Vermont’s Early Pioneers Of Radio, Television Broadcasting Centered Around Burlington
Published February 25, 2008
WCAX-TV’s call letters reflect the station’s origin as WCAX Radio, a station operated at the University of Vermont to disseminate information to farmers, hence the call letters that stood for College of Agriculture Extension at the Agricultural Experiment Station.
Dr. H. Nelson Jackson, best known for being the first person to drive an automobile across the United States and a founder of the American Legion, was publisher of the Burlington Daily News when he founded WCAX in 1931. Jackson sold the Burlington Daily News and the fledgling radio station to C.P. Hasbrook in 1939.
After three years, Hasbrook decided to sell the paper to William Loeb and concentrate his efforts on expanding the radio station. Residents could enjoy listening to local semi-pro baseball games over the radio.
Shortly after purchasing the station, Hasbrook hired Lawrence F. (Whitey) Killick and Holland (Dutch) Smith to provide play-by-play commentaries for the Northern League twilight baseball games. Robert Michaud says in A Salute to Burlington, Vermont, “Thus, the interest of the community was extended even when the fan could not be physically a fare-paying patron in the stands.”
The first television station in Vermont, WCAX began broadcasting its test pattern on September 11, 1954.
Constructing the transmission tower on the top of Mount Mansfield meant that a road had to be constructed to access the site. WCAX began airing programs using the call letters WMVT on September 26, 1954. Two of those programs, “You Can Quote Me” and “Across the Fence”, are still on the air. The call letters were changed to match those of the radio station in 1956. A CBS affiliate, WCAX is one of the few stations that has had the same owner, channel number and primary network affiliation throughout its history. WCAX-AM is now WVMT-AM 620.
Hasbrook’s stepson, Dr. Stuart T. Martin, Jr. ran the station until his death in 2005. Peter R. Martin is now the president and general manager. The family’s company is Mount Mansfield Television (the Martin Family).
WJOY was the brainchild of David W. Howe, founder of the Vermont Broadcasting Company, in the early 1940s. However, a freeze on the licensing of stations was instituted during World War II and the license was not applied for until 1945. John Quill threw the switch to start broadcasting on September 14, 1946. The station and its transmitter were located on Main Street, near the present site of the Living and Learning Center at UVM. Val Carter, Jack Barry, Al Spokes, Frank Balch, Jack Davis, Bill Brennan, Wynne Case, Goody Goodrow, and Ramona Dion were local personalities. Carter hosted a number of popular programs, including “The Magic Eye,” “Rambling With Carter,” and “Joy a la Carter.”
An ABC affiliate, WJOY aired national programs like “Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club.” Al Spokes and Frank Balch provided the play-by-play for UVM and Saint Michael’s basketball games. The station focused more on local programming than on network feeds. It is said that when in Vermont, Lowell Thomas used the station’s facilities to broadcast his network commentary.
WJOY-FM was added in 1962 and is now known as WOKO. The station moved to new facilities in March of 1968. Personalities during that period included Bob Lobel, Ross Lee, Dick Noel, Joel Najman, Graeme MacKenzie, Paul Chapman, Kevin Jaibur, Madeleine Kunin, Jim Guest and Larry Brett. The station began broadcasting Red Sox Baseball and Boston Celtics Basketball during the 1970s. The station celebrated its 50th birthday party in 1996.
In 1966, Ray Bearse wrote in A Guide to the Green Mountain State that the greater Burlington area had four radio stations: WDOT, WJOY, WVMT, and WJOY-FM. WCAX-TV was Vermont’s lone television station, educational television had not yet become a reality. Vermont Public Television, WETK-TV, went on the air October 16, 1967.
Another station, WPTZ has been broadcasting to the Champlain Valley for more than 50 years, first signing on as WIRI in Plattsburgh, NY as an NBC affiliate. All programming was live at the onset. Bird Berdan reported the news using Polaroid snapshots. When Rollins, Inc. acquired the station, the call letters were changed to WPTZ and the station was affiliated with both NBC and ABC. The station returned to NBC as its sole affiliate during the 1960s. The Vermont Bureau opened on Church Street in Burlington in 1981, and in 1987, the station was purchased by Heritage Media. ABC is currently represented by WVNY-TV, now known as ABC 22 with offices in Colchester.
Vermonters have been prominent in communication history. Calvin Coolidge was the first president to speak on the radio. A. Atwater Kent, a pioneer in the manufacture of radios, was born in Burlington, as was William Hepburn Russell, founder of the Pony Express. Through the efforts of early pioneers in broadcasting, the Champlain Valley Region was connected to the world.
The region now has 11 FM radio stations, five AM stations, and five television stations. The pioneers would be proud.