WHAV Captures Largest Audience, Becomes News Leader During Year of FM

ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” host Tom Bergeron stands before a plaque to his mentor, Edwin V. Johnson, Friday, June 16. (Cindy Driver photographs for WHAV News.)

Just Friday night, a downtown business owner marveled at how 97.9 WHAV FM became Greater Haverhill’s top local news source in only a year’s time.

While this week indeed marks a full year of the new 97.9 WHAV FM, the radio station didn’t become number one in only 12 months. Certainly, the reporting of local news greatly expanded in that time, but WHAV has been at Haverhill’s side for 70 years. Now-former state Rep. Brian S. Dempsey hinted at the surprising story of WHAV’s rebirth in March.

“I want you to know, because I’ve heard this from so many people that are much more versed in the challenges with the FCC, that in the fall of 2013 when Tim (Coco) submitted an application to get a license to get an FM signal recognized—that was no easy task and an uphill battle. And, people in the industry were, I think, not only impressed, but amazed that you were able to do that successfully.”

WHAV’s return to the stage began in March 1995 even as it appeared it was making its exit. With the city’s economy sluggish and its residents taking for granted WHAV would always be here, the station temporarily departed. Its call letters remained on an AM station until 2002 and then faded away like a distant signal.

It was a wake-up call. Residents realized—especially with the rapid decline of newspapers—what they had lost. A Joni Mitchell song, “Big Yellow Taxi” seemed to sum it up best: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.”

Regulatory Process Takes 12 Years

On Jan. 4, 2004, WHAV returned as an Internet and cable television station, but it was never intended to be limited to those platforms. Limited local news, music and staples such as the Open Mike Show returned to Haverhill. The new Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, named for WHAV’s longest serving employee, was dedicated in 2009.

Unfortunately, one can’t simply apply for an FM license. The Federal Communications Commission must first open what is called a “filing window,” essentially inviting applicants to apply. Beyond that, applicants must undertake rigorous engineering studies and engage lawyers to determine whether there is even a space on the dial for a new station.

Even if the FCC had opened a filing window in 2004, very old regulations concerning spacing between stations would have ruled out a new FM radio station. Resolution literally took an act of Congress, and the Local Community Radio Act by passed both houses at the end of 2010. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama Jan. 4, 2011.

“This important law eliminates the unnecessary restrictions that kept these local stations off the air in cities and towns across the country,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the time. The law made it clear only nonprofits would be eligible, forcing the Internet and cable WHAV operation to be reorganized under Public Media of New England Inc.

Obstacles Threaten the New WHAV

The FCC scheduled a filing window in 2013, but it was unclear whether it would take place because the government was shutdown over a budget dispute between Congress and the president. The shutdown ended on the day applications were due and WHAV successfully filed.

It was always the intent WHAV’s new signal would emanate from its original 1947 transmitter building atop Silver Hill. WHAV, however, faced three competitors for a license—the towns of Nashua and Pelham, N.H., and a Lawrence church. Nashua eventually withdrew voluntarily and Pelham was denied because it did not provide enough engineering data. In September 2014, the FCC named WHAV and the church as tentative selectees, but said the two would have to share time—a condition neither party found acceptable.

Nevertheless, WHAV took its obligation seriously and, in 2014, greatly expanded its news operation online and in social media while preparing for FM.

WHAV and the church each petitioned the FCC to deny the other, but reached a settlement near the end of 2014. Terms of the agreement at first denied WHAV the right to return to ancestral Silver Hill home and required a change in its preferred FM dial position. A delay of more than a year and a half in building the new WHAV occurred while the Haverhill station explored alternative tower sites, talked with landowners, reviewed local permitting, met with utility companies and re-engineered its options.

Almost Didn’t Happen

As WHAV’s FCC permit neared expiration in 2016, the radio station could not come to final agreement with any landowner on building a new transmitter and tower site. The project seemed doomed.

Unbeknownst to WHAV, the church was having the same difficulty in building its transmitter site. In a surprise petition to the FCC, the church filed an amendment to move further away—a move that enabled WHAV to return to Silver Hill after all.

Call Letter Snafu

The FCC approved WHAV’s new application to return to Silver Hill, but it looked like the city’s heritage call letters would not follow.

During the time the original WHAV AM surrendered the call letters and the new FM’s permitting, the U.S. Coast Guard had taken control of the call sign and assigned it to an oil industry barge, “Penn 91,” for its onboard radio station.

Behind the scenes negotiations with the U.S. Coast Guard and barge owner Kirby Corporation of Houston, Texas, finally won release of the WHAV name.

Return to Silver Hill

Opening the door to WHAV’s original transmitter building revealed a welcome sight—WHAV’s call letters were still inscribed in the floor tiles.

WHAV selected the industry’s best transmitter for the station’s power class—a Nautel VS300LP—with up-to-the-minute digital sound processing—Orban’s Optimod 5500 Series digital, five-band processor. Shively Labs, Bridgton, Maine, designed and built the antenna and a special filter.

WHAV’s antenna was hoisted 350 feet above Silver Hill and secured in place by Barbrick Tower and Contracting Co., of Merrimac. WHAV’s new FM voice was finally heard during tests last Sept. 22 and the FCC granted a “license to cover” Oct. 3.

Formal Dedication on 70th Anniversary

The grand daughters and great grand daughters of WHAV founder John T. Russ join WHAV President and General Manager Tim Coco for the formal FM dedication last March 16. (Cindy Driver photograph for WHAV News.)

Although 97.9 WHAV FM was firmly on the air at last, it was decided the formal dedication would take place March 16, 2017—70 years to the day the original WHAV signed on.

Master of Ceremonies Rick O’Shey, who began at WHAV in 1984, launched the ceremonies at Maria’s restaurant the way radio stations have long marked the beginnings of their broadcast days. He introduced local soloist Latriah Masters who sang the National Anthem.

Additional entertainment came from members of the Haverhill High School Chorus, Emily Forisso, Chloe Reynolds and Joseph Pazzanese. During one portion of the program, Forisso and Reynolds performed ““Black Horse and a Cherry Tree.” Pazzanese sang “L-O-V-E.” Other songs performed live were “House of The Rising Sun” by Forisso and “Unforgettable” by Reynolds.

A moving salute to WHAV founder John T. Russ brought tears to Russ’ granddaughters Rachel Gallagher and Rebecca Nordengren and great granddaughters Kacey Oreal, Kallie Rossi and Leanne (Wholley) Scott. It was the first time they heard his voice as WHAV replayed his 1947 remarks.

“We’re just grateful that you reached out to us because when we thought we had the opportunity, we were right on it. We were so excited and it brought us to tears as soon as we heard it. Good luck. So, thank you so much.”

A digital Lamar billboard along Interstate 495 alerted residents to the formal dedication.

Number One in Local News

All local newscasts are heard twice an hour, weekdays. These are augmented by hourly Community Spotlight updates, weekly programs like Open Mike Show and widely acclaimed special series such as WHAV’s “Back-to-School Countdown,” “Atkinson Celebrates 250” and the “Dog Days of Summer,” a salute to our K-9 heroes.

Live high school play-by-play sports resumed in December with a remote broadcast of the Commonwealth Motors Christmas Classic from Methuen High School.

WHAV also broadcast live “Reach High Reach Higher: A Haverhill Community Discussion on School Success” in April and “Haverhill High School Athletic Hall of Fame” in May, both from the new Hunking School.

The power of the new WHAV FM became immediately clear. With more people listening, traffic to the station’s hyperlocal news website nearly tripled—12.6 million hits by this spring and about 130,000 unique visitors. It the last 30 days, the number of individuals increased to nearly 170,000, demonstrating WHAV’s reach far outside of Haverhill’s borders.

Within the last week, WHAV signed an agreement with Nielsen Audio to encode its broadcast to verify the enormous on-air audience the station has attracted.

Tom Bergeron Takes Back His Old Time Slot

In Haverhill during his summer break from ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” Tom Bergeron took back his old WHAV time slot and appeared live Friday, June 16.

“First of all. Let me commend you and everybody here for what you’re doing—the incredible work you’re doing to keep the legacy of local radio alive in Haverhill and the vicinity,” Bergeron said. “Obviously, for me, having started at WHAV in 1972 when I was still in high school. You know how much I appreciate what you’ve been doing and I’m happy to be a supporter of it. This is a real treat to come back and visit, but also to underscore the nature of what WHAV now is and the importance of community support to keep it going,” he said.

Bergeron said he loved that his airshift took place in the Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, noting it was the late Johnson who kicked off his career. Recognizing WHAV is now a listener-supported, public radio station, he asked residents to buy memberships and businesses to sponsor the station.

Independent research clearly shows WHAV’s unique combination of on-air, online and social media reaches 90 percent of Greater Haverhill adults. That number surprises some, but it makes sense. According to Neilson Audio, radio reaches 91 percent of all Americans age 12 or older every week, while WHAV’s target audience averages 92 percent.

Listen Friday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m., for a rebroadcast of WHAV Dedication Ceremonies

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2 Comments

  1. jack said:

    Congratulations on a job well done. Without a local news outlet, residents of Haverhill would never know what is really going on especially within city govt.

    • Jack Haverhill said:

      Very true, Jack.
      Unfortunately, what wasn’t shared in this story was the mayor going out of his way to slow the approval process. As WHAV was gaining viewer traction here on their website the mayor was pissed about the comment section. He didn’t approve of people like you having the ability to comment, and provide additional information on what was going on in his administration. The mayor demanded Tim Coco to remove the comment section and was holding approval of the license hostage. To Tim’s credit, he refused the mayor’s request. The mayor then demanded that if the comment section was to remain, that people have to comment under their real name…just like the whimps at the Eagle Tribune did when the mayor made the same demands of them. Again, Tim held his ground and refused that demand. The greatest (unknown) success of this whole story is Tim Coco’s steadfast support of The Freedom of Speech and telling the fascist mayor to go stick it.

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