WBTN: When all radio was ‘live and local'

Wednesday July 27, 2011

This is the first of a three-part series on Bennington's local radio station, WBTN, which has transformed itself from a traditional commercial station into a non-profit station broadcasting "live and local" programming in the public interest. This article focuses on the creation and early years of the station.

BENNINGTON -- There was a time in the not distant past when most radio in the United States was "live and local," with stations in every size market shaping their content for their specific communities, many of them with a particular emphasis on local news and local sports. That was true of Bennington's WBTN, 1370 on the AM dial, which organized itself as Catamount Broadcasters, Inc. in 1951 and began broadcasting from the bottom of Harwood Hill in 1954.

Like many small stations, WBTN developed local announcers who quickly became major personalities in the community. Chief among these was Robert "Bob" Harrington, who served a reporter, announcer, ad salesman and general manager of the station from 1956 until 1999. He reported on town government and school board meetings, store openings, downtown fires, winter storms and virtually everything of local interest or import.

Another was John Page, the agricultural extension agent, who invariably ended his early morning agricultural show by telling listeners, particularly the children who were heading off to school: "Don't forget to drink your milk today."

This world of live and local radio began changing dramatically in 1996 when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated media ownership, allowing companies to own many more stations than in the past and to own multiple stations in the same market. This allowed large companies like Clear Channel Communications, based in Texas, to go on a buying spree that would result in its owning more than 900 stations. It also allowed for the creation of many different kinds of Christian broadcasting companies, which now are major players in the radio market.

And it changed programming in dramatic ways, making it much more homogenized, more intended for a national audience, and in many cases politically conservative. Clear Channel, for example, not only is where Glenn Beck got his start at its Tampa station, but became the major distributor of the Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity shows, as well as Beck's.

The impact of these changes can be seen in Rutland, where five of the six commercial stations now are owned by the Albany, N.Y.-based Pamal Broadcasting Co., which has more than 30 stations, which does business in Vermont as Catamount Radio, and for the most part has formatted programming based around hits or country music. The sixth commercial station in Rutland is owned by Moody Radio, which is one of the largest of the Christian networks.

The two non-commercial stations are WRVT, which is Vermont Public Radio, and WMTZ, a low power FM station operated by Green Mountain Adventist Media, the call letters stand for "We're Marching to Zion."

WBTN never made a great deal of money, and there was a time in the late 1990s when, according to Francis Morrisey, who had been appointed guardian for the then-owner and was trying to keep it afloat, "I was begging the power company not to shut off the electricity." But it was always very local, and now having reconstituted itself as a non-profit station operated in the public interest -- and currently in the middle of a fund-raising campaign intended to keep it that way -- WBTN is trying to combine new 21st century technologies with the same sort of "live and local" format that had made it a uniquely Bennington station in the past.

WBTN was created by James Gordon Keyworth and a handful of local businessmen. Keyworth was the only one with a radio background, having worked for stations in Washington, D.C. during World War II and later at WMNB in North Adams, Mass. There were 250 shares of stock issued at $100 a share, and Keyworth bought 150 of them. William Eddington, a local car dealer, and Nina Weblow, of North Bennington, each bought 25 shares, and five well-known local men each bought 10 shares.

Those five were Francis Morrissey Sr., a local attorney; his brother, Gerald, a local contractor; James Nelson, a salesman; George D. "Happy" Pierce, the owner of a successful plumbing business; and dairyman Robert Holden. As the owner and operator of Fairdale Farms, Holden probably appreciated more than the others Page's regular urging of listeners to "drink your milk today."

On Aug. 1, 1953, the group borrowed $9,000 from the First National Bank of Bennington (which was housed in the white marble building at the Four Corners) to buy land at the foot of Harwood Hill from Richard Hall and his wife.

These were the parents of Joe Hall, who now does a regular program on local history for WBTN called "Bygone Bennington." The wet land was of little use to the Halls, but wet soil was ideal for transmission of station-produced programs to the broadcast tower. In January 1954 the group borrowed another $14,000 to build the station building and a 500 watt AM tower.

The long story short is that WBTN was launched as a very local station for Bennington and the region, and -- despite many changes -- remained one for close to 50 years. Two of the most important changes took place in 1960, when the FCC allowed the station to increase its power to 1,000 watts, and when Keyworth's wife, Belva, acquired all of his stock in a divorce settlement. She later bought out the other owners at $175 a share, and operated the station on her own from 1965 until 1996.

Midway during this time, she also had obtained an FM license to broadcast under the letters WHGC, which was named for her father, Harvey G. Chase.

Francis Morrissey Jr., the son of one of the initial investors, became Belva Keyworth's attorney, and when she broke a hip in 1994 and was invalided for many weeks he began helping manage the station. "It was clear that it was in dire financial straights," he recalled recently. And when it also became clear in 1997 that she would not be able to return to active involvement in the station, he and other directors began looking to sell.

"There was much interest by stations in the Albany and Boston areas," he said, "but we were concerned the station would lose its local focus."

In the end, Vermont Public Radio was the high bidder, and bought the stations for $900,000 on Jan. 27, 2000. Morrissey considered that "fortunate" because VPR would have a focus on statewide news. "It wouldn't have a local flavor, but at least it was public service."

But while VPR very much wanted and still has the FM franchise, it had no interest in operating a local AM station, and in 2000 it sold the WBTN franchise, the Harwood Hill building and the tower to Robert Howe of North Bennington, who was intent on keeping it as the same of local voice that it had been during all the years that Belva Keyworth had owned it.

Tony Marro spent 40 years as a reporter and editor at the Rutland Herald, Newsday, Newsweek and The New York Times. He was the editor of Newsday for 16 years. He now lives in Bennington.

(Next: The Bob Howe years.)


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