DRAFT

This document is a draft of an essay about the history of Providence broadcasting. Please do not rely on it as a reference. Please do send corrections and any additional information you would like to contribute to wollman@bostonradio.org.

Broadcasting in Providence since World War II

The history of broadcasting in the Providence, Rhode Island, market is one of remarkable stability. For decades, radio in Providence was dominated by three stations, all on the left-hand side of the dial, each owned by one of Providence's three main downtown department stores. Other stations tried to compete, but none outlasted those three until FM finally overtook AM in radio listenership, in the early 1980s.

Background

At the time of the United States' entry into World War II, there were four radio stations in all of Rhode Island; one of them, WFCI (1420 Pawtucket), had just signed on the previous February. The other three stations were WEAN, an NBC Blue Network (today's ABC) affiliate on 790, which was owned by John Shepard 3d of Shepard's Stores; WJAR, an NBC Red Network affiliate on 920 owned by The Outlet Company; and WPRO, Cherry & Webb Stores' CBS affiliate on 630 kHz. Of the three stations, WEAN was the oldest, by about three months, having been founded in June of 1922. WJAR was next, coming on the air the following September. (So far as we know, both callsigns were sequential assignments.) Our sources disagree about when WPRO came on; older sources claim 1924, but more recent sources put it at October 16, 1931, which is the date on which Cherry & Webb Broadcasting Corp. took ownership. (This WFCI was the second station in Pawtucket to use that call sign; the original station, which later became the first WPAW, was started by Frank Crook, Inc. It shared time with, and in May of 1933 merged into, WPRO.)

In early 1941, most of the stations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, and Cuba changed frequency, as a result of the North American Radio Broadcasting Agreement, or NARBA for short. Many of the stations also made other technical changes to coexist with the stations being assigned to their new channels (which were not always the same as the stations that they had shared with before). WPRO was one of the few that did not need to change, remaining at 5 kW full-time, DA-2. WEAN, in addition to moving from 780 kHz to 790 kHz, also changed transmitter sites, allowing it to increase night power from 1 kW, non-directional, to 5 kW, directional. WJAR moved from 890 to 920 and made a similar upgrade to to 5 kW at night.

The three stations' studios were located within a few blocks of each other in downtown Providence. WJAR's were located in The Outlet Company's namesake store, at 176 Weybosset St. (since destroyed by fire). WEAN probably started out a block away at Shepard's (259 Westminster St.), but by 1941 was operating just a few feet away from WJAR, in the Crown Hotel at 208 Weybosset (which has also burned down). WPRO was at 15 Chestnut St., a few blocks from the main Cherry & Webb department store at 275 Westminster St. WFCI, when Pawtucket Broadcasting Company put it on the air, had its studios in Pawtucket (as was then required), at 450 Main Street.

The post-war boom, 1945–1955

Very few radio stations made any sort of changes during the War, since access to construction materials and new equipment was severely restricted by the War Production Board. Broadcast stations were required to repair failed tubes and related devices in preference to purchasing new tubes or replacing equipment. By 1943, however, the end was in sight, and in September, 1943, the FCC established a Radio Technical Planning Board to plot a course for the industry in the immediate aftermath of the War. Among the changes recommended by the Board was a wholesale realignment of the VHF spectrum, which resulted in the relocation of the FM broadcast band and (after a few years as a secondary allocation) the elimination of television channel 1. Nobody in Providence noticed these changes, however, as Rhode Island had neither FM nor television stations. (One reference points to a Cherry & Webb experimental television station, W1XDZ, but we can find no evidence that the station, if it existed at all, operated as late as 1940.)

The FCC maintained a freeze on applications through the end of the War, and by the beginning of 1947, despite having granted hundreds of applications for new and modified facilities, the Commission had a backlog of more than 300 applications awaiting to be examined. The FCC declared a three-month moratorium on broadcast applications so it could process the backlog, and in May, 1947, it declared itself once again open for business. On the “standard broadcasting” band, better known as ”AM”, three new stations were granted in Providence, all daytimers. Inter-City Broadcasting got 1000 watts on 1110 kHz as WHIM, with studios on the downtown Providence waterfront. Community Broadcasting Service—we're not sure if this is the Horace Hildreth interests from Maine, or something unrelated—put WNAF on the air with 500 watts on 1290, from a transmitter site on the waterfront in East Providence. Finally, Rhode Island Broadcasting Company started WRIB (1220), with 250 watts and studios at the Narragansett Hotel.

Entering 1948, the FCC had granted five new FM stations in the Providence market. WPRO, WEAN, and WJAR had all received construction permits (for full-power signals on 92.3, 94.1, and 95.5 MHz, respectively); the owners of WFCI had received a “conditional grant” for 20 kW on 101.5 MHz, to be licensed to Pawtucket; and the first permit for a stand-alone FM in Rhode Island was granted to Augustus M. Wilson's Colonial Broadcasting Company (from Putnam, Connecticut), on 107.7 MHz, as WLIV. WLIV and WPRO-FM both made it on the air in April, 1948, and WJAR-FM started up the following month. (WEAN-FM was still unbuilt at the end of 1948.) The Providence Journal Company, publishers of the morning Providence Journal and the afternoon Evening Bulletin, started another stand-alone FM on the air, WPJB (105.1) in July, with studios in the newly-added fourth floor of the Journal building, 75 Fountain St. in downtown Providence. Also making an appearance in 1948 was a construction permit for WPAW (1380 Pawtucket), another 500-watt daytimer.

In 1949, WNAF was sold to Narragansett Broadcasting Company, which renamed it WDEM. The new owners moved the studios from 86 Weybosset Street to 32 Canal Street (an address which appears to no longer exist), and soon after to what was then known as the Blue Cross Building. (These may be one and the same, but all the search results we get for “Blue Cross Building” in Providence are about a much newer office building on the other side of the river.) Up the dial, WFCI moved its principal studios to the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, taking over the ABC affiliation from WEAN in the process; it would become a Providence-licensed station the next year.

All of these 1949 changes pale in significance compared to the 1949 appearance of Providence's first (and for six years only) television station, WJAR-TV (channel 11). WJAR-TV's studios were located with its Outlet Company radio sisters at 176 Weybosset St. in downtown Providence, where they would remain for more than four decades. (Providence's second TV station, WPRO-TV, would sign on after the FCC television freeze was lifted in 1954, and the third and final VHF station, WTEV, would not sign on channel 6 in New Bedford until 1963.)

WLIV, the short-lived FM on 107.7, moved into 31 Canal Street building, near WDEM (1290), some time in 1949 or 1950, although our references do not show it “affiliated” with AM 1290 until the following year. WPRO and WPRO-FM vacated their studios in 1951 after just a decade, in anticipation of getting a TV license, moving to 24 Mason Street (in East Providence?). WDEM and WLIV moved in to the old WPRO building not long after.

In 1952, WFCI would be sold to the Providence Journal, with studios moving to the Journal building on Fountain St. and a change in callsign to WPJB. That same year, General Tire and Rubber—which had purchased Shepard's Yankee Network back in 1943—merged the Yankee stations into Thomas S. Lee Enterprises, the holding company for General Tire's recently-acquired West Coast broadcasting operations; the following year, the holding company became General Teleradio. General didn't stay in the Providence market, however; after only two years of owning AM 1420, the Providence Journal decided to purchase General's WEAN (790) and turn in WPJB's license. The transfer became effective on October 9, 1954. (We don't know why the Journal didn't sell 1420 to another operator, but the departure of WPJB did ultimately allow WBSM, a hundred-watt graveyarder on 1230 in New Bedford, to move to 1420 in 1956.)

Stepping back to 1952 for a moment, WRIB (1220) was granted a power increase from 250 watts to a full kilowatt—albeit still daytime-only. Also that year, WHIM (1110) moved studios to 144 Westminster Street, a block away from its old studios on Custom House St. WLIV (107.7) became WDEM-FM, and it and WDEM moved studios for the third time in as many years, to 1111 North Main Street near the Pawtucket line. By 1953, WDEM-FM would be gone, a victim of the hugely unfavorable business climate for FM stations in the 1950s. At the same time, WDEM (AM) became WICE, a callsign under which it would become top-40 powerhouse just a few years later. The same economic issues that did for WDEM-FM would also claim Outlet's WJAR-FM (95.5) by 1954. Rhode Island's second television station, WNET, signed on in August, 1953, from a new combined studio and transmitter facility on Pine Street in Rehoboth, Mass., not far from the WJAR-TV tower. Unfortunately for WNET's owners, few viewers were equipped to receive its UHF channel 16 signal, and WNET's ABC and DuMont programs were readily received on VHF from Boston stations. (WNET had hoped to affiliate with the more popular CBS, but CBS radio affiliate WPRO had just been granted a television construction permit, so Columbia chose to keep its programs on WJAR-TV while waiting for WPRO-TV to start operation.)

Television rising, network radio in decline (1955–1970)

By the late forties, it had become clear that the FCC's initial allocation plan for VHF TV channels was deeply flawed, particularly in the northeast. The Commission had assigned many stations far too close to each other, including channel 6es in Philadelphia and New Haven, channel 4s in New York City and Albany, and (most relevant for this history) channel 11s in New York and Providence. When the channels were redistributed in 1953, New York was allowed to keep all of its VHF channels (unlike Chicago), with Albany moving to channel 6, New Haven moving to channel 8, and Providence's WJAR-TV moving down one notch to channel 10. This would allow WPRO to finally get its TV license, on channel 12 rather than being relegated to the little-viewed UHF band, and WPRO-TV took to the air on March 27, 1955, with CBS as its primary affiliation and a secondary affiliation with ABC. WPRO-TV's studios were located in the same 24 Mason Street building as the radio stations had occupied since 1951.

Also new to the air in 1955 were T. Mitchell Hastings' WTMH (101.5), on May 30, and Plantations Broadcasting Company's WPFM (95.5), on June 8, proving that not everone was down on the prospects for FM broadcasting. WPFM's studios were at 108 State Street; we don't know where WTMH's studios were. (We do, however, know where WTMH's tower was—it was located on the highest point in the state, off US 44 near the Connecticut line.)

The loss of its exclusive ABC television affiliation proved the death knell for WNET, which quietly ceased operations in 1956. WPRO-TV would remain the ABC affiliate for Providence until New Bedford's WTEV signed on seven years later. In August '56, WICE (1290) was sold to Susquehanna Broadcasting (under the name Providence Radio, Inc.), with an accompanying studio move back to downtown Providence at 209 Weybosset Street. WRIB (1220) also changed studios in 1956, moving from the Narragansett Hotel to its Water Street, East Providence, transmitter site.

Late summer the following year, WHIM (1110) was sold to Buckley-Jaeger Broadcasting (partner John Jaeger would later sell his stake, leaving Richard Buckley in control). In 1958, T. Mitchell Hastings reorganized his General Broadcasting Corp. as Concert Network, Inc., and WTMH (101.5) became WXCN. The Concert Network also included stations in Boston (WBCN 104.1), Hartford (WHCN 105.9, previously WFMQ), and New York (WNCN 104.3, previously WFMX). Also in 1958, a CP was issued to Neighborly Broadcasting Company for a new (minimal class-B) FM on 99.9 in Cranston, with proposed calls WLOV. Given the studio address of 188 Gansett Avenue, we can only assume that this station was an attempt by the Narragansett Brewery (“Hi, neighbor, have a 'Gansett!”). WLOV made it on the air in the spring of 1959, and by November of 1961 was the subject of license revocation proceedings for misrepresentation, operating at reduced power without authorization, and sundry other violations of the FCC rules. It finally vanished some time in 1963 or '64. Golden Gate Corp. acquired another ill-fated FM, WPFM (95.5), at the end of July, 1958.

The biggest news of 1959 in Providence was the sale of the Cherry & Webb stations to Capital Cities Broadcasting of Albany, N.Y., on April 15—the second of Providence's big-three department stores to bow out of the broadcasting business. (The Outlet Company would hang on for another couple of decades before closing its department store business to concentrate on broadcasting.) By contrast, WICE's studio move across the street to 208 Weybosset Street was of little consequence (and indeed may be but a typo in our principal sources). The following year was a quiet one; the only event of any consequence that we can find for 1960 is the construction permit for yet another ill-fated FM, WICE-FM (107.7B Warwick), which was gone by 1967 (and probably by 1965). It's possible that WICE-FM may have been the same license as the former WDEM-FM, but that seems doubtful.

The year 1961 saw three important AM facility changes. WICE went from a 500-watt daytimer, with its transmitter in an East Providence park, to a full-time facility (5 kW-D, 1 kW-N, DA-2) from a new transmitter plant off Douglas Avenue on the Providence-North Providence city line. WJAR (920) dropped its daytime directional operation, becoming a pure DA-N operation. Most significantly, Providence's first new AM station since 1948, and its only 50-kilowatt station ever, WLKW (990), signed on April 12 as a daytimer from a new directional array in Burrillville, up in the very northwest corner of the state. WLKW's owner was Radio Rhode Island, Inc.; we don't find a studio address for the station until 1964, when it was in downtown Providence at 228 Weybosset Street.

The following year, 1962, was another quiet year in Providence broadcasting facilities; the only change of note was the sale of WRIB (1220) to Rhode Island Broadcasting Company (consistently misspelled in BY as “Rohde Island Broadcasting”), which took place in March. In 1963, that Warwick construction permit for WICE-FM (107.7) was still not on the air, but it took the new callsign WYCE. The Concert Network got out of Providence in October '63 when WXCN was sold to Mallard Broadcasting Corp., but Mallard turned around and sold it to Ted Jones's Charles River Broadcasting the following April, so we know little about them. Charles River changed the callsign to WCRQ.

Also in 1963, Providence finally got its full complement of VHF television stations, as a partnership of the New Bedford Standard-Times and New England TV, Inc., put WTEV (6 New Bedford) on the air from studios in downtown New Bedford, with a new transmitter site in Tiverton, Rhode Island, south of Fall River, Mass. Because of spacing issues, channel 6 could not operate from the growing Rehoboth tower farm where channels 10, 12, and (however briefly) 16 operated.

An ownership change in 1964 presents a puzzle for us. We know for certain that the owners of WPFM (95.5), Golden Gate Corp., purchased WHIM (1110) and the construction permit for WHIM-FM (94.1) on July 1, 1964. However, we don't know for certain what happened to WPFM. We do know that WBRU-FM (as it apparently was then) started on 95.5 on February 21, 1965, but we're not sure if this is the same license as WPFM, or if the WPFM license was handed in and the Commission turned right around and granted 95.5B to Brown Broadcasting Service (an affiliate of Brown University). Also in 1965, WRLM (93.3B Taunton) debuted, under owner Audio Air, Inc. We don't know whether WRLM started out at the Rehoboth tower farm, or somewhere closer to its nominal city of license. WHIM-FM came on the air from the 1110 tower site on Eastern Avenue in Providence on March 14, 1966, apparently the only thing to happen in that quiet year. WHIM and WHIM-FM probably moved studios to the transmitter site (115 Eastern Ave.) at about the same time.

In 1967, WTEV's ownership group sold out to the Steinman Company from Pennsylvania, giving WTEV a prominent place on the Steinman's regular front-cover advertisement in Broadcasting Yearbook. WICE moved studios that year, to 198 Dyer Street. WLKW didn't move, but was acquired by the Tanger family, better known in later years for owning a group of big-city classical-music stations (WFLN Philadelphia, WQRS Detroit, and WTMI Miami) among others, on March 7. On June 7 of following year, still doing business as Radio Rhode Island, Tanger acquired WCRQ (101.5) from Charles River Broadcasting.

Other changes in 1968 included a minor callsign change for channel 12, moving from WPRO-TV to WPRI-TV although no change in ownership or studio location took place; more importantly, the State Board of Education put WSBE-TV (channel 38) on the air on June 5, with studios at 600 Mount Pleasant Avenue and transmitter at the WPRO-FM tower on Neutaconcanut Hill in Johnston.

In 1969, Buckley-Jaeger sold WHIM (1110) and WHIM-FM (94.1) to Culligan Communications, on November 1. Nothing else happened that year, nor did anything happen in 1970 that we're aware of, but on September 22, 1971, those same two stations were sold to Franks Broadcasting. Also that year, Capital Cities' WPRI-TV was sold to John B. Poole Stations, but Cap Cities kept the radio properties and the 24 Mason Street studios, which remained shared by radio and TV.

Snappy section heading goes here (1972–1992)

The only event we have for 1972 (besides your author's birthday, in another state hundreds of miles away) is an address finally appears for WBRU. We don't know if 75 Waterman Street was where there studios were before, or indeed if it was just a general address for Brown University. In 1973, WRIB was either sold or perhaps just reorganized, with the licensee being WRIB, Inc. Crohan Communications bought WICE from Susquehanna in 1974.

A few studio moves took place in 1975. WEAN (790) and WPJB-FM (105.1) moved out of the Providence Journal building to new studios at 10 Dorrance Street. Capital Cities built a new studio facility for WPRO and WPRO-FM at the WPRO transmitter site, 1502 Wampanoag Trail in East Providence, just north of the Barrington line; WPRI-TV also found new quarters, in an East Providence industrial park at 25 Catamore Boulevard. All three of those stations remain in those studios today. WSBE-TV moved out of its Mount Pleasant Ave. studios and moved in to the 24 Mason Street facility vacated by WPRO and WPRI-TV. Finally, Alexander Tanger sold WLKW and WLKW-FM to McCormick Communications.

Here is where the story starts to get thin from lack of reference material.

On March 27, 1978, WICE was sold again, this time to Dunn Broadcasting. The following month, Poole sold WPRI-TV to Knight-Ridder.

In 1979, WHIM-FM became WHJY, to match its slogan, “Joy 94”.

In 1985, WPJB-FM (105.1) raised the white flag in its hit-radio battle with WPRO-FM, becoming “Lite 105” WWLI. Sister station WEAN (790) was sold to an unknown party, and became WWAZ the following year; the heritage calls were quickly snapped up by WLKW. Also in 1986, WICE (1290) was sold to Neto Communications and became Portuguese-language WRCP, moving studios a few years later to the 1110 Douglas Avenue transmitter site.

In 1987, WLKW-FM (101.5) was sold to Wilks-Schwartz Broadcasting. The studios ended up at 1185 North Main Street, and in 1989 the calls were changed to WWBB, reflecting the “B-101” oldies format which continues to the present day. The previous ownership held on to 101.5's sister, AM 990, until 1989, when it was sold to leased-time operator North American Broadcasting, who changed the callsign to WALE and moved the studios to 311 Westminster Mall in downtown Providence.

Bear Broadcasting bought WHIM (1110) from Franks Broadcasting in 1988; the purchase was accompanied by a studio move the following year—from 115 Eastern Avenue, East Providence, to the building right next door at 125 Eastern Avenue.

The era of consolidation (1992–2006)


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