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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Decaying radio station has historic background

Sometimes an eyesore has an interesting story to tell, and just needs someone to tell it. One such case is an abandoned radio station in Prospect, Connecticut, where WIOF-FM (W-104) operated for 20 years before being sold and moved to a new location. During its life in Prospect, W-104 played country music, then soft rock (Magic 104), followed by Top 40 (Star 104) and finally alt rock.

Logo for WIOF in its country era.
The vacant WIOF building as it
appeared in 2009. Note that the STL
tower is still in place.
The simple 70s-style brick studio was built in 1973, as the successor to WWCO-FM, which was the first FM in Connecticut to broadcast a country music format. At the time, WWCO AM and FM were owned by entertainer and business mogul Merv Griffin. In 1973, after selling WWCO, Griffin's radio group purchased another AM station, soon-to-be all-news WPOP in Hartford.

The FM station was given new call letters (WIOF was chosen because the letters resembled the numbers in W-104) and was moved to a brick building on a steep hill in Prospect. Merv Griffin himself attended the dedication and ribbon cutting and a carved wooden sign with gold lettering was placed on the hillside proclaiming "Upcountry Stereo W-104."

Industry ad for Schafer automation.
W-104 found success with a live morning show (Rick Shea handled the morning slot for 11 years, back to 1967) and automated country music filled the rest of the schedule. The automation was provided by Schafer Corporation, a leader in the burgeoning FM radio automation market. The machinery switched between four reel-to-reel tape decks playing "Great American Country" by Drake Chenault.
The WIOF building as it appeared in
2019. Note the weeds and overgrowth.

The tapes were sequenced in a meticulous manner and even included an announcer - nationally known personality Bob Kingsley, who passed away in October after a long career as one of the nation's top country music disc jockeys.

Commercials and jingles on cartridges were loaded into huge, revolving carousels, then played at the correct (or sometimes incorrect) times. There were even time-announce cartridges that segued back to the music after commercial sets.

I had the opportunity to work weekends at W-104 from fall of 1977 to spring of 1978, after which country music was replaced by easy listening Magic 104 - where the announcers were soft spoken and the music was supposedly suitable for office environments.
Cell tower at the site of the
former WIOF antenna

Door to the former back office
covered in graffiti and pried
As an 19 year old college kid, I couldn't believe my good fortune to be hired there. My shift, as awful as it might seem, ran from Saturdays at 7 p.m until Sunday at 8 a.m. When the job ended, I came away with new friends, a lot of knowledge about the radio business, general contempt for station owners, and a slight fascination with country music.

Around 1993, SFX/Clear Channel (later iHeart Media) acquired WIOF and WPOP, and studios were moved to Newington and later to downtown Hartford. Since then, the Prospect building has been allowed to decay, become overgrown and vandalized. It turns out the real value of the property is behind and just north of the radio building, on four acres of land next to a large banquet facility.

Old electric meters on the
side of the building.
SFX held onto the site until 2005, when the money-making potential of cellular phones was realized. Cellular antennas for T-Mobile and AT&T were placed on the unused 197-foot radio tower. In 2010, in a mammoth feat of engineering, the tower was replaced by a 150-foot monopole which remains today.

The next land sale was in 2013, when Richland Towers Management paid $666,400 for the property, which was transferred to American Tower Corporation of Watertown, Mass. five years later.

Sadly, the story ends here. My repeated attempts to contact American Tower have been unsuccessful. I want to ask why the studio building hasn't been torn down or spruced up after 25 years of being empty, especially in light of its interesting history as a major FM radio station. The situation reminds me of a Steven King novel, in which a building's past can suddenly come alive when you least expect it.  Remember The Shining?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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