Norwich radio station marks 60 years
By BILL STANLEY
For the Norwich Bulletin
Sept. 24, 2006
Once upon a time, just after World War II ended and life was becoming normal again, something exciting happened in Norwich. A radio station was born. Through all the war years, and for any important event, Norwich listeners would have to tune in to WNLC in New London and hope the weather was clear enough for the signal to reach Norwich.
But then Norwich came of age. WNOC were the call letters to the broadcast station that is now WICH, “the voice of Eastern Connecticut.” It was 60 years ago this month it went on the air at 1400 on the radio dial. The transmitter tower stood between Thamesville and the Trading Cove on a lot across from Mrs. Leary’s Cottage Dairy, later to become Dick Brax’s Prime Steer.
Thursday, Stu Bryer invited me to reminisce about the early days of WNOC/WICH. It is always such a pleasure to be on with Stu and have so many local people call and remind me of things I had forgotten. Stu and I talked for an hour, a dozen or more people called and it was such a wonderful morning.
I told Stu we were so proud, as a community, to have our own radio station, and the NOC stood for Norwich, Connecticut. The station was 250 watts non-directional —- which meant it broadcast in all directions and could be heard from New London to Plainfield.
Norwich, at the time, was a bustling community where all the stores on Main Street were full, and many of the streets were still cobblestone. Norwich was more like its old self, with its waterfront made up of warehouses and wholesale distributors. All of the banks were on Shetucket Street and all of the doctors’ offices were downtown.
We had buses, not trolleys, and Jim Mullins was a strong mayor. It was a time when the Republicans, under Ted Richards and Tom Dorsey, ran the town area, and the Democrats, with the legendary Ed Kelley and a young Phil Shannon, ran the Democratic Party. Norwich Free Academy was a long walk, and there was school every day, no matter how deep the snow.
Those of us who lived in Norwich during the 1940s and ’50s remember how beautiful it was and how proud we were to have a radio station. The station was downtown on the second floor of the Berkoff Building. The Western Union office was at street level, and they even had a bicycle to deliver downtown mail. There was a steep flight of stairs with a most wonderful view from the studios of the Thames River and Norwich Harbor.
The station was nothing fancy, but looking back, its cast of characters and dedicated people gave birth to what would grow, and today the people of New London and Groton get their radio signal from Norwich, as WNLC studios are now in the same building with WICH.
Radio in those days was mostly retail sales. The stores along Main Street provided most of the advertising. Everybody listened to WNOC. It was a time when radio and newspapers dominated because there was no television, no Internet and, to be very candid, not that many automobiles.
I do remember in downtown Norwich when Main Street, at Shannon Corners, was narrow, but they still allowed parking on both sides of the street, and it worked very well. Broadway, and all other streets, were two-way traffic. Would you believe in 1946 there was not a single traffic light in downtown Norwich? Today we are the city of lights. But, unlike Paris, we are talking traffic lights.
WMOC would call on an awful lot of people for local broadcasting. On Stu Bryer’s show, so many people called in and remembered programs I had forgotten, wonderful programs that made Norwich closer as a community. There were so many remote broadcasts away from the station. Johnny Most would broadcast NFA football and basketball games, and they would even occasionally broadcast from Norton Gym Wednesday evenings with the music of Dino Malogrides or Brennen-Quinn orchestras.
The big networks, after the 9 o’clock news, would always broadcast music from the various nightclubs and ballrooms across America. Norwich’s own Henry Jerome had a famous dance band that broadcast every night, nationwide, from the Taft Hotel in New York. Guy Lombardo broadcast from the Waldorf Astoria, and Vincent Lopez broadcast from the Astor Roof, I believe, on Times Square.
Most of the programming in Norwich was live. Except for those old 78 RPM records, there was nothing but live personnel to sustain the programs. I remember Marshall Meyer had a classical music program. In later years, Henry LaFontaine, the organist at St. Patrick Cathedral, would have broadcasts of classical music and, with his very precise English, set a quality to the program so exceptional for a local station.
One of the most popular programs was one I forgot called “The Man on the Street.” In late morning, or early afternoon, they would have an announcer on Franklin Square, and he would interview people who were downtown shopping. I wonder how that would work today.
They would broadcast religious service and, during Lent, on WNOC, they would say the rosary every evening. There were 15-minute programs, half-hour and hourlong programs scattered throughout the night.
But, everything was live. There were no tape recorders, and often some of the dance bands that played at Ocean Beach would come to Norwich and be interviewed. I remember they interviewed Ted Weems, who made a big musical hit with a whistling version of “Heartaches.” Artie Shaw, a New Haven man, played a great clarinet. Locals also filled the air with their talent.
Norwich’s Billy Marshall had a jazz program. Ken Ring and I had a Saturday afternoon broadcast of big-band music, and then the station began to grow. Most and his sports broadcasts brought a special life to sporting events. Dave Fenton, with all of his voice impersonations, was the one who convinced Norwich to bring the new form of government, a city manager, to Norwich, and foolishly replaced a strong mayor in Norwich.
A young man named Bob Silverberg did the morning show and became one of the nation’s finest morning men. Moving on to Albany, N.Y., today Silverberg still e-mails me from time to time. He is now retired and living on Cape Cod, for the many who remember him and his days in Norwich. He was a brother to one of the finest men I ever knew, Orrin Silverberg, a remarkable attorney who was taken from us too early.
The call letters were later changed from WNOC to WICH, and the station grew from 250 watts to 1,000. A very important man in business, J. K. Lasser —- whose annual tax book is still published —- made an investment. His son, Donald Lasser, was sent to manage.
Dick Reed, who had been a salesman, and actually the backbone of the station, became Lasser’s No. 1 man. Reed, a super salesman, and his sales staff then put in place a plan that would revolutionize WICH and produce a family of radio stations that grew to 17, and many of them would be operated out of Norwich.
There are so many names I could mention. Some are legends: Ed Leonard, Cass Driscoll, Tom Phalen, Mal Morse and, of course, Reed, who made it all happen. Today, Hall Communications runs WICH so beautifully. I know Reed would be happy to know his sons, Bob and Jim, are still part of Hall Communications. WICH is a local station and, in so many ways, it is like the Bulletin, the heart of the community. The Bulletin is a local paper, and WICH is a local radio station. We in Norwich have those two treasures when so many cities have neither.
Because I knew them all and was there at the beginning, I have some happy memories, but, unfortunately, many of the greats I knew and worked with are now gone. Happy Birthday WICH.
Bill Stanley’s book, “9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence & Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, City Perk, Dime Savings Bank, Johnson’s Flowers & Gift Shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam.