Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Here’s a small-town AM station in the shadow of the big city, still alive after a near-death experience a few years ago.
This is WGHT, 1500 on your AM dial during daylight hours in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, off I-287 some 22 miles northwest of Manhattan, and it’s been in this same spot at the south end of Lincoln Avenue since it hit the airwaves in 1964 as WKER (named for Robert and Joan Kerr, its original owners.)
It’s changed ownership several times since and changed calls once, becoming WGHT when John Silliman bought the station in 1993. By then, it had added a third tower and boosted day power from 500 to 1000 watts, which was enough for a few more years of success in an era when suburban AMs could still find a viable niche against the big-city FMs down the road.
Silliman kept things going in the full-service mode for almost a quarter of a century, with live talent, local news and talk shows and oldies music, all in the face of challenges that included operating in a flood plain right where the Ramapo River and the Pompton River come together, sometimes rather intensely.
Here in the split-level house that’s home to WGHT, you can see the results on the lowest level, down the stairs to the left of the lobby. There were once studios down here (and I think the transmitter may have been here, too), but after one too many floods, the walls were ripped out and everything was moved upstairs.
The broadcast operations are all on the next level up on that side of the building, in a warren of studios that are pretty extensive for a small station. There’s a newsroom in the front of the building, two booths up here for live news and production, a hallway lined with carts, and then a bigger studio toward the back that looks into the current transmitter room.
There are a couple of BE transmitters here for WGHT’s AM signal, plus a newly-added Nautel transmitter for WGHT’s new translator on 98.3, which had just signed on in May 2020, a couple of months before this visit.
Up another half a flight of stairs, there’s a hallway lined with offices that were once used by programming and sales, several still full of records and memorabilia from the Silliman era, left behind rather abruptly when Silliman signed the station off in 2017.
(Hang on – we’ll get to the next chapter in that story momentarily.)
And out back, the three towers sit in the swamp, with the new translator antenna prominently mounted on the center tower.
Back to those more recent chapters: when Silliman signed the station off, he donated the property and the license to the borough of Pompton Lakes, which didn’t want to operate a radio station.
After nearly a year of silence, WGHT returned in 2018 with a temporary simulcast of Bud Williamson’s WALL from Middletown, New York, then ended up being LMA’d out to a closer suburban broadcaster, WTBQ from just across the state line in Warwick, New York. (We’ll see them in our next installment.)
That’s how we found WGHT when we visited: running mostly on automation from WTBQ, but hoping for a post-pandemic return to more local shows. Here’s hoping that materializes and these rooms once again fill up with local radio!
Thanks to Tom Ray for the tour!
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Next week: WTBQ, Warwick, NY