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A Tribute to Endangered Radio

Why I'm Supporting Radio Free Vermont: WDEV

October 17, 2020  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  14 comments  | 

Long before television or Twitter, before Netflix or even 8-track tape, before CNN or even the CCC, there was radio. And long before most any other radio station you now listen to, there was WDEV.

Even if you are among my many readers who come here for nature, and even if you have never heard of WDEV, you have a stake in the fate of this radio institution. Which is why I have donated money to WDEV and hope that you will do the same — not only for the sake of local radio here in Vermont, but also for the sake of community and democracy in this coarsened and broken country.

This is by no means a plea on behalf of public radio. WDEV is an 89-year-old anachronism: a commercial radio station (550AM and 96.1FM) that remains well-wired and duct-taped to its listeners. News, weather, sports, music, talk and ideas (good, bad and dangerous) — that is WDEV. And you might say to yourself, So what? I can get all that stuff on the internet anyway.

No, not really — not like what you get from WDEV, which is much more than the sum of those traditional on-the-air parts. Its tradition — “the station of stature in Harold Grout’s pasture” — is what makes this brand of radio so essential. WDEV broadcasts defiance against a tide of American monotony, consolidation and homogenization — not only in mass media, but in too many other aspects of our lives.

Pick your institution and find your decline of home-grown independence. Retail sales: fewer Main Street shops, more big boxes and Amazon. Banking: fewer handshakes, more mega-banks. Ben & Jerry’s, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Green Mountain Power — no longer owned here in the Green Mountain State. The Rutland Herald, The Times Argus, The Burlington Free Press, WCAX-TV and various other news media and sources of entertainment — no longer are their owners Vermonters.

WDEV, based in Waterbury, is the oldest family owned and operated radio station in the country. If you, like me, were that kid in bed at night under the covers with your transistor AM radio (and its tan crystal earphone) tuned to the ballgame or local news, then you know this genre:

WDEV is the Trading Post at dawn and jazz at suppertime. It is news about lost pets, local heroes, community suppers, and fallen soldiers. WDEV is Patsy Cline, Patty Casey, Benny Goodman, Banjo Dan Lindner, The Clash and Franz Schubert. It is Amy Goodman reading the news, the Old Squier reading us his poetry and Roger Hill forecasting meteorological gospel. WDEV is “For the Birds” and “In the Garden” on weekends, high school sports broadcast live, and motor sports (car racing) whenever. WDEV is ardently pro Red Sox, anti Yankees and probably wisely on the fence about Jerseys versus Holsteins. And for nearly 90 years, WDEV has been the first place many of us in this state turn to for news about our neighbors in times of tragedy.

The inspiration for all of it, the power supply behind this radio station’s identity, is a figure who is among the most independent thinkers I know: Ken Squier. The station’s owner and host of Saturday morning’s “Music to go to the Dump By,” Squier defies political and cultural labels. Born in 1935, before electricity came to many Vermont farms, Squier reads books, likes race cars (a NASCAR Hall of Fame member), picks fights with demagogues and charlatans, harasses flatlanders, and over the decades has put on his radio station not only right-winged commentators and radio evangelists, but the likes of Bill Moyers and Vandana Shiva. He even put me on the air back in the 1980s for a show about birds with news director and dairy farmer at the time Anson Tebbetts.

Oh, did I mention that Ken is, um, er, you know … frugal? It’s a running joke on the station. He used to pay me in the low two figures. But few work for DEV to get rich. The riches come instead from playing a bit role in a Vermont tradition — an increasingly vulnerable tradition, even more so during the pandemic owing declining on-the-air advertising. It’s why WDEV is now (reluctantly, I’m sure) asking listeners for direct contributions, which is really unusual. But so is WDEV.

WDEV broadcasts defiance against a tide of American monotony, consolidation and homogenization.

If I haven’t done so here already, it would be easy for me to wax nostalgic about WDEV, to root it firmly in the mythologies of pastoralism we tend to harbor here in Vermont. Yes, in many ways, we Vermonters can indeed be proud of what we show the world about caring for one another, our land ethic, and the relative civility in our politics. WDEV contributes in no small part to all of that. To be sure, political talk radio, including WDEV’s offerings, provides essential perspective on issues. Even so, I sometimes worry that it offers platforms for crackpots and acrimony in our public discourse. And the station’s local broadcasters — reliable voices and heroes of mine over these years, far too many to mention here — are all male. No woman hosts a local slot on WDEV. That really needs to change.

But at least I can send my money and express those concerns directly to the boss and to the general manager, Steve Cormier, whose radio pedigree is well-suited to the WDEV tradition. I’ll never get to bitch directly to Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and other overlords and their ilk meddling in our lives, our culture and our politics, reaping obscene wealth for themselves by using the rest of us as commodities by way of their algorithms. On WDEV there are no billionaires or algorithms — only local folks and airwaves.

Let us all tune in and contribute. Thanks.

  1. Gail Falk says:

    I first contributed to WDEV about 25 years ago in the midst of a frustrating, never ending VPR fundraiser. I thought back then that WDEV did a much better job of covering local everything, and I still do. Ken wasńt used to getting contributions, and he used it to pay for a new microphone so Jon Gailmor could have better sound when he visited schools.

  2. Sally Cargill says:

    Is there a mailing address?

  3. There is literally no station like it, and the fact it has survived all these years is testimony to their ingenuity, vision and perseverance. WDEV has supported my music & that of my fellow VT musicians, with grace, kindness, appreciation & pride. I am forever indebted to them, for getting local music out to the people of our state.

  4. Rick Paradis says:

    Thanks Bryan,

    WDEV is indeed a cherished institution here in Vermont and beyond. Our radio atop the frig is permanently tuned to 550am. Whenever I try to explain what the station is like to those not familiar with it, they often shake their heads in disbelief that there are still things like that existing in the media world today. Where else can you go to get bird reports, current hiking tail conditions, when and where assorted chicken pie suppers will be held, what the camp cook plans to whip up on the opening day of deer season, or who in the community is celebrating a birthday or anniversary. I didn’t see any of this reported in USA Today.

    Cheers, Rick

  5. Liz Lackey says:

    We used to listen to “the old squire” (Ken’s father) as Mom made dinner. This was in the 1960s. It seems as if those 3 towers on Blush Hill have been there forever.

  6. Ann B. Day says:

    OH my gosh, Bryan!! WDEV was THE station to listen to every morning starting a 5:00 AM for weather and the Red Sox and Bruin scores in the early 1950’s when Frank Day and I moved with our toddler kids first to Stowe where Frank and I taught skiing then to Fayston, Vermont and Knoll Farm. There was no Sugarbush, only a rocky Mad River Glen, a rural Mad River Valley and WDEV. There were more farmers, widows, loggers than skiers, There was (and Is) “Happy Birthday to You”, The Old Squire and his poetry, and “Music to Go to the Dump By.” and much later Bryan and Anson with For the Birds. I was just out of my 20’s and now am 91. I still listen to DEV when I can and the Old Squire reruns (and yes, you, too Ken, you young whipper snapper!!), I am happy to send some bucks to keep WDEV going,

    • Dear Ann,

      This is SO WONDERFUL. Thanks! Few among us have this kind of history with WDEV, and I’m honored to have you share it here on the blog. Can you pick up the station in New Hampshire???

  7. Ruth Tucker says:

    Bryan, what a great article! My earliest memories of WDEV were in 1949-1950, Red Sox games and “Music to go to the Dump by”. My father adjusted his work for these programs. As the years have gone by, the station has stood by its listening audience in all its programming. What a story of true Vermont values, played out on 550 AM.

  8. Ben Koenig says:

    Bryan. Great writing and great sentiments. About 20 years ago I went into the Waterbury studio and recorded a singing commercial. I run into folks all over the North Country who sing my telephone number! When people find out who I am they start singing my commercial. It is because so many people tune in to WDEV and there is such a variety of shows and styles and areas of local interest on that station every day of the week. Perhaps if we had different people running our government WDEV would be listed on a National Historic Register and would gain the support that it richly (and I mean richly) deserves.

    • Dear Ben, your jingle is a classic! First, you perform it SO WELL. Next, it’s local (like you), even while demonstrating the immense power of smart marketing and advertising. That jingle belongs in the Smithsonian!

  9. Brian Harwood says:

    Thanks, Bryan. You have expressed my thoughts exactly. I am the furthest you can get from a neutral responder: my life revolved around DEV for more than 60 years, in and out of other careers.
    Your blog says it all.

    • Hi, Brian. It is indeed an honor to hear from you in this regard. You, of course, occupy sacred ground in the pantheon of Vermont radio. Let’s hope we can both stay tuned in for quite some time!

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