The Little Station That Could
Behind the Microphone at WATD
Ed Perry stands at the base of two radio broadcast towers at the edge of the Marshfield town dump, gazing up into the cloudless sky. One of the towers stretches 340 feet into the air and the other a dizzying 460 feet. Away from the sand-and-gravel clearing a patch of trees hunkers menacingly close to the many wires that secure the massive metal structures in place. It’s the trees that concern Perry.
“We might have to take some of those trees down,” he says, scanning the oak and maple growth sprinkled among the pines. “We’ve got to make sure they don’t endanger the guy wires.” The towers have never teetered and Perry wants to be certain they never do—just as he wants to be sure that the radio station he owns, WATD-FM (95.9), lives up to its self-proclaimed presence as “the South Shore’s radio station.” It’s a slogan of responsibility that neither Perry nor his employees take for granted.
“We want to be the best local and regional voice on the radio that we possibly can be,” says the 72-year-old radio veteran who has owned and operated WATD since 1977. Within the station’s broadcast signal there are 15-20 towns that can tune in to listen to music and a range of community-based programming.
Perry is also the station’s director of programming and news and even after many years in the biz he still gets a thrill from going out in the field to “scoop” the competition—be it electronic or print media—and interrupting regularly scheduled broadcasts with breaking news.
Perry’s fascination with radio goes way back. Growing up in Natick, he once built an 85-foot-tall radio tower and ran a pirate radio station out of the high school. He also won the state science fair with a telephone system he designed. Perry went on to study English at Amherst College, where he became a fixture at the college radio station but could never shake his love for the technical side of radio.
After college Perry found work writing and editing and began moonlighting as a disc jockey at a Rhode Island station. When finding a steady radio announcer job proved to be difficult, Perry’s industrious nature kicked into high gear. He resolved to create his own station.
True to his word, Perry went on to build and nurture the community radio station WCIB in Falmouth, Massachusetts, before eventually bringing his radio dreams to fruition in Marshfield. Getting the fledgling radio station off the ground, however, had its challenges. After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Perry a license to broadcast, Perry had to find a plot of land for a 200-foot tower. The first two sites in Marshfield that were considered ran into neighborhood opposition with a classic “not in my backyard” argument.
When a story about Perry’s search for a site appeared in The Patriot Ledger, a Marshfield woman called him up and suggested six acres off Grove Street. “I asked her where the land was and she said ‘it’s right next to the dump, and you’re not likely to get any complaints because nobody lives next to the dump,’ ” Perry relates. “So we took an option on the land and went to the zoning board. My lawyer made a good presentation and, lo and behold, even though some people complained the zoning board granted our permit that evening.”
Perry and his pals went to celebrate their victory at what he describes as “the state’s only combination bowling alley-Chinese restaurant,” located on Ocean Street near the old drive-in theater, where the group sipped Mai Tais and discussed potential call letters for the new radio station.
“We tried WAIT because we had to wait so long, and WSSR, for South Shore Radio, but it was hard to pronounce. Finally someone suggested WATD and I said, ‘What’s that for?’ and he said, ‘the only place we could build a tower: We’re At The Dump.’ ” While the transmitters were “at the dump,” the station headquarters was located some 3-4 miles away on Route 139. It later moved to its present location on Enterprise Drive.
Sports director Bill Wilhelm has been at the station since the very beginning and afternoon drive-time disc jockey Cathy Dee has been there nearly as long. Wilhelm actually led the coverage of WATD’s very first commercial broadcast of a high school Super Bowl football game between the towns of Hull and Ashland on Saturday, December 3, 1977. The station began its continuous run two days later, and in the nearly 36 years that have followed the station has never gone silent for more than 20 storm-related minutes.
Back in the day, the 36-year-old Perry doubled as a smooth-talkin’, record-rockin’ disc jockey, spinning oldies on Saturdays from 6 p.m. to midnight. His intro was a jump-starter to six hours of memory makers:
“Hey, it’s me, the old troll of rock and roll, Time to get the Chevy shakin’ and the Ford flyin’. . . Here’s Elvis.”
Perry tickled the turntable until 1979 when his first child, Franklin, was born, at which point he began working from home and occasionally produced remote broadcasts. “We broadcast from all sorts of interesting places all over the South Shore,” says Perry. “We’d show up with a case of beer and turntables and do shows from people’s houses. It was a hoot.”
The independently-owned and locally-focused station has managed to survive, mainly due to its dedication to serving the community. “We like to have people think of us as their friend,” says Perry, who now resides in Duxbury. “We like it when people say, ‘WATD — that’s my radio station.’ Virtually unopposed in the South Shore marketplace, WATD produces a winning blend of news, music, talk, public service, and specialty shows that cover a wide range of topics, like boating, food, bird talk, financial advice, and health issues. Despite the struggling economy, the station is able to reap enough income from its commercials and the fees cellphone companies pay to rent tower space to support its staff and large stable of part-time personnel.
While the station is listed as adult contemporary, Perry absolutely adores the oldies from the ’50s and ’60s and encourages his DJs to spin plenty of Elvis, Bobby Darin, Fats Domino, and the like. “For my mind,” Perry says, “there’s nobody better than the Everly Brothers.”
The oldies show “Yesterday’s Memories,” which airs Saturdays from 6 p.m. to midnight, has been running for 25 years. Longtime host Ed Bowen, who cohosted with the late George Denham for the first 20 years and afterward with Bill Clark, has a library of 30,000 45 rpm records, 5,000 CDs, and a loyal audience that includes baby boomers and fans who weren’t even born when the songs first hit the charts.
“It seems to make so many people so darn happy. We’ll get anywhere from 50 to 100 requests a night,” says Bowen, who fills six hours chock full of music from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and occasionally the early ’80s. “Listeners can’t get what they want to hear too many places anymore, so when they find us, they hang on like a snapping turtle.”
According to Perry, it’s all about the “sound” of a radio station, not necessarily a decade, that defines its musical image. “A lot of songs from the ’50s and ’60s have a sound that fits in quite well with the songs of today,” he says. “It’s about getting a good mix, a smooth flow, and not a jarring sound.”
The station also works to promote up-and-coming musicians through the show “Almost Famous,” which is produced by John Shea, WATD’s music director, and Lisa Azizian, cohost of the morning news slot. The program, which airs Tuesdays from 8-10 p.m., has only been around for two years but it’s already developed a loyal following with its lineup of singer-songwriters and musicians on the verge of hitting it big. South Shore country singers Kiley Evans of Marshfield and Kate Cameron of Duxbury, folk rocker Jake Hill of Plymouth, and acoustic singer-songwriter Sam Chase of Scituate are among the many local acts who have been spotlighted on the program.
To Cathy Dee, the station’s “Ride Home” DJ, WATD feels like home.
‘”I just fell in love with the idea of being able to paint pictures with music and reach out through the speaker and be like a friend to the people who are listening,” says Dee, who remembers falling asleep with a little transistor radio as a child. “If I was having a bad day, someone would say something on the radio that would make me laugh or they’d play a song that I could really relate to. That’s the kind of radio personality I want to be.”
In addition to her love for music, Dee appreciates the close-knit relationships that exist between the WATD staffers. “It’s like having a ton of brothers and sisters,” says Dee. “I often say, Ed Perry is the older brother I never wanted, because he’s merciless when he teases.”
Several of Perry’s immediate family members actually do work at the station. His daughter Katherine is the operations manager and an award-winning newscaster. His younger son, Will, handles Internet details, while his older son, Franklin, is expected to come aboard in sales. Perry’s wife of 40 years, Carol, handles promotions “and organizes,” says Perry.
“Everyone who works here is almost like a big, dysfunctional family,” says Perry. “We go out together, and sometimes we fight, but I think we put out a good product.” In truth, WATD is one of the most highly respected stations in the state and its news coverage has won multiple awards.
For newscaster/managing editor Christine James, who has worn her WATD hat for 23 years, reporting on the events of April 15, 2013 will be forever branded in her memory.
“It was very scary,” says James, who was part of the news team charged with keeping listeners informed after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. “We listen to six scanners all the time and you very rarely hear fright in the voices of some of the people who are talking because they’re so trained to respond to emergencies and get to tough situations.” James and other staffers immediately got on the phones and started talking with their contacts: people who deal in the world of terrorism and law enforcement, people who could see the horror unfolding on Boylston Street below from their office windows, and some of the South Shore runners James’ staff knew were in the marathon. The full resources of Associated Press Radio merged with WATD’s coverage, keeping those who rely on “the South Shore’s radio station” updated by the minute.
“We try to cover everything that matters to the South Shore listener, things that are planned or unplanned, small local stories or international events like the marathon,” says James. “When it comes to breaking news, nobody does it better than we do.”
The trusted voice of Azizian lights up WATD’s “South Shore Morning News” program on weekdays. Co-host with fellow Hanover High alum Rob Hakala, Azizian reports on news, traffic, weather, and local business stories. “It’s everything you need to know getting ready for school or work,” says Azizian. Hakala started at WATD by covering town meetings and then did traffic reports before creating the morning show format. “This is my dream job,” says Hakala. “I wanted to do a morning show ever since I was in college.”
Dave Skill has worked in the newsroom since 1987. He also plays music and oversees trivia contests and other promotions. “I have a lot of friends who say, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ ” says Skill. “I tell them, ‘Why would I retire? This is too much fun.’ ”
Fun is the name of the game when Joe Malone and Steve Sweeney share the studio every Tuesday evening to provide humorous banter about politics, sports, and other issues of the day that are the hot topics in the region.
Originally from Charlestown, Sweeney is a full-time stand-up comedian who now lives in Quincy. Malone, who grew up in Waltham but now resides in Scituate across the water from the lighthouse, has a political background (he’s a former state treasurer and United States senatorial and congressional candidate) and is now a partner at Plymouth Rock Financial Partners. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they have been friends for more than 20 years and have clear radio chemistry.
“What I enjoy most about the show is the laughter,” says Malone. “At the end of the day people can tune in and enjoy themselves. It lets people depart from the grind and see the good side of life.”
The many team members at WATD help to reflect the eclectic nature of the South Shore community. “Ours is the last commercial FM frequency to be allocated in the Boston market,” points out Perry. “We offer the use of our facilities as one might offer a megaphone, so if our listeners have an opinion they can share it on the air.”
According to Wilhelm, the station’s sports director, keeping close connections with South Shore families is a key reason for the station’s success. He vowed early on to mention at least 40 local high school athletes and their positive accomplishments on-air each week and he’s delivered on this promise for the past 36 years.
Despite the 2,000 or so games the Duxbury resident has broadcast, the vast number of sports figures he has interviewed, and the many awards he has received, Wilhelm is steadfast on where he believes the focus belongs. ”I’m not the star of this, by any means,” he says. “The kids are the stars, as well as the coaches and the parents for everything they do.” Wilhelm retired two years ago from a 40-year career in the life insurance business. But retire from radio? He’s nowhere ready to sign off.