Part 2: WHAV’s Historic and Rocky Road to FM

With the Federal Communications Commission’s tentative selection of WHAV to receive a new FM license at 98.1 MHz, the Haverhill Heritage Series reviews the difficult path FM has had to circumnavigate in Haverhill.

 WHAV Prepares Residents for FM

Second in a Series

 By Tim Coco
President & General Manager

The Haverhill public knew very little about frequency modulation (FM) in 1947. Its high fidelity sound and static free presentation were advantages Haverhill Gazette Publisher John T. “Jack” Russ sought to exhort.

Only a handful of FM radio stations were licensed before the outbreak of World War II and production of consumer receiving sets was banned by wartime controls. Corporate fighting and suppression by regulators further delayed FM’s development. Russ and the FM industry had a big job ahead of them if they were to attract listeners and—more importantly—advertisers. A trade group tried to help.

“…There are still innumerable people who want to know what FM is, what it can do, why it’s better. For that reason FM Broadcasters Inc., a national trade organization representing the new FM stations, has prepared this revised edition of ‘Broadcasting’s Better Mousetrap’ to tell the story of FM as it stands today.”

Russ went even further. With WHAV finally on the air in 1947, The Gazette publisher pulled together spokespeople from Haverhill’s various radio shops to help do the job of selling FM—on the very medium, AM radio, it was thought would be replaced. The owners of the radio shops too would benefit from increased radio sales.

‘FM Forum’ Goes On the Air

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Radio retailers and manufacturers tried to bolster sagging sales of FM sets.

F. Gregory Cronin, an employee of Mario’s Radio Service, 51 River St., was charged with spreading the word on a new radio show called “FM Forum.”

“It consisted of prepared Q&As that I had written about the coming of WHAV-FM to Haverhill. What was FM? Will you be able to get it? I had four on the panel. Me, representing Mario’s TV, River St.; Mario Battistini, representing Haverhill TV & Appliance, Washington Street; Mark Mordecai, Washington Square; and Mike Gobbi, representing Gobbi & Reynolds. It lasted about six weeks. It worked well as people would come into the various TV/Radio stores and say ‘I heard you last night,’” said Cronin, who passed away last year.

Russ must have been convinced WHAV-FM’s first broadcast was imminent, but that would not take place for a year after Cronin’s FM Forum. In fact, WHAV’s new building on How Street wasn’t ready either. The station had set up makeshift studios on the second floor of Merrimack Valley National Bank (now Gleason Law Offices), 163 Merrimack St. Russ was a director of the bank and the building was directly adjacent to the Haverhill Gazette (since demolished and now Gleason’s parking lot).

“I did my show, FM Forum from here,” Cronin said. WHAV used the southeast corner of the building.

“On entering you came into a room that contained news, continuity and secretaries. The studio was in the rear. It consisted of an announcer’s chair, a desk with a Western Electric console and two self-contained professional turntables on each side of the console. In front of the temporary control board was a large table seating six or eight with Western Electric cardioid mikes. I think there were two windows on the east wall. To deaden the room, rugs were placed on the floor. I think on some walls also. Remember, this area was (designed to be) used as office space,” he recalled.

At the conclusion of the FM Forum series, the How Street studio building was ready. However, WHAV-FM still had not gone on the air. “The equipment was not ready or approved by the FCC for that long a period,” Cronin said.

 Advertising Sales Found Lacking

By the time WHAV-FM went on the air April 14, 1948, Russ seemed more apprehensive than enthusiastic. Advertising sales were lackluster. Cronin blames local merchants—an argument that would be repeated by station owners for decades.

“Cost cutting came later when it became apparent that they were overstaffed and Haverhill merchants would not support WHAV. Most of them did advertising like their grandfathers. Flyers, direct mail, Gazette and sometimes a sound truck running up and down Merrimack Street,” he said.

Russ began shaking up management. Lew Sargent, a 14-year radio veteran, was named commercial manager in December, 1947. Sargent had been with WEEI, Boston, for 11 years, and previously worked at WKOX, Framingham, and WHDH and WNAC, both of Boston. He replaced James Dunbar.

Sargent was later named station manager and launched a new advertising initiative, coaxing manufacturers to cease publishing in-house newsletters in favor of radio shows. Sargent spelled out the specifics, ironically, in an in-house print publication called “Public Relations by Radio.”

“There is little connected with the affairs and problems of business operation and management that cannot and should not be reduced or transposed into language that every person can understand. For example; recently we discussed the basic idea of this proposal with the head of one of the largest and oldest shoe manufacturing concerns in the area. During our conversation the gentleman related the story of a discussion he once had with a discontented employee. The employee in question made the statement that the company made a certain profit on each pair of shoes produced. Very simply and very directly the gentleman demonstrated, with a few figures, the impossibility of such a profit. The employee was quite satisfied that he had been in error. That same little scene could have been enacted for the benefit of all employees of the community. If only a fraction were convinced, it would represent a profit in understanding and good will.”

Sargent pointed again to Haverhill shoe workers as an example of potential employee radio listenership. He referred to an item published in the Haverhill Gazette’s Lamp Post column.

“A group of Hamel Leather Company workers would be pleased if Station WHAV would play a recording of a song written by Robert Noury, one of our co­workers, some evening so that we could hear it.” Distribution of Sargent’s publication was widespread and even ended up in the library of the National Broadcasting Co. (NBC), Rockefeller Center, New York.

Augmenting the sales team was John Kirby who was described by Broadcasting magazine as “new to radio.” On the programming side, June Jordan was hired around the same time to produce the advertising-oriented “Buyer’s Guide'” program.

Yet, financial problems persisted and staff layoffs followed. “Turnover (of staff) was because their pay was small and income was not up to expectation. They could do better,” said Cronin.

Attempts to bolster income were disappointing.

Major Edwin Howard Armstrong, the inventor of FM, did what he could to prop up the fledgling FM industry. He financed the launch of the Continental Network with WASH, Washington, D.C., as the key station. WHAV joined Jan. 18, 1949. Conventional radio networks that relayed programs to affiliates by leased telephone lines. Continental, however, had an FM station in each market relay the network’s programming over the air to the next FM station in the chain.

The following year, WHAV-FM tried the Liberty Broadcasting System. The network was founded by Gordon McLendon and broadcast live recreations of Major League Baseball games by following the action via Western Union ticker reports. The network failed when Major League Baseball raised fees for the rights to broadcast the games from $1,000 per year to $250,000.

With receivers still lacking, WHAV-FM signed on with Transit Radio Inc. The company was formed to provide “music as you ride” with FM radio receivers placed in buses. Transit Radio made money by selling equipment to commuter lines and advertising to sponsors. In a case that went all of the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, passengers objected to being a captive audience (see "U.S. Supreme Court Intervention Fails to Save Original WHAV-FM in 1952.").

In 1996, then-retired WHAV News Director Edwin V. Johnson said Russ threw in the towel. He laid off everyone except Johnson and weatherman Earl “Bud” Smith. Johnson’s roommate, WHAV disc jockey Jay Boivin, found work at WCCM, Lawrence.

End Comes for the Original WHAV-FM and Russ, Himself

By September, 1952, WHAV-FM was off the air. Its transmitter would be sold to WCRB, Boston. With his FM vision shattered, Russ peddled the remaining WHAV AM.

He found buyers in brothers Henry and Morris Silver, owners of a Silver Brothers Co., Inc. bottling company and beverage distribution business, and Edward I. Cetlin, owner of Haverhill’s Pat and Pam children’s clothing store. The Federal Communications Commission blessed the sale and the transfer took place June 1, 1954.

Johnson reduced his hours to part-time and went to work full-time for Haverhill Public Schools.

Six months later, at only age 50, Russ died. Gazette Editor William R. Heath told readers in an editorial.

Jack Russ dead?

No! A man blessed with his qualities, his abilities, his personality lives on and on, his memory ever bright in the hearts of those who knew him well, his influence persistent in the work to which his latter years were devoted.

He had a great zest for life, a devotion to home and family that made him an ideal husband and father, a dedication to his work that made him a model for all who would perform to the fullest the task at hand, a spontaneous friendliness that inspired the affection of all who enjoyed the privilege of frequent contact with him.

If there is one quality deserving especial recognition, one quality that transcended all others in the effect it had on his fellows, it was this friendliness. It attracted people to him, inspired their loyalty and devotion. He was always the coworker, never the remote boss, and doing what he wished done, producing the best newspaper within the ability of the other workers, was to carry out a joyous task.

Profound respect accompanied the affection in which he was held. He had a thorough and penetrating mind that sped to the heart of an issue. He had a decisive mind that could resolve itself clearly and act vigorously. He had a brave spirit that ever endowed him with the courage of his convictions. His judgment was consistently sound. His character was innately honest. His ideals were nobly exalted.

John Taylor Russ had reached full maturity when he entered newspaper work, representing the third generation of the family that acquired The Gazette in 1889. But he belonged to a newspaper family and immediately displayed an instinctive mastery of an intricate operation. This mastery was most conspicuously shown in his clear comprehension of the function of the newspaper in the community, to present the news objectively, to take forthright positions on public issues, to support movements for the good of the community.

He was a modest man, in that he shunned the spotlight of public and civic affairs, perhaps because any suggestion of ostentation was repugnant to him, but he always had thorough understanding of them and never hesitated to take a leading part in their advancement when his leadership was required. The Haverhill Community Chest is perhaps the principal civic monument to his foresight and endeavor, for this was set up in consequence of the work by a special committee that he inspired and led.

Jack Russ, the publisher, the civic leader, founder of Haverhill’s radio station, the businessman, cannot be separated from Jack Russ, the man; for it is the qualities that made the man beloved and respected that distinguished his labors in the fields that engaged his energies.

The Infinite Wisdom that called him from our midst left us the heritage of the memory of years of loving labor with him, of a close association with a warm and noble personality. It is the man we hail today, hail, but with no farewell!

Russ is buried in Linwood Cemetery, Haverhill.

Next time: Another Try for FM

1948-WHAV-Ad