Seventy-five years ago this Friday, April 14, WHAV was heard on FM radio for the very first time.
Since its founding a little more than a year before, WHAV had been heard only on AM radio. That, however, was never the intention of founder John T. “Jack” Russ. When he first announced plans for a Haverhill radio station exactly three years earlier, Russ planned to deploy only frequency modulation—Major Edwin Howard Armstrong’s high-fidelity, static free invention.
“FM is the latest in radio transmission with a strong appeal because of its noise-free reception. FM is able to overcome nearly all static, fading and station interference and improves the natural color tone. Fidelity of tone is one of its major accomplishments,” The Gazette reported when WHAV-FM finally went on the air.
This initial launch of WHAV on FM was doomed from the start as Russ, WHAV and Greater Haverhill residents became the victims of a corporate battle between Armstrong and his old backer, RCA’s David Sarnoff.
In 1945, Russ sought to place what would become WHAV at the 46.5 MHz dial position—a spot near the middle of the then-FM band. As the war ended, Sarnoff worried FM’s technical superiority would wipe out his company’s investments in AM. In an attempt to kill FM, he successfully lobbied to move FM up the dial.
“The immediate effect was that the half million sets sold before the war were rendered obsolete. Fans and set owners were alienated, perceiving FM as an unstable industry,” wrote Pete Fornatale and Joshua E. Mills in their 1980 book, “Radio in the Television Age.”
Russ chugged on, picking out a spot on the new band even though there were almost no radios available and production of FM transmitters suffered from supply chain problems. Meanwhile, acknowledging “facilities were not going to be developed as fast as first believed possible for FM stations,” Russ went ahead with an AM station.
Finally, on April 14, 1948, newly hired Chief Engineer Paul Allan Hurd placed the Western Electric FM transmitter on the air from the top of Silver Hill. Its modern cabinets, featuring transparent plastic doors, were conceived by industrial design pioneer Henry Dreyfuss.
With few FM radios in homes and complaints from so-called “captive audiences” riding public buses equipped with FM, the original WHAV-FM went off the air in 1952.