flaherty says, is the marketing, which has adapted to each new punch of the fluctuating news industry.

Effective social media strategies, for example, have helped extend the station’s reach beyond its typical audience. Flaherty cites the WBZ NewsRadio TikTok as a particular success (as of Friday, the account had amassed well over 250,000 likes).

“In the last 20 years, with how the media landscape has changed, it is quite amazing,” said Flaherty. “We have changed different frequencies as the technology changed. But basically, we’ve been around 100 years, giving information to New England — the information that they need— and it hasn’t changed a lot.”

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