A Brief History of WRKL Radio

Rockland County, New York had no radio voice of its own in 1960. Al Spiro, an engineer with WNEW in New York City, was busy trying to remedy that situation, conducting test broadcasts with a small transmitter. Part of his efforts to convince the Federal Communications Commission that he could squeeze an AM station into the county, he needed to show that the FCC's own data was flawed. Specifically, the map that the Commission used to determine how far radio signals would travel in the area was incorrect. Spiro's experimental measurements proved that radio waves were attenuated by the area's poor soil conductivity to a much greater extent than the FCC's map indicated. This finding led the Commission to grant Spiro's application for a 1000 Watt daytime radio station on 910 kHz in Rockland County. Protection of co-channel stations in New Britain, CT and Scranton, PA dictated that a two-tower directional antenna would be needed. The necessary real estate in Mt. Ivy was purchased, and tower construction followed. WRKL hit the air on July 4, 1964 at 9:10 AM, with Spiro proclaiming that it was 'Radio Independence Day' for Rockland County. Eleven days later, Al Spiro hosted the first WRKL "Hotline" program, a telephone talk show that became the centerpiece of the station's programming for the next 30-plus years. It was called an 'electronic town meeting', and drew citizens and politicians as listeners and participants. Even those who said that they couldn't stand "Hotline", listened for fear that they'd miss something. Indeed, "Hotline" was the prototype for telephone talk on the radio.

The original WRKL offices and studios were in a set of house trailers located close to U.S. Route 202. It was not unusual to hear the sounds of passing traffic over the air. On July 22, 1967, much of WRKL was burned to the ground by a right-wing group that resented an interview WRKL had aired with a representative of the Congress of Racial Equality. The towers were left standing, as the fire had not spread into the adjacent Mt. Ivy swamp, but the station's transmitter was damaged beyond repair. By a lucky coincidence, Gates Radio Corporation of Quincy, IL had just built a new 1000 Watt transmitter that was bound for Hackensack, New Jersey's WJRZ 970 (known for years as WWDJ, and now WNYM). The manufacturer retuned the transmitter for 910 kHz and had it diverted to WRKL, where it was installed. Listeners brought carloads of 78 RPM & LP records to the WRKL site, to help restock the station's music library. On July 27, thanks to the Herculean efforts of the staff and volunteers, the station returned to the air from an undamaged portion of one of the trailers. Soon thereafter, the "Al Spiro Fire Dance" raised $5000 towards a new fireproof building for WRKL. Groundbreaking, or rather, the sound of the first of many pilings being driven into the ground for the new building was broadcast live on the air, with Spiro doing the play-by-play. A single-story concrete building went up over the next year, and on Sunday October 13, 1968 at 6 AM, WRKL signed on from its new digs. Sadly, Al Spiro never saw the completed structure. He'd passed away following a heart attack in June of that year.

From the start, the station programmed a heavy schedule of news, with broadcasts of world & national news on the hour, and local news on the half-hour. This practice continued until 1977, when management decided that all newscasts should incorporate world, national, and local news. Morning drive was filled with expanded 35-minute newscasts at 6 and 7, and a 40-minute cast beginning at 7:55. In May 1979, news director John Russell briefly flirted with an all-news block from 6 to 9:10 A.M., using rotating anchors Ken Voight, Marty Thorsen and Russell himself. It was an experiment which did not last beyond its two week on air trial. A midday expanded newscast, "The Midday Report", ran for many years on the station from 11:30 until the news ran out. Sometimes this took less than 30 minutes; other times it went well past noon. In those days, "Hotline" began at 12:30 PM, and ran until 2. Later, the midday news moved to high noon, and was followed at 12:15 by "Hotline". Afternoons had "The Afternoon Report", which depending on the time of the year, was heard at either 4 (November through January, because of the earlier signoff those months) or 5 PM. This too was a 30-minute broadcast of the day's news, both locally and worldwide. WRKL was recognized many times over the tears by the Associated Press and the New York State Broadcaster's Association for its outstanding newscasts and coverage of special events. A national duPont-Columbia award and regional Edward R. Murrow award also graced the office walls of WRKL. The awards were so numerous, it was often joked that an annex would have to be built to house them all.

In July 1976, news director John Russell hired Mark Hanok to be the station meteorologist. Hanok's forecasts were exclusive to the station, and were often more accurate than the National Weather Service's predictions for Rockland County, particularly when it came to snow. Mark's unique staccato delivery became a staple of every Monday through Saturday newscast. He remained with WRKL right to the end, and today is heard on the other Rockland radio station, WRCR-AM in Spring Valley.

Local sports also figured prominently in WRKL's community radio format. For years the station broadcast a local high school football "Game of the Week" on Saturday afternoons. There were even broadcasts from the "Deerhead Inn Softball tournament", the Volvo Women's tennis tournament from Ramapo College, and numerous high school softball & basketball games. And speaking of remotes, who could forget the annual Pearl River St. Patrick's Day Parade broadcasts every March?

Through it all, "Hotline", WRKL's signature telephone talk show, continued well into the 1990's, featuring for many years, Betty Ramey, Al Spiro's widow. She would share hosting duties, often with the current news director. Names like Art Athens, Jack McIntyre, Charlie Reina, John Russell, Bob Lemoullec, Ken Voight, Steve Watson, Brenda Brooks, Jessica Byrne and Rich Mendelson took turns behind the mike. Starting in the mid 1980's, JoAnn Srebnik became the regular moderator, hosting both the regular daytime "Hotline", and, when the station began to operate with reduced post-sunset power, "Twilight Hotline". The station also featured a Saturday morning call-in show for the brown thumbs in the audience, "The Garden Hotline", which can trace its roots back to 1964 as well. Local agricultural extension agent Ralph Snodsmith hosted the show beginning in 1965, and later took his act on the road to the ABC Talkradio Network and WOR radio in New York, while continuing on WRKL. Starting out as a spring & summer 60-minute show, the "Garden Hotline" expanded into a year-round 90-minute format in 1977. The show was so popular that Snodsmith usually spent half an hour after the show was over speaking to callers off the air. Ralph took the "Garden Hotline" to Spring Valley's WLIR radio in 1999 (today's WRCR), where it continued to air on Saturday mornings until his passing in 2010. The early 80's saw the arrival of the "Home Hotline", a program for do-it-yourselfers, following the "Garden Hotline". Unfortunately it couldn't hold the "Garden Hotline" 's audience, so was discontinued after a sucession of hosts. A few years later, the "Tax Time Hotline" aired in limited runs during late winter-early spring following the "Garden Hotline". Hosted by local CPA Scott J. Faye, "Tax Time Hotline" answered callers' questions regarding their tax filing concerns.

WRKL radio began its life as a sunrise to sunset operation, what's known in the business as a "daytimer", with 1000 Watts of power. It soon added pre-sunrise authority, allowing it to come on before sunrise, at 6 AM, with 500 Watts. This is how the station operated for many years, although an attempt was made in 1975 to obtain a full time license for 24 hour 1000 Watt broadcasting. It would have required the addition of 2 - 270 foot towers, for a total of 4, to be used at night in order not to interfere with existing stations on 910 kHz. After many years of battling with WPAT (Paterson, NJ; 930 kHz) before the Federal Communications Commission, WRKL received permission in 1982 to build the nighttime facility. More roadblocks lay ahead however. WRKL had to seek local zoning approval, as well as obtain a permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for the tower construction in the Mt. Ivy swamp, part of which is protected wetland. Coincidentally, the FCC had just granted limited low-power authority to operate until 6 PM to most daytime-only AM radio stations, including WRKL. The station immediately took advantage of this, with post-sunset power of 73 Watts. Before long this authority was extended until 2 hours past local sunset, meaning that in December, the station remained on the air until 6:30PM, and in the summer, could broadcast as late as 10:30PM. WRKL tried selling blocks of this newfound airtime to anyone interested, with mixed results. Under the pressures of an inflationary economy, and given that without any additional investment they were already providing a limited nighttime service to Rockland County, management decided in 1986 give up on building 2 more towers. WRKL's construction permit for night operation was returned to the FCC. Subsequently, the Commission extended the station's 73 Watt post-sunset operating authority to include the entire overnight period.

In 1985, the announcers, engineers and newscasters voted to certify a labor union, NABET, the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians, to represent them and negotiate an initial contract. Management & the union could not see eye to eye on wages (the company refused to offer any increase over the pre-union rate of pay) and on April 19, 1985, the 12 represented employees went on strike against Rockland Broadcasters. The bitter walkout lasted more than 3 months, with striking employees picketing daily out on Route 202 in front of the station, and in the end cost the station a significant amount of business. An agreement was signed on July 23 and ratified by the membership, who returned to their jobs in early August.

That autumn, Betty Ramey decided it was time to bail out of the radio station her late husband had founded, and in December 1985, WRKL was sold to station operations manager Bobbi Lewis, along with several partners, under the name Rockland Communicators, for $1.1 million. It was under Lewis' ownership that the above-mentioned "Twilight Hotline" program was started, from 7:05 to 8 PM. In 1988, Lewis & company (using the name Westland Communicators) purchased Westchester's WZFM-FM (107.1). Except for the simulcast on WRKL of a Saturday night oldies show originated by WZFM-FM, the two stations continued to be programmed separately.

In December 1994, WRKL and its co-owned Westchester County FM sister, which had since changed call letters to WRGX-FM, were sold to Odyssey Communications for about $6 million, thus ending over 30 years of local ownership. This time there were major changes to WRKL's equipment, format and personnel. A new transmitter was purchased, replacing one which had been in service more than 27 years, since the station rebuilt after the 1967 fire. The station repositioned itself as "AM 910 WRKL - Rockland's News & Information Leader", and tried to attract a younger audience. Management phased out the MOR music that the station had aired since its inception, and replaced it with a slate of local and network talk shows. The station promoted itself heavily, frequently going 'live on location' with its programs from various trade shows and sponsors. "Hotline" took a more confrontational, 'in your face' approach, which the community did not warm up to. Longtime announcer Steve Possell and "Hotline" host JoAnn Srebnik departed the station, and subsequently, so did many listeners. Owner Odyssey Communications changed its name in 1997 to Big City Radio, and went public as a NASDAQ-listed stock. By this time, the company had acquired additional FM stations in Fairfield County, CT as well as in suburban Los Angeles. It was clear that WRKL no longer fit into Big City's business plan, which was to establish a group of small FM stations outside major markets. In 1998 WRKL was put up for sale, and a buyer was found in Chicago's Polnet Communications, operator of 2 ethnic-formatted AM stations in the Chicago suburbs. In September of that year an agreement was signed to sell the station for $1.625 million. There was a fly in the ointment, however. The station's license to operate had technically expired in June. A renewal was anticipated, and the station allowed to continue operating, but the FCC had put the brakes on any changes at WRKL. They were investigating why the station hadn't informed them of three pending lawsuits lodged by former employees in its intial license renewal filing in February. The setback was temporary however, and on January 20, 1999, the FCC fined the station $5000 for 'willfully omitting material facts' in its renewal application, and granted the renewal of WRKL's license.1 Approval of the sale to Polnet followed. A spokesman for Big City Radio told the Rockland Journal News that Big City would continue to hold the license for a 40-day period, and not to expect any changes to the station's format until then.2

Thursday March 18, 1999 was WRKL's last day as an English language station. Norman Garfield, a longtime news stringer and host for many years of "Jewish Sounds, Present Tense" on WRKL read an emotional tribute to the station, and afterwards, at 3:00 PM, WRKL signed off the air. AM910 WRKL was gone. The next afternoon the station returned to the air with "Polskie Radio", a format of Polish programming from Polnet's WNVR, AM 1030 in Northbrook, IL.

EDITOR'S NOTES:
Former WRKL owner/employee Bobbi Lewis passed away on April 19, 2002 after a long battle with cancer. She was 58.

P.S. - In early November 2002 Big City Radio announced that it was auctioning off its radio stations in order to pay off debt. By the end of 2003, Big City Radio had been voluntarily liquidated and dissolved.

P.P.S. - In June 2011 Polnet's 'Polskie Radio' format was abruptly replaced with Spanish-language religious programming from Radio Cantico Nuevo, apparently under a local marketing agreement. The same programming was heard on several AM stations in the NY/NJ/CT area, as well as on FM stations in Puerto Rico, and online. Limited English-language talk programming came from Talkline Communications. In February 2013, WRKL was up for sale again, for a reported asking price of $3 million. A few months later, in June 2013, the Spanish programming ceased, and was replaced by a jukebox of sorts, playing a library of about 200 rock songs. For now WRKL has now joined the ranks of standalone AM stations whose owners have given up on them.
As of early 2015, the station is still for sale.

Jeff Baker 2002-2015 KIOTR

(The preceeding account was written based on personal recollections of the author & other past employees & friends of WRKL. It is believed to be accurate, but neither the author nor this website accepts any liability for errors or omissions. So there.)

1Federal Communications Commission Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability - DA990206. See it here
2Rockland Journal News 1/29/99. See it here.

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