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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

WBTN-AM radio owner donates station to S. Vermont College

12:00AM / Wednesday, November 28, 2001

In a surprise announcement earlier this month, Bob Howe, the Bennington, Vt. businessman who purchased and renovated the WBTN-AM radio station last year, announced that he would be donating the station as a gift to Southern Vermont College (SVC). Once the Federal Communications Commission paperwork is cleared up, ownership will be passed on to the college, probably in January. SVC will oversee the management of the 1,000-watt radio station, which since 1953 has provided local-interest news and talk shows to those in the Bennington County and Eastern New York region.

Due to a long-term decline in listenership, WBTN radio, which had owned both the AM and an FM frequency, sold the station to Vermont Public Radio for $876,000 in 1999. VPR continues to run programming on the FM frequency, but was not interested in using the AM. Subsequently, in 2000 Howe purchased the WBTN studio on Harmon Hill, as well as the AM frequency, from VPR for $250,000. He sunk another $250,000 into upgrading the facility, and hired back longtime talk radio personality Bob Harrington, known locally as “the voice of Bennington.” With ambitious plans, Howe hired well-known personality Peggy Apple, as well as on-air commentators Joe Welp, Timothy Thompson and Joe Woodruff, and two other staff members.

Tough times hit the station earlier this year when Harrington died suddenly. In August, Howe cut staff members Apple and Welp, leaving only a “skeleton staff” of Thompson and Woodruff running the show. He hinted that he was seeking other options for the station’s future.

Howe, who owns K & H Products Limited of North Bennington, Vt., manufacturer of blue Porta-Brace® camera cover equipment, said he had entered into talks with SVC President Barbara Sirvis by August, to see if the college would be interested in accepting the station as a gift to use in conjunction with several of its programs, including business, marketing and web design. Sirvis in turn discussed the issue with the SVC Board of Trustees, to see if the station would be a viable project to stay afloat financially.

“I wanted to keep WBTN as it always has been — a locally-based radio station that provides news, weather, opinion and the morning talk show,” said Howe. “But the prospects of finding a local buyer did not look promising, so I considered the idea of giving the station to our local college to see if this use could be continued,” said Howe at the announcement, which took place at a Chamber of Commerce mixer at the station’s headquarters.

“This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for this institution,” said Sirvis. “But we also realized that it brought with it a big responsibility,” she added. “So we had to make sure that it was going to be a feasible project — and it’s certainly going to be a challenge.”

“We needed to be sure that this was something we could afford to do,” said Sirvis, who expects that advertising sales will not alone be able to bring in enough money to sustain the station’s estimated $100,000-a-year operating budget, which includes heating and electricity costs, licensing costs, and salaries for on-air hosts Thompson and Woodruff, who will become employees of the college. Headquarters will remain at Harmon Hill.

Sirvis said that the college cannot afford to subsidize the station, and that part of the program would be finding creative ways to support it. “I hope that along with the college, the whole community will feel a sense of ownership for WBTN,” said Sirvis. “We are committed to continuing its tradition of community-oriented news that is relevant to the residents of Bennington.”

“We had to take a good look at this before we made a decision,” said Jon Goodrich, a member of the SVC Board of Trustees. “After much consideration, the board is convinced that this is a great opportunity for our students and a sound investment for the college.”

The new ownership will not drastically impact the format or content of the station, said officials. While being college-owned, the station will retain both daytime deejays. In the future, SVC students will be able to host their own shows upon getting an FCC license, but those alternative programs will go on “after regular hours,” Sirvis said.

The radio station will be integrated into several studies at the college. Students in a web design class will be creating a web site for the station, and marketing classes will begin an advertising campaign to increase awareness of the station within the region. Technology classes will be working to broadcast the station on the web through streaming audio. “To have this sort of real-world institution that we can integrate into our curriculum is just incredible,” said Sirvis. “This is a valuable tool through which we can teach our students lessons of managing a business, building community support, applying technology to improve efficiency. It’s not going to be easy, but if anyone can do it, I know our students are up to the task.”

“We don’t expect this to be a phenomenally successful venture,” said Sirvis. “Radio is a tough business. But Bob’s gift has given us a great project that will have a long-lasting impact on the college and the local community,” said Sirvis. “I cannot thank him enough.”
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