*A lot of things changed for the New England Patriots on their way from bottom-feeders in the 1970s to total NFL dominance three decades later: different owners, two new stadiums, new logos and uniforms. But with the exception of an 11-year break in the 1980s, one piece of the Patriots’ game-day experience remained solid and unchanging: up in the broadcast booth, wherever it might be, the voice of Gil Santos was the voice of the Patriots.
While Santos had been gone from the booth for five years, his death on Thursday, his 80th birthday, still represented the end of an era in New England sports radio, as well as the end of a most distinctive and distinguished life.
English wasn’t even Santos’ first language; he grew up in Fairhaven in a Portuguese-speaking home and didn’t start speaking English until he was five. But he made more of his second language than most people ever make of their first, starting with early radio jobs that took him on the full tour of southeastern Massachusetts radio – WALE and WSAR in Fall River and WNBH and WBSM in New Bedford.
By the time he made his way up Route 24 to the big time, joining Boston’s WBZ in 1971 as morning sports anchor, Santos had already added the Patriots to his sports broadcasting resume, which included plenty of high school and college sports around the region and even some time behind the mic for Penn State football. After five seasons (1966-70) as the color man alongside Bob Starr, Santos took over as the Patriots’ main play-by-play voice from 1971 until the team moved its radio rights away from WBZ in 1980.
Santos was already a fixture at WBZ by then, of course, part of the morning team that included first Carl deSuze and then Dave Maynard as host, Gary LaPierre as news anchor and Joe Green on traffic. As WBZ transitioned toward all-news, the station regained the Pats’ radio rights in 1991, making Santos’ role even more important. (He’d stay with the team even as the rights moved to various FM sister stations in later years, first to WBCN and then “Sports Hub” WBZ-FM.)
Some things never changed: Santos was one of the last smokers in the newsroom, occupying a tiny closet-sized space filled not just with smoke but also the clatter of the manual typewriter he used right up until his retirement from daily sportscasting duties in 2009. As his health worsened, it appeared the 2011 Patriots season would be his last, but he fought back and was able to return for a final season in 2012. (Upon retiring, he tied the Eagles’ Merrill Reese for most NFL seasons on the air, at 36.)
Santos was inducted into the Pats’ Hall of Fame after that final season, adding that to honors that included the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame (class of 2009) and the WBZ Hall of Fame.
And yes, this is another one of those obituaries that’s far too personal for your editor, who had the privilege of working alongside Santos through much of the 1990s. (“When do you get used to being up this early?,” I asked once early on as a morning-drive newswriter, whereupon Santos and LaPierre looked over and simultaneously groaned, “You don’t!”) In addition to being a great broadcaster, Gil was a great human being, and we send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Roberta, his children and his grandchildren.
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From the NERW Archives
Yup, we’ve been doing this a long time now, and so we’re digging back into the vaults for a look at what NERW was covering one, five, ten, fifteen and twenty years ago this week, or thereabouts.
Note that the column appeared on an erratic schedule in its earliest years as “New England Radio Watch,” and didn’t go to a regular weekly schedule until 1997.
One Year Ago: April 24, 2017
*One fascinating test of the new world of TV will come in eastern PENNSYLVANIA, where we’re learning more about an interesting repack story that has been hiding in plain sight since early 2016. That’s when Maranatha Broadcasting, owner of Allentown independent station WFMZ-TV (Channel 69/RF 46), announced that it had reached a deal to buy KJWP (Channel 2) from PMCM, which had then been operating the station for just three years.
Only Trip Ericson’s outstanding RabbitEars site picked up on the story back then, noting quite presciently that it represented much more than just a simple acquisition (and at an impossibly low listed price of $25,000, too!)
That $25,000 turned out to be just a small advance payment on a deal that couldn’t be completed until now, at the end of the spectrum auction that produced a whopping $140 million for Maranatha to give up its well-situated UHF facility at the northern end of the Philadelphia market. In order to stay on the air with its extensive local news coverage for the Lehigh Valley and Reading, WFMZ had agreed with PMCM that KJWP wouldn’t enter the auction, and would instead be guaranteed a chunk of WFMZ’s proceeds in order for the sale of channel 2 to close.
Some of WFMZ’s auction proceeds will also stay in the Lehigh Valley as part of a channel-sharing deal that hasn’t yet been fully disclosed; NERW anticipates it will involve a three-way share of spectrum by religious WBPH (Channel 60/RF 9) that will also include another big recipient of auction proceeds, public WLVT (Channel 39).
*In Dover, NEW HAMPSHIRE, the good folks at WOKQ (97.5) are mourning longtime colleage Stan Edwards, who died last week after a long fight with the throat cancer that took him off the air almost a decade ago. Edwards was the midday jock on WOKQ from 1990 until 2007, and had worked at other stations in the Granite State as well, including WNNH (99.1) in Concord.
Five Years Ago: April 22, 2013
*Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the beginning of this week’s column: if you’re expecting perfect objectivity in our coverage of the week’s events in Boston and the media’s reaction to them, you’re in the wrong place. Your editor cut his teeth in the broadcast news business learning from the professionals at Boston’s WBZ (1030) way back in the 1990s and has always maintained a healthy respect for the quality of the news coverage that’s come out of the newsroom at 1170 Soldiers Field Road. Back then, just as now, Boston Marathon day was, by itself, one of the biggest news days of the year, with all hands already on deck to deliver nonstop coverage of the race and the massive crowds that surround it.
So to have an even bigger news story develop at the end of the big race, and to have that story grow to immense national proportions over what was essentially a nonstop week of coverage that followed, was an enormously big deal. Whatever criticism might justifiably be aimed at the national coverage of the Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt, there’s no way we can even begin to second-guess the tremendous local coverage that came out of WBZ radio, its sister TV station, WBZ-TV (Channel 4), or the other local newsrooms that spent the week keeping their community informed and comforted.
In our Wednesday mid-week update, we took a look at the exhaustive (and exhausting) coverage coming from all of those newsrooms early in the week. As the mysteries around the bombing turned into a Thursday-night drama that included the murder of a MIT campus police officer and a high-speed chase into Watertown, Boston’s TV and radio newsrooms once again went into overdrive to cover a second chapter of the story that proved even more dramatic than the first.
When the scanner calls came in about the MIT incident just after 10 on Thursday night, it wasn’t yet clear that it was connected to the bombings, and by the time the magnitude of the story in Cambridge and Watertown really became clear, it was well after 1 AM. The national cable news channels were already in their overnight repeat cycles (indeed, CNN had shut down its domestic control room in Atlanta for the night, leaving only the CNN International crew on duty), and that made channels 4, 5 and 7 the first lines of information for both local and national audiences. (Fox O&O WFXT, channel 25, was a little slower to ramp back up, leaving Fox News Channel with dated video of the MIT scene while CNN and MSNBC had live coverage from Watertown via channels 5 and 7; on radio, it was all WBZ through the overnight hours, largely simulcasting WBZ-TV, while Entercom’s WRKO was stuck with syndicated Red Eye Radio as the night’s dramatic events played out elsewhere.)
And then came Friday morning and one of the strangest days in Boston history. As law enforcement put the city under an effective lockdown, local TV and radio became a vital channel of communication to more than a million Bostonians cooped up in their homes while the streets outside emptied.
This being 2013, of course, radio and TV were hardly the only sources of news for a paralyzed city, and we’d be remiss to downplay the role that social media (especially, in this case, Reddit) played in spreading information about the standoff and manhunt. Where local radio and TV really shone, though, was in spreading accurate information about the standoff and manhunt. Even as they worked unbelievably long hours attempting to fill airtime with little or no new information from the police, the local stations avoided some of the pitfalls that social media and out-of-town news sources were stumbling into, including an especially egregious case of misidentification of the suspected bombers during those overnight hours.
On Friday morning, CBS once again simulcast WBZ’s news coverage on most of its FM stations. Entercom’s stations each went their own way with extensive coverage (with WEEI, in particular, turning away from its usual sports talk to become a source of news and conversation for its loyal audience), and at Greater Media the lockdown kept most of the staff away from the office and most of its stations largely playing music during the day. On the public radio side, WBUR-FM (90.9) once again offered its local coverage to a national audience, as did WGBH (89.7) via “The World.”
Then, of course, everything returned to normal with startling speed: the authorities called off the “shelter in place” order in the 6:00 hour on Friday evening, followed almost immediately by one last round of startling news from Watertown as the last suspect was located and captured and cheering Bostonians flooded back into the streets.
*To the extent there was any other big story in New England this week, it came from MAINE, where Friday brought an abrupt announcement that antenna manufacturer Dielectric is closing up shop in the next few months.
Dielectric has made its home in Raymond, north of Portland, since 1954; in 1986, it acquired the antenna business from RCA as that erstwhile giant exited the business, later picking up the Harris antenna line as well, and since 2001, it’s been owned by the technology conglomerate SPX. At first, Dielectric was a profitable piece of SPX, bolstered by the DTV conversion that required thousands of new antennas and untold miles of new transmission line, switching components and combiners. But that process was largely over by 2009, and the subsequent years have been slower ones for Dielectric.
Still, the company made a prominent showing just a few weeks ago at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, with a sizable booth right by the main entrance to the radio exhibit hall and a product lineup that included several new FM and TV antennas – which is why it came as a surprise to many when SPX announced that “extremely difficult global economic conditions in the broadcast marketplace” had led to a decision to close down Dielectric’s operations over the next two months.
Ten Years Ago: April 21, 2008
*The oldest broadcast studio site in continuous use in MASSACHUSETTS could have another occupant soon. WBZ (1030) began building its broadcast center at 1170 Soldiers Field Road in 1947, and along with sister station WBZ-TV (Channel 4), it’s called the site home ever since. Through multiple renovations and expansions over the years, the building has also been home to WBOS shortwave, WBZ-FM (100.7/92.9/106.7), WODS (103.3) and today to WSBK (Channel 38).
But more than a decade after its last major expansion, the building’s prominent site near the Charles River is being targeted by Harvard University, which has itself been growing by leaps and bounds on the Allston side of the Charles. Just last year, Harvard relocated WGBH from its longtime studios on Harvard-owned land along Western Avenue to a new facility on Market Street. Last week, the Globe and the Harvard Crimson both reported that Harvard is in talks with CBS to acquire WBZ’s nine-acre site.
Any deal would have to be “a good, sound business decision,” WBZ general manager Ed Piette tells the Globe.
NERW notes that CBS has relocated several of its prominent properties recently – in Philadelphia, KYW radio and TV left their Independence Mall studios last year after almost 40 years when their lease expired, while in New York the company is slowly moving most of its radio stations into a consolidated studio in the Hudson Square neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
Moving WBZ would give the stations a chance to start fresh in a new building designed for 21st-century needs, rather than dealing with the quirks of a facility whose core is more than sixty years old, but it might also mean the end of some unique aspects of the Soldiers Field Road site, including the on-site backup tower for WBZ(AM), the helipad and the convenient highway access and parking.
Fifteen Years Ago: April 21, 2003
Radio listeners in Toronto, who already have more choices on the dial than any other city in CANADA, are about to get still more listening options. The CRTC last week granted four new licenses in the nation’s largest city, though only three of them will be available to listeners using analog radios.
On the AM dial, the San Lorenzo Latin American Community Centre gets 1000 watts day and night on 1610 for a non-commercial service that will broadcast primarily in Spanish, with some additional programming in Italian, Portuguese and Tagalog. The grant displaces dormant CHEV, a mobile station that broadcast community hockey games and other events in and around Etobicoke; it hasn’t been heard in several years, and if it does return it will have to find a new frequency.
On the FM side, Canadian Multicultural Radio gets 440 watts on 101.3 to broadcast programs in 22 languages, most of them South Asian. This grant also displaces an existing transmitter – the Etobicoke relay of CHIN (1540), a low-power fill-in signal meant to reach areas west of downtown Toronto that lose the directional AM signal at night. That transmitter (CHIN-1-FM) will move down the dial to 91.9 – and boost power to 99 watts – once CMR is ready to sign on at 101.3.
La cooperative radiophonique de Toronto had applied for 91.7 for its French-language programming, but an objection from CHOW-FM (91.7 Welland) down on the Niagara Peninsula resulted in a change of proposed frequency. The new French service, the first in Toronto not operated by Radio Canada, will instead operate on 105.1 when it signs on.
Twenty Years Ago: April 23, 1998
There will soon be a new commercial TV station in MAINE. A company called “Winstar” has settled with the other applicants for channel 23 in Waterville. The new station will broadcast from Danford Hill in Litchfield. NERW wonders: “WB23”?
Elsewhere in the Pine Tree State, Portland talker WGAN (560) has found a replacement for the soon-to-be-defunct Mary Matalin show in afternoons. John McDonald, who hosts the Saturday and Sunday morning shows on WGAN, will take the 3-6PM weekday slot, while giving up his Sunday morning program. McDonald has done weekends at WGAN since 1991; he’s also a storyteller, newspaper columnist, and former correspondent for WMTW-TV — which, by the way, has started broadcasting from a new set. And in Topsham, “Galaxy 95.5,” WXGL, is being transferred from Liz and Stan Arno to Chris Outwin.
In RHODE ISLAND, we hear WBUR’s new public radio outlet, WRNI (1290) will debut on May 1. The Boston Globe reports that Robert Ames (late of WBZ and the old WEEI) and Deborah Becker will be local hosts on 1290.
Finally this week, NERW salutes the folks at Toronto’s CBC Broadcast Centre for an incredible open house last Sunday. The occasion was the move of CBC Radio One from CBL (740) to CBLA (99.1) — but the CBC went far beyond the call of duty, with all-day live broadcasts from the atrium, an hour-long special at noon, and every staff member on hand to welcome visitors to all three radio floors of the Broadcast Centre building. We had a great time…and now we’re really going to miss the programming when CBL leaves 740 kHz for good come October.