Over and out: Radio Park will go on auction block in two weeks
SARANAC LAKE — After years of decline and financial losses, Radio Park, home of local radio stations WNBZ, Y106.3 and Rock 105, goes on the auction block in two weeks. The Saranac Lake radio company, first on the air in 1927, marked its 90th year in September but is barely broadcasting.
Of the five frequencies associated with Saranac Lake Radio, only 106.3 continues to broadcast an automated playlist. The other four have gone silent.
Two properties associated with WNBZ will be sold at tax auction Nov. 29 at the Best Western Hotel in Ticonderoga. Officials said that WNBZ owner Edward “Ted” Morgan hasn’t paid taxes on the properties since 2014. The parcel at 159 Santanoni Ave. is listed as $3,598.31 in arrears. The other, at 160 Santanoni Ave., owes $13,317.64. The properties will be sold to the highest bidder.
The white building near the radio tower appears to have been empty for some time, with two windows left open to the weather, an abandoned van with rotted tires parked in the back and junk scattered around the yard.
This is the second time Radio Park has gone up for tax auction. In 2014, Morgan was the highest bidder at the auction. He paid his tax bill and saved the properties. The last day he could have paid and retained ownership this time was Nov. 15.
Morgan moved WNBZ’s offices to Plattsburgh in fall 2016. Its website has been down for months, its Twitter feed went silent in January, and its “Talk of the Town” Facebook page hasn’t been updated since fall 2016.
Morgan did not respond to emails or phone calls. The number for Radio Park is no longer in service.
“The last I heard, he was in the Bahamas or something,” said former radio station engineer Chris Brescia. “I think he’s trying to hide because he owes so many people money.”
The list of creditors includes Lake Placid Electric, the Federal Communications Commission and the owners of towers on Mount Pisgah and Lyon Mountain who rented space for Morgan’s transmitters.
Morgan bought the station in 1998, and right away there were signs of trouble, according to Brescia.
“The first thing he did was he automated it. He eliminated all his staff. He eliminated sports. He also dropped the AP wire,” said Brescia. “Those radio stations were going strong until Ted got them, then he totally ran them into the ground. When Jim Rogers had it, it was the center of community life in Saranac Lake.”
James Rogers III and his wife Keela owned the Saranac Lake radio stations for 35 years before selling them to Morgan.
WNBZ was the first radio station between Albany and the Canadian border when it first went on the air on Sept. 11, 1927, when Saranac Lake was a destination for tuberculosis patients.
“They were city people, so they had radios,” said Jim Rogers. “So they needed a radio station.”
Jim and Keela Rogers bought the station from Jeanne and Jacques DeMattos in 1963, when Jim was 30. It had started on AM, changing frequencies several times before it settled on 1240 in 1956. It changed locations, too, starting at 110 (then 107) Broadway, a building now occupied by the H&R Block tax preparation service. The Rogers moved it from the Berkeley Hotel on the corner of Main and Broadway to Radio Park, which was built as a fallout shelter.
“The federal government told us to put it in and gave us money to do it,” Jim remembered. “Then it took me a lonnnng time to collect it, which made the contractor unhappy.”
The building, he said, is on a thick concrete slab with 18-inch-thick walls.
Neither Brescia nor Rogers believe any of the old equipment is still in the building.
“There’s nothing there,” said Rogers. “I hope the college buys it — they want to square off the property — but if they go to take the building down, it’s going to be a helluva job.”
The company added an FM station in 1989. Rogers said he contacted the FCC because there was a local frequency available, but they told him they wanted competition from other bidders.
“Somebody else landed it, and then they came to me for help. I was a one-third partner, and the others were a lawyer and two engineers — they were in Washington, D.C. Those guys saved me a lot of money.”
Rogers said he and his wife modeled the stations after WIRY in Plattsburgh, focusing on talk and local news.
“That’s what I wanted to do way back when,” said Jim. “You serve the public.”
“Probably, public radio is more like we were then,” said Jim. “Some really fine people worked for us back then. We had John Gagnon, he was the news man, and Gary Hague, one of the few people in this world who understood radio is the theater of the mind. He created all kinds of things that didn’t exist. John Garwood was a personality on the radio before we bought it. I walked into the radio station one morning [when it was in the Berkeley Hotel] and John had an umbrella up. It was leaking through the ceiling, onto the equipment. Somebody had overfilled a tub upstairs.”
Keela said, “We went to every dog and pony show in town. It was great fun.”
“We were quite popular in town, I think,” said Jim. “Probably the highlight was the job we did with the Olympics. WBNZ’s stuff was heard all over the world.
“The next most important thing was the ice storm of 1998. We were on the air and there wasn’t anybody else on the air. I can’t tell you how many people thanked us.
“We were tying the community together; people couldn’t get out. I remember Bloomingdale was holding some kind of community dinner, and they called us up to put the word out that they needed people to bring dessert. And then they called to say, ‘OK, call off the dessert! We’ve got tons of dessert!”
“I was even Citizen of the Year in Saranac Lake one year,” said Jim. “I think I’m the only person from Lake Placid to ever be Citizen of the Year in Saranac Lake.”
The Tri-Lakes area still retains one locally broadcast radio station, WSLP, with offices in Lake Placid.