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April 1, 2004
WVWA, Pound Ridge, N.Y.
in the bucolic suburban hills of eastern Westchester County sits
one of New York's - and America's - in fact, the world's - most
unusual small radio stations.
Among radio enthusiasts, WVWA (900) is best remembered for
its early-seventies experiment with the "Nine!" format,
a high-energy, monosyllabic top-40 mix that paved the way for
the Qs and Zs and Kisses and Blinks (especially, one suspects,
the Blinks) for generations to come.
And while the "Nine"-era WVWA was justly acclaimed
for jocks like the legendary Johnny West and for its wild promotions
(all chronicled in great depth at the wvwa.com
tribute site), Tower Site of the Week has been researching the
station's earlier history (for our upcoming book The Airwaves
of Metro Eastern Westchester, Volume Two) - and what a history
the station had in its early years!
WVWA signed on April 1, 1947 under the calls "WLAW,"
founded by a group of veterans recently returned from the European
front. For reasons not entirely clear in the FCC's files, the
station was erroneously issued a callsign that was already in
use in Massachusetts, and its profile was so low in the broadcasting
community at first that more than a year elapsed before anyone
noticed and the Pound Ridge calls were changed to WVWA.
not commonly known that the WLAW founders in fact applied for
and were granted an FM construction permit as well, the last
to be granted on the old 42-50 MHz band. "W99PR" would
have operated at 49.9 MHz, but the money ran out not long after
WLAW built its unique 90-foot Blaw-Knox tower. (In fact, a 65-foot-wide
capacitance hat that was to be built atop the tower also was
never built, perhaps explaining the legendarily bad signal AM
900 has had most of its life.)
That lack of funding also explained the choice of the transmitter
that WLAW/WVWA would use for its first few decades: a homebrew
unit that generated 100 watts "on a good day." In a
1972 interview with the Pound Ridge Eagle-Taxonomist,
station co-founder Howie Leonard recalled that the unit had apparently
originated at the University of Wisconsin's 9XM before being
sent to Costa Rica to be used by the Universal Fruit Company
for many decades. ("Smells like bananas in here," was
a frequent refrain among visitors to the transmitter site just
off Route 137 in its early years.)
1952, after losing out on its initial application for a TV station
(the proposal to put WVWA-TV on "Channel 0," somewhere
in the 31-meter shortwave band, was summarily rejected by the
FCC), Leonard applied for an FM station. ("It's where all
the action is," said Leonard's wife Lolly to an Eagle-Taxonomist
An early plan to put the station on 108.1 MHz with a highly-directional
antenna aimed at Pound Ridge from the Armstrong tower in Alpine,
N.J. was laughed out of the FCC, so the Leonards went with plan
B, which involved (as best we can reconstruct from the incomplete
records at the Pound Ridge History Foundation) a 250-watt transmitter
and a 16-bay antenna operating at 99.9 from the Pound Ridge site.
When the antenna arrived at "Broadcasting Acres,"
the lavish WVWA compound, engineers quickly realized that it
was actually taller than the 90-foot tower. While they repaired
to the nearby "Etherwaves Pub" to figure out what to
do next, the Leonards installed the antenna themselves, burying
the last four bays underground to make them fit and installing
the rest at angles that apparently gave the station severe beam-tilt
and sent most of the signal above the heads of its audience.
(Ironically, the Eagle-Taxonomist reviewed the station's
inaugural broadcast of opera records by noting, "W.V.W.A.'s
F.M. programming seemed to hover far above the heads of the average
Pound Ridge audience.")
The result would have been atrocious, had anyone in eastern
Westchester had an FM radio to tune in. By now, though, Howie
Leonard had become close friends with FM inventor Edwin Howard
Armstrong, who offered his services to fix WVWA-FM.
Armstrong spent much of the summer of 1953 rebuilding the
transmitter and dismantling the 16-bay antenna, then proceeded
to spend much of the fall building his own 12-bay antenna atop
the 90-foot Blaw-Knox.
There are many in Pound Ridge to this day who remember the
sight of the intrepid Armstrong, by now in his sixties, cavorting
atop the WVWA-FM antenna nearly 200 feet above the ground.
In December 1953, the revived WVWA-FM returned to the air,
with Howie Leonard confidently proclaiming to the Eagle-Taxonomist that
"FM is the future of radio" and predicting that AM
would be obsolete "by the middle of 1954." Behind the
scenes, however, station records show that Leonard was far more
worried about the money that was pouring into the WVWA-FM operation.
One WVWA staffer of the era recalls an argument in the hallway
of Broadcasting Acres between Leonard and Armstrong. Leonard
had just returned from a Westchester Association of Broadcasters
convention at which other station owners were talking about shutting
down their FM operations. "If every other station owner
jumped out of a 13th floor window, would you do that, too?,"
Armstrong reportedly shouted at Leonard before storming out.
By the end of January, an increasingly unhappy Armstrong was
complaining that the Leonards hadn't paid him for the work he
had done, and staffers recall an especially tense meeting in
late January that ended with Howie Leonard storming into the
FM wing of the building and pulling the plug on WVWA-FM. (Nobody
called to complain.)
meantime, Leonard had finally won a TV construction permit, and
in the summer of 1954 the old FM antenna and transmitter were
modified (with parts from a DuMont television set, a Federal
FM transmitter and a John Logie Baird Nipkow-disc-era British
transmitter) for the debut of WVWA-TV, channel 79.
With 1300 watts of visual power into an antenna that was apparently
still tuned to 99.9 FM, WVWA-TV made its debut to an audience
that already received seven VHF stations from New York City and
one more from nearby New Haven, Connecticut.
In a 1985 exhibit, Electron Beams and Crazy Dreams: Remembering
Westchester's TV Heyday, curators at the Westchester Television
Museum remembered the brief heyday of WVWA-TV, which operated
for 90 minutes daily (two hours if it had programming from its
lone network affiliation, a secondary hookup with DuMont) from
a studio at Broadcasting Acres:
They set up "viewing areas" in the Daitch Shopwell
parking lot across the street, as most people in the service
area were not, in point of fact, "serviced".
On good atmospheric days, six or seven people a day would
glance up at the station wagon (Howie Leonard's wife Lolly's)
with the monitor (Howie Leonard's TV set, from his den, loaned
to the station for this), and then move on about their business.
WVWA-TV's "Grade B" contour reportedly extended
as far as Bedford, N.Y. and Wilton, Connecticut; within that
8-mile radius, at least 100 homes had the expensive converter
and outdoor antenna needed to receive Channel 79.
While the Leonards had gone to the expense of obtaining brand-new
color equipment for channel 79's local programs ("News Carousel,"
"Eastern Westchester on Parade" and "Talent Time"
were among the highlights), a survey in the fall of 1954 found
that only two potential channel 79 viewers had color TV sets
- and in any event, the transmitter itself couldn't pass RCA
color, having been modified two years earlier for the CBS color-wheel
November 19, 1954, just six months after WVWA-TV's big debut,
channel 79's brief saga came to an end when Broadcasting Acres
burned to the ground in a mysterious late-night fire.
(From the Sunday Taxonomist-Instigator: "Pound
Ridge Fire Department officials continue to investigate the fire
that destroyed W.V.W.A. radio and television station Friday night.
Officials briefly detained John L. "Johnny" Westendorffer,
12, of Pound Ridge, after neighbors said they had often seen
him behind the station late at night with gasoline cans, but
released him without charges.")
spending all their money - including what would have been their
annual insurance payment - on WVWA-FM and then WVWA-TV, the Leonards
lacked the funds to rebuild Broadcasting Acres. WVWA-TV would
never return to the air, though its construction permit would
remain active in FCC files well into the mid-sixties.
WVWA(AM) returned to the air in early 1955 from a new building
at the Broadcasting Acres site, and it was there that so much
history was made at "Nine Double-O Radio" and "Nine"
over the next few decades.
In recent years, like so many small AM stations around the
country, WVWA has fallen on hard times, frequently spending several
months at a time off the air. The Blaw-Knox tower now lists at
a slight angle, and the transmitter is housed in the back of
a station wagon behind what's left of the studio building. A
recent deal that would have made the station the "New York"
flagship of "America's first all-libertarian talk network,
Air Whatever" fell through - but if there's anything to
be learned from WVWA's history, it's that you can't count a 250-watt
daytimer on a Canadian clear channel out completely.
At press time, we've learned that WVWA's current owner, Buzznet
Media (which purchased the station - but not the Broadcasting
Acres property - from Howard L. "Len" Leonard Jr. in
1987), applied during the recent AM major change window to relocate
WVWA to El Segundo, California, where it would operate on 520
kHz from a ten-tower array offshore on Catalina Island. Southern
California doesn't know what it's in for...
Special thanks to the Pound Ridge History Foundation,
the Westchester Television Museum, the library of the Pound Ridge
Daily Eagle-Taxonomist and the authors of "Airwaves
of Metro Eastern Westchester" for their assistance. And
be sure to visit the WVWA Tribute
Site to learn more about the station's heyday!
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