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Letters from the Porch: radio contact

Radio can connect recovering patients to the community, as WNBZ did for tuberculosis patients in Saranac Lake starting in 1927. (Photo provided by Historic Saranac Lake)

To the editor:

During this time of social distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, I have been thinking about our local history as a tuberculosis health community.

TB patients came up with creative ways to combat isolation. Spending much of their time alone, often far from family and friends, radio served as a source of entertainment and a lifeline to community.

In 1927, a time when there were fewer than 100 radio stations in the United States, Saranac Lake founded its own local radio station, WNBZ. The people at WNBZ produced locally grown radio shows tailored to keep TB patients busy, like courses in literature and history and one called “Let’s Learn Spanish.”

Ham radio allowed for two-way communication and built lasting friendships. While a patient at the Trudeau Sanatorium in the 1930s, Ed Worthington made his own amateur receiving set at a cost of $25. When not busy talking with “hams” all over the country, he developed a brisk trade repairing other patients’ radios. He went on to teach radio theory and code at the Study and Craft Guild. Thanks to Ed’s daughter Jan Dudones, Historic Saranac Lake has Ed’s beautiful ham radio in our museum collection, along with his scrapbook of call signs from other hams around the world with whom he made radio contact.

This past weekend I spoke with a local friend, Priscilla, whose father Louis was here as a TB patient. She told me that he had also developed a passion for ham radio in his time here in Saranac Lake. Louis enthusiastically continued to build radios over the course of his lifetime.

WNBZ thrived for years following the decline of the TB industry. The DeMattos family ran the station for many years, and then sold it to Jim and Keela Rogers in 1963. Jim and Keela’s “Talk of the Town” show made the station the center of community life for some 35 years. If you want to know anything more about radio and WNBZ, all you need to do is call up our friend Chris Brescia, who knows all there is to know on the topic. You can also find some great history on our wiki site at www.localwiki.org/hsl/WNBZ.

I hope that as you go forward this week, you will think of Ed and Louis, and all the patients who reached out from their bedsides across the airwaves. Our human desire to connect with each other is a beautiful thing, and it will pull us through this situation we face today.

Amy Catania

Executive director

Historic Saranac Lake

Saranac Lake

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