July 15, 2005

New Hampshire's WMEX, WTPL and WCNH-LP


In this week's installment of our recap of a June 2005 swing across New England, we spend a warm afternoon visiting three small FM stations that each define "community service" in an interesting way.

Our first stop, heading west from an overnight in Maine, is in downtown Rochester - not your editor's hometown, but the New Hampshire version. And right in the center of downtown Rochester, a rambling old office building is home to the studios of WMEX (106.5 Farmington), the oldies station that's carrying on the heritage of the late, occasionally lamented Boston top 40 giant of days gone by. This WMEX is one of the New England stations owned by our good friend Dennis Jackson, who's now built a small network of stations that each use a combination of a very local morning show and well-executed automation to serve small communities in an economically sustainable yet community-friendly fashion.

At WMEX, that morning show - along with the rest of the station's operations - is the domain of Gary James, a veteran of western Massachusetts radio. Gary and his daughter keep things humming here, out of a small suite of third-floor offices that includes a studio, an office and a lounge area dominated by a bus card that's been carefully modified from its days advertising a different WMEX, the AM 1150 outlet in Boston that laid claim to the WMEX legacy in the eighties.

And up on the roof, Gary happily shows us the latest addition to the WMEX family - the antenna for the soon-to-debut WMEX-2, an on-channel booster that will blanket Rochester with 600 watts on 106.5. (WMEX also has WMEX-1, a 16-watter up in Gilford.)

After a pleasant lunch with Gary at the local diner, it's off to Concord, an hour away, where we pay a call on legendary New England broadcaster Clark Smidt. The man who invented "Softrock" at WEEI-FM and who made WBZ-FM an interesting outpost on the FM dial is now working with Bruce Danziger (late of Vox) at WTPL (107.7 Hillsboro), in a facility that's most familiar to him.

This same suite in an office building on the south side of Concord was home to WNNH (99.1 Henniker), the oldies station that Smidt put on the air a decade and a half ago. WNNH was eventually sold to Tele-Media, and Smidt went along to work with that company on acquisitions. But when Tele-Media then sold out to Nassau (as did Vox), Smidt was ready for a new challenge. Enter WTPL, the one Vox station that didn't end up in Nassau hands. It had been LMA'd to yet another community station, WKXL (1450 Concord), but when Danziger assumed sole ownership of WTPL, the station began a new life as a stand-alone news-talker, reoccupying the old WNNH space. (WTPL even uses the original WNNH transmitter site on Pat's Peak!)

We arrived at WTPL just as Arnie Arnesen was wrapping up her mid-afternoon talk show, a signature of the station, and had an enjoyable chat with Clark about the big things he's got planned for this start-up operation.

Before long, we're joined by a fellow western New York native, Harry Kozlowski, the former PD of Vox's WJYY (105.5 Concord).

For the last year or so, Harry's been busy with two new ventures - a voiceover/ad production company called SpotsToGo.com, and a nonprofit called Highland Community Broadcasting, proud licensee of WCNH-LP (94.7 Concord).

From the WTPL studios, we follow Harry around the west side of Concord to the offices of a stonecutting company on Little Pond Road, just down the hill from the larger towers of WEVO (89.1 Concord) and WWHK (102.3, the old WKXL-FM).

Lo and behold, up on the tower next to the two-story building are two FM antennas, a two-bay at the top and a one-bay lower down. And inside, up a flight of stairs and behind a closet door in a storage room, Harry proudly shows off the spare but functional WCNH facilities.

WCNH is the market's only classical station, and as Harry was getting ready to put it on the air he considered several possibilities for programming. Early in the process, there was some talk of a programming arrangement with New Hampshire Public Radio, utilizing its music library to provide a complement to the mostly news-and-talk content on NHPR's main service, WEVO.

Another possibility surfaced fairly quickly, though: Chicago's WFMT, which operates the Beethoven network, offered WCNH a good deal to provide its programming to "Classical 94.7," and the way it works is pretty neat, we think.

Each day, the programmers at WFMT upload a complete playlist, with voicetracked announcements from Peter Van de Graaf and all, to the WCNH computer here at the transmitter site, where they're played out of a very simple Winamp setup on the local PC, straight into the little Armstrong transmitter.

Harry adds in local calendar announcements and IDs (there's a two-minute window at the end of each hour), along with a local programming block (weeknights at 8 and much of the weekend) that features symphony broadcasts and other long-form programming.

This is just the beginning of what's projected to be a more elaborate operation down the road. WCNH has already held its first pledge drive, and more local programming is in the works as the little station grows.

Harry's clearly having fun with his new signal, and it sounds quite nice on the air; the 38 watts of effective radiated power do a decent job of covering Concord and environs.

Next week - a look at one of Boston's tallest towers.

Thanks to Gary James, Clark Smidt and Harry Kozlowski for their hospitality!

It's here - the 2005 Tower Site Calendar is now available at special clearance prices! Click here for ordering information!