If you live long enough, eventually you’ll see touchstones of your past vanish, one at a time. You’ll drive by an empty lot where your old home, or shop, or teenage hangout, or dive bar used to be, and go “aww,” because those were the places where so many memorable things happened. You understand they had gone to seed and were beyond salvage, but still . . .
That’s how I feel today, because they pulled the plug on WDCD radio, AM 1540. This is no great loss to current broadcasting; I tuned past there last week and heard some fringe medical huckster selling magic potions, and the rest of its programming was on par with that for thrills and entertainment. No, the “aww” is because this used to be the mighty WPTR, 1540, and it’s gone now, probably for good.
WPTR hit the air in 1948, its call letters reflecting ownership by the Patroon Broadcasting Company. It loped along unremarkably for years, excluding the time in 1953 when an American Airlines flight crashed into its enormous towers. PTR suddenly became a player in 1957 when it switched to a Top 40 format. The station soon moved into a building next to the Mohawk Drive-In on Central Avenue in Colonie, where you could drive up and watch the DJs at work, and maybe grab a free 45 or such if they were feeling generous, all very American Graffiti.
By 1963, the early skirmishes in local Top 40 radio had settled (with WROW 590 and WABY 1400 throwing in their respective towels), leaving WTRY and WPTR as the two rock & roll radio giants in our area. They battled it out for the remainder of the 1960s, each gathering a large and devoted following.
It’s worth mentioning here just how much radio was a part of the boomers’ cultural fabric. It was a place of our own, playing our music, the jungle telegraph of America’s burgeoning youth culture. The DJs weren’t just disc spinners, they were our friends, voices who lived with us night after night, people we could actually call on the phone and they would say hi and maybe play our dedications. They were our celebrities, and our parents didn’t even know their names: Boom Boom Brannigan, Charlie Brown, Bob Badger, Johnny Walker, Roger Scott, Chris ‘Topher’ Randall, Ed Dague (yep!), Wild Child, Tom Shovan, J.W. Wagner and Mark Allen, among dozens more.
With 50,000 watts of AM power in a directional antenna pointed northeast, WPTR was heard far and wide. It was a favorite among Navy personnel sailing the North Atlantic. It had listeners in Canada, the United Kingdom, and even New Zealand when conditions were right. It was so powerful that nearby residents routinely called to complain about hearing it on their telephones, their TVs, and even their fillings!
As big a deal as WPTR was, its glory days were short-lived. While popular music began to gravitate to FM in the ’70s, WPTR limped along with its Top 40 programs until 1980, when it switched to country music, then to talk in 1988, Christian music in 1995, and a polyglot of failed formats up to the present day.
AM radio is a medium in decline. I’m not even sure who listens to it anymore; certainly no one I know. For most kids and many teens, radio—AM, FM, or satellite—isn’t even a factor in their lives. It’s certainly lost its allure as a business; dozens of AM stations across the country are going dark, their property now more valuable as real estate than antenna fields. The current owners claim that “WDCD will suspend operations for a period during which it will develop and prepare to deploy a new program format and reposition its voice and identity in the community,” and we shall see. For now, at 1540 on the dial—a spot that once exploded with music and fun—there’s nothing but static. Farewell, WPTR, and thanks.