Walking On Air

From the on-air booth at WDEV in Waterbury to the announcer's box at the Daytona 500, Ken Squier melds his love of radio and racing in his position as the head of five radio stations in Vermont.

by Sean Toussaint

In 1979, Ken Squier inherited ownership of WDEV radio from his father, who started the station in 1931. Squier has since added four stations to the Radio Vermont Group in Waterbury to include classical and country music, and talk radio.

Ken Squier's education in radio started in 1945 when he was 9 years old. He loved to go to his father's Waterbury radio station, where he would follow staff members around, mimicking their every move and learning what they did. As a teenager, he began to work there in earnest, often arriving at the break of day and helping out with the morning broadcast before going to school. After school, he'd return to the station, sometimes working late into the night, filling in wherever he could, even stepping behind the microphone.

"That was my playground," Squier says. "I was this little kid running around the radio station. It was great. The station has always been a huge part of my life. Even when I was out working in Boston and New York City, I was making connections I could use with the station. And, I would gather material we could use on the radio."

Squier's career has taken him far from his father's radio station in the old brick building in Waterbury, but when he's sitting back in his chair at the Park Row Cafe next to the train tracks in downtown Waterbury, it seems as if the laid-back celebrity never left his hometown. The waitress asks if he wants his usual breakfast and shows up at the table with a refill of coffee as if she knows the moment his cup is empty. Most of the people walking through the door stop to tell Squier what they think about the previous day's broadcast. He listens to each of them with the same concentration, eased back in his chair with his left ankle resting on his right thigh. He responds with a nod of the head and a few hand gestures. If he's making a point he doesn't want to be missed, he leans forward with a gentle authority.

Dana Jewell (left), WDEV on-air host, with Eric Michaels, Radio Vermont Group's general manager. "Eric has played a key role in the creation of this Radio Vermont Group," Ken Squier says. "He committed himself to a plan that would allow WDEV to survive, and that was by adding more stations."

One woman reverently approaches Squier, then tells him that her nephew was upset that Squier's talk radio station, WKDR, no longer carries Rush Limbaugh. "Now, that wasn't our fault," Squier says with an admonishing wave of his hand. "They decided to take him away from us and put it on one of their own channels. There wasn't anything we could do about it. I want you to go call your nephew right now and tell him, O.K.?"

Reaching out to the community and staying abreast of the interests of his listeners is the ground floor of Squier's business life. In an age when radio stations are owned by out-of-state conglomerates, he is bucking the trend and trying to keep the old days of radio rolling. He's also had a hand in keeping the wheels in motor sports rolling. At the age of 15, he was announcing youth stock car races at country fairs, building on his radio personality. That paved the way to a career that would win Squier his celebrity status outside of Vermont as a sportscaster for CBS and ABC television.

When Squier finished high school he knew what he wanted to do and what he needed to know to do it. Looking to improve his business and broadcasting skills, he took his two loves, racing and radio, to Boston University. He worked at a jazz station during school in Boston for two years and traveled around New England announcing stock car races during the summers.

After graduation, Squier stayed in Boston, announcing jazz acts at a club boasting such performers as Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. "The whole time I'm out doing this stuff, I'm always thinking about coming back to Vermont. I'd even record jazz shows and feed them back to the station." While music would continue to play an important role in his life, he missed motor sports announcing and decided to focus on that as a career. Squier landed a job in 1964 with ABC television, broadcasting motor sports races long before any network dared show an entire race.

He moved to CBS, a network he felt was more dedicated to motor sports, and to fill the time between racing seasons he announced sporting events as varied as the Olympics, Monday night football and the World's Strongest Man Contest.

Squier says the strongest man contest was one of his strangest assignments, but he didn't mind spending a week in Acapulco. A shining moment in Squier's announcing career came in 1979 when he announced the Daytona 500 for CBS, the first time the stock car race was broadcast on TV from flag to flag.

"It was a vindication for us guys who grew up with racing and gave it as much respect as the other sports."

Today, Squier announces for the Fox network he recently traveled to Charlotte, N.C., for a race but he says he's trying to spend as much time in Vermont as he can, which means attending more races at Thunder Road in Barre, a high-bank, quarter-mile race track Squier and a partner started in 1969. The race track has an 18-race season, running on Thursday nights during the summer. Because it is part of a rigorous Northeast circuit, Squier says the race track has drawn large crowds since it opened its doors. "We wanted to build a first-class American short-track, and it seemed like Barre was the perfect location. It's still one of the most scenic tracks in the country."

Squier has always played an integral role at WDEV, no matter where else he was working. Tom Beardsley, manager of WCVT, the radio group's classical station in Stowe and former general manager of WDEV, says the five radio stations of the Radio Vermont Group wouldn't be what they are today if Squier wasn't as determined and hands-on as he is. "It doesn't matter if he's in another country doing the Olympics or sitting in his office at the station, he makes it a point to be a part of the station every day," Beardsley says. "I can't remember the last time he missed a chance to call in with a sports report."

WDEV was established to serve the interests of Waterbury and surrounding areas. Today, that means carrying live coverage of Norwich University hockey games, American-Canadian Tour stock car racing and Vermont boys' and girls' high school basketball games.

Frankie Allen is the program director at the Vermont Radio Group's classical station, WCVT in Stowe. Squier started the station in 1997 to "prove that there was an audience and an economic base broad enough to support a classical station,"he says.

Other broadcasts include jazz; an award-winning morning show, "Wake Up Vermont;" and Squier's Saturday morning program, "Music To Go To The Dump By."

"In the city, they call it eclectic radio," Squier says. "In Vermont, I guess you'd call it hash radio. The only way we'll survive is if we appeal to the local interests, and that means being able to be flexible and not be tied down to a certain format."

That programming approach has been part of WDEV since it went on the air in 1931. Harry Whitehill, owner of weekly newspapers in Stowe and Waterbury in the 1920s and '30s, came across Vermont's only local radio station at the time on a visit to St. Albans. Back in Waterbury, he told one of his reporters, Lloyd Squier, that he was considering developing a radio station in Waterbury. He envisioned a local newspaper on the air. "His thinking was that a lot more people can hear than can read," Squier says.

Whitehill started the station with Lloyd Squier, who served as the fledgling station manager and engineer. Lloyd learned as much as he could from the 400-page engineering manual while running the radio station. "He was a lousy engineer," Squier says. "So, he went back to managing the station and doing his reporting."

After Whitehill died in 1935, Lloyd Squier assumed full ownership of the radio station. He hired Rusty Parker, who quickly became indispensable, and together they began to build the station's reputation, audience and advertising sales in Central Vermont not always an easy road. "We've had all sorts of setbacks," Squier says. "It might seem like it's been smooth sailing, but not everything is what it seems. Rusty and my father had a commitment; it was a way of life, just like it is for all of us."

The senior Squier ran the radio station until he suffered a severe heart attack in 1953. While he was never again strong enough to handle the daily grind by himself, the time after the heart attack gave him a chance to rediscover his love for writing. He continued writing poetry and reading his work on WDEV under the tag-line of The Old Squier until his death in 1979.

Parker took over as station manager and worked closely with Squier, who was often traveling around the country in his capacity of sports announcer.

Squier describes Parker as a Vermont radio legend. "He gave his life to this radio station," Squier says.

In 1987 Squier hired Eric Michaels, a St. Albans' native and graduate of the Columbia School of Broadcasting who had worked in almost every aspect of radio broadcasting over the previous 20 years, and soon knew he had found someone who could secure WDEV's future. "Eric has played a key role in the creation of this Radio Vermont Group," Squier says. "He committed himself to a plan that would allow WDEV to survive, and that was by adding more stations."

In 1993, the process of expanding started with WDEV, which had always been an AM station, adding an FM station. That same year, the company applied for ownership of WLVB in Morrisville. The radio station had been defunct for some time, but the FCC was accepting applications for the purchase of the station. Squier and company prevailed, and in 1996, Radio Vermont Group turned WLVB into a country radio station.

A former rock and roll station purchased in 1997 was recast as an all classical station broadcasting out of Stowe as WCVT. Squier says he wanted to "prove that there was an audience and an economic base broad enough to support a classical station." The group wrapped up it's most recent purchase in 1999, adding WKDR, the Burlington talk radio station.

"As far as our strategic plan every one of our purchases served a specific community," Michaels says. "Each station has its own identity, which puts together a unique corporate footprint. There's a little overlap as far as geography is concerned, but each one has a community of listeners and advertisers."

Phil Maglione, vice president of sales for the Radio Vermont Group says the focus of the individual stations makes it easier for him to sell advertising.

"I try to take the consistency that our radio stations offer into the group's sales efforts," Maglione says. "As clients struggle to meet their daily challenges, they need a consistent marketing plan they can count on. But, that doesn't mean I can go to the same advertiser with the same product over and over again."

While WDEV celebrates its 70th anniversary this month, Radio Vermont Group is committed to keeping up the tradition that made WDEV the choice of so many kitchen radios throughout the years, but also to developing new strategies to give the group's new stations a shot at the same kind of longevity. "We live in a 'What have you done for me lately,' society," Michaels says. "If we just sat here and talked about being 70 years old, we'd be dead in the water. While its nice to be around after 70 years, we have to stay tuned to what's relevant. We still believe radio is best when radio is local." And WDEV will become local to more listeners with the "significant power increase" for WDEV that is planned by the end of this summer.

As for Squier, the future of his company and the radio industry will always hold his attention, but it's the pure love of his job that he says keeps him going to the station every day. And it sounds like he's not considering an early retirement. "When I fall off my perch, it will be in Vermont," he says, "and my retirement will be about the day I fall off the perch." •

Originally published in July 2001 Business People-Vermont