by Nat Frothingham
At a St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast celebrated on March 13, the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce honored motor sports broadcaster and Radio Station WDEV owner Ken Squier.
As a boy growing up in Waterbury Village and for more than 80 years, Squier has had a continuing association with WDEV.
Squier has also had an illustrious national career as a sports — and particularly a motor sports — announcer at such events as the famed Daytona 500 race at the Daytona Speedway in Daytona, Florida. Squier’s influence on how the race is broadcast has been profound. In 1979 he persuaded the skeptics that the Daytona race could be called in such a way that the listening public would thrill to the entire story of the race from flag to flag or start to finish.
A few days before the Chamber of Commerce event, Squier talked with The Bridge over lunch about growing up in Waterbury and the early days of WDEV.
WDEV officially took to the air on July 17, 1931. But it’s almost impossible to tell the story of how the station got going without remembering the Great Flood of November 1927 that devastated Waterbury and took a terrible toll in lives lost not to mention roads, bridges, and buildings across the state as well.
Talking about the damage to Waterbury Village, Squier said, “Both ends of the town got washed out. The river came down from Stowe. The Mad River backed up into the Winooski. We lost a lot of people.”
It was four years after the Great Flood of 1927 when WDEV first signed on the air, so when Ken Squier was born in 1935, the station was already up and running.
Squier grew up in a second-floor apartment over the Perkins furniture store and funeral home with the Waterbury Fire Department across the street. “I could walk up the street and around the corner,” said Squier about the short trip from home to the WDEV radio station.
But the Great Flood continued to cast its shadow over Waterbury Village. From 1935 to 1936 and afterwards, FDR’s (New Deal) Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a massive flood control dam in Waterbury. At the height of its construction, some 2,500 CCC workers were employed on the project. Said Squier, “It was the largest earthen dam east of the Mississippi when it was built. Construction continued into 1938 and at some point after that Squier remembers his dad taking him up to see the finished project.
Harry Whitehill and Lloyd Squier — were the two men who started WDEV.
Whitehill was a newspaperman who published the Stowe Weekly and the Waterbury Record. And Lloyd Squier was described as Whitehill’s “reporter and printer’s devil” in a 1991 book by Peter Miller entitled A Lifetime of Vermont People.
It was Whitehill, according to Ken Squier, who had said to his father Lloyd Squier, “More people can hear than read. We ought to be in the radio business.”
But getting WDEV up and on the air was no simple matter. One federal requirement was that a radio station had to have an engineer and that engineer had to pass a government test. And Lloyd Squier set forth to do just that.
Said Ken Squier about his father, “He got a book and read the book and flunked the test.” But he was told he could take the test again in a few months. And he did and flunked again. But there was no deterring Lloyd Squier. Eventually he found an engineer who could pass the test and WDEV went o the air in mid-July 1931. To start with, the station broadcast an hour a day.
When it went on the air and in the years that followed, WDEV was both a reflection and later an extension of local life. As Ken Squier remarked, “Immediacy and relevance” — those were the watchwords that drove the station forward.
According to Squier, the local dance and music hall was the center of local entertainment scene in the 1930s. “Every town had a music hall,” said Squier. At one time, he related, WDEV had five different bands who stayed in local boarding houses. One of those early bands that attracted a wide following in the 1930s and 1940s was Don Fields and His Pony Boys.
In the 1930s and 1940s Vermont was very much an agricultural state. That meant that WDEV carried farm reports. “We wanted to be relevant,” Squier said again. “We always covered the fairs which included Morrisville, Tunbridge, Essex, Barton, Rutland and Lyndonville. We’d go there and stay for three days. That’s where the locals were. “People wanted to know, ‘Who won the prizes?’ That’s where the news was.”
Horses and harness racing were big events. Squier told his Chamber of Commerce audience that after World War II there were 23 racing tracks in Vermont. Said Squier, “We would broadcast the harness racing. That was a big deal–harness racing. It was all about fairs, the horses, and agricultural life.”
When World War II broke out in 1941, things shifted. “People wanted to know what was going on,” Squier said. President Roosevelt had a microphone on his desk in the White House and went on the radio with his Fireside Chats. “Radio was the medium,” Squier said, “While you were knitting, working in the garden, or out in the barn–always in the barn.”
It’s been a cool 87 years since WDEV first went on the air and over time much has changed in the radio and broadcasting world.
During the 1940s and 50s radio stations across the country had to meet certain federal tests in order to get their licenses renewed. Stations applying for a renewal of their licence had to to prove they were serving the public good. But over time, things changed. The federal rules softened and today, for example, you don’t have to have your broadcast studio within 25 miles of your local broadcasting area. There are some radio conglomerates that own and operate a dozen or more stations broadcasting across the country. They can put their programming up on a satellite. In essence, it can be argued that the “public responsibility” link between a local station and its local audience has been weakened if not broken.
“It’s not enough to do something about the Red Cross and run a few little public service announcements,” Squier said. “It bothers me,” said Squier, “that the rules of public responsibility went out the door.”
At the same time, WDEV and its partner stations were bucking the national trend and keeping their commitments to the public trust.
“We do six hours of local news,” said Squier about WDEV. “We are all over the state. We broadcast 65 basketball games. Also broadcast of motorcar racing from Thunder Road. And Norwich ice hockey. And a two-hour jazz show, and a classical music show on Sunday mornings. And the amusing, unpredictable and quirky “Music to Go to the Dump By” on Saturday mornings.
On the news and political front, WDEV presents a range of opinion, commentary and ideas that spans the whole arc of public discourse or as Squier said to the Chamber of Commere crowd, “Whether it was liberal, whether it was Republican, whether it was something else,” as in “Here comes Bernie!”
A very recent move on WDEV is the station’s public affairs interview program with talk show host Dave Gram, a well-known-and-liked veteran journalist. And starting Monday, March 12, WDEV will be broadcasting CBS News every hour on the hour and every half hour.
At the Chamber of Commerce St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast, Squier talked the attraction of a place like Daytona, Florida and the Daytona Speedway — not perhaps so much the attraction of the place, but the attraction those who loved their cars, took the risks, worked together and loved to compete.
They were also the ones who went off to war. Or as Squier said, “They were common men, doing uncommon deeds.”
Toward the end of his breakfast remarks, Squier reflected on the farming traditions in Vermont. Where men and women worked seven days a week and milked twice a day.
“They cared about this state and cared how it was run. Nothing was easy. Nothing was guaranteed. You always plant three or four crops because one of them would fail,” he said.