September 19-26, 2001

WBZ at Eighty

Here's a true relic: one of the last broadcast sites from the very dawn of the industry that's still standing. This is the old Westinghouse works on Page Boulevard in East Springfield, Mass., where a little 100-watt station called WBZ began operations on September 15, 1921, with a remote broadcast from the Eastern States Exposition (the "Big E") in Springfield.

WBZ was one of four stations Westinghouse built in those early days of radio; the others, of course, were KDKA in Pittsburgh, WJZ in Newark and KYW in Chicago, all located (with the exception of Chicago) at Westinghouse manufacturing plants.

WBZ wasn't alone on the airwaves, even then; historian Donna Halper, among others, has shown that listeners in Boston were already hearing innovative programming on stations like 1XE/WGI in Medford Hillside.

But WBZ quickly became a force to be reckoned with, at least in Springfield, moving its studios downtown to the Hotel Kimball on Chestnut Street and boosting power to 15,000 watts by mid-1924.

That same year, Westinghouse moved to improve WBZ's signal in Boston, 100 miles away, by erecting a 250-watt transmitter atop the Hotel Brunswick under the calls WBZA.

By 1931, it was clear where WBZ's real market was, and so WBZ and WBZA switched locations. WBZ's 15,000 watt transmitter was moved to Millis, 20 miles west of Boston, with studios moving to the Hotel Bradford from the Statler, which had succeeded the Brunswick in mid-1927. The WBZA calls moved to the East Springfield transmitter, which dropped power to 1,000 watts, serving essentially to fill in a weak area of coverage from Millis.

WBZ increased power to 50,000 watts by 1933. In 1940, it moved its transmitter from Millis to a new site on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Hull, and in 1948 it left the Bradford for new radio-TV studios on Soldiers Field Road in Allston.

But out in Springfield, things went on much as they always had, with studios at the Kimball providing the occasional program (though most programming originated in Boston) and the transmitter still feeding a wire between those two towers out on Page Boulevard.

So it went until the fall of 1962, when Westinghouse was more or less forced to close down WBZA in order to win FCC approval to add New York's WINS to its holdings. The 1,000 watt transmitter was shut off for the last time, leaving just the two towers atop the plant.

Westinghouse itself eventually abandoned its Springfield operations, and in later years the buildings ended up as an industrial incubator. That's what they were being used for in 1993, when I took the picture shown above. The antenna wires that once hung between the towers were gone by then (though I've heard they remained intact into the 1980s), and the building manager knew only the barest fragments of the history behind those rusting pieces of steel.

(You can read much more about WBZ's history, as well as that of 1XE/WGI, at the Boston Radio Archives, our sister site.)