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Bella English

Community is top news at family-run WATD

Ed Perry at the mike at WATD, which he helped start in the mid 1970s.

Katherine Perry

Ed Perry at the mike at WATD, which he helped start in the mid 1970s.

Since 1977, radio station WATD-FM in Marshfield has served, as the owner puts it, “15 or 20 towns south of Route 128, east of Route 24, west of the ocean, and north of the Cape Cod Canal.” That’s primarily Plymouth and Norfolk counties, with a little Bristol thrown in.

WATD has three fulltime staffers and depends on freelancers in the communities it serves. It’s never off the air, but it runs no syndicated or automated programming. It has won a slew of awards, including five prestigious Edward R. Murrows for news and feature coverage.

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At 72, owner Ed Perry isn’t above covering stories himself. He and reporter Steve Dodrill covered the recent home invasion of a Duxbury police officer. “There was a shooting in the middle of the night, and we spent the whole night covering the chase of the guy. We were there when they caught him,” says Perry. Their coverage won the station the 2013 Associated Press Award for regional radio in the breaking news category.

“It pays to be there,” Perry says. It’s his motto for covering the community he serves.

WATD is lucky to be there, in Marshfield. When Perry wanted to build a radio tower in town in the mid-1970s, he got an option on land near the Marshfield water tank. But residents revolted, and the town bought the land and set it aside for conservation. When Perry looked at a second site, he was again turned down.

Then he heard from a woman who had a parcel of land to sell next to the town landfill. When Perry went to the zoning board, residents once again complained. Nearly 200 people showed up. Some said they feared squirrels would fall to their death from the guy wires. One man worried about the geese flying into the tower on their way south.

But the zoning board had an attack of common sense, and said yes to the station. “Maybe they finally felt sorry for us,” says Perry, who fell in love with radio as a kid, and worked for the campus station while at Amherst College.

In Marshfield, Perry and his crew were so thrilled that they went for a celebratory drink at what he describes as a “combination bowling alley-Chinese restaurant.” They ordered Mai Tais and Scorpion Bowls and discussed what to call the station. Somebody finally suggested naming it after their locale: WATD. We’re At The Dump.

“We mailed a letter to the FCC and by the time we sobered up, we had the call letters.” Perry laughs at the recollection.

During the Blizzard of 1978, WATD (95.9 FM) announcers would refill the gasoline generators every two hours, and the station was able to broadcast emergency information for nearly a week when so much else was shut down. During the recent Boston Marathon bombings, WATD again filled an important local role.

“Once something like this happens in Boston, everyone understands that it could happen just as well at a local baseball game, a high school football game, any one of the multiple charitable events that happen on the South Shore,” says Perry. “And of course it affected a lot of South Shore people who work in Boston.”

Those sources are the ones that Perry and his staff began calling, to describe what they saw out their office windows. They spoke to state legislators from south of Boston and talked about what it meant for the state and area. Like any radio station worth its call letters, they got discussions going: How much would the bombers succeed in curtailing American freedoms? Would there be X-ray machines at grocery stores now?

But Perry didn’t want to totally fixate on the Marathon. “We had a murder in Brockton that week, and we spent as much time on that as we did on some portions of the bombing,” he says. “We tried not to forget that people are also dying on the streets. We tried to create a balance.”

And, in his words, “people need other stuff.” So there was also coverage of selectmen meetings, DJ’ed music programs, and Perry’s commentary, which he does at 7:45 most mornings. The segment is called, “The good, the bad and the really, really stupid.”

“Sometimes I get yelled at, but it’s really fun,” Perry says.

He’s frank about what he sees as his mission: “We basically try to glorify the communities we live in. It’s so hard to get recognized for doing good stuff. If you do something horrible, your name becomes known instantly. And there are people who just want to get their names known.”

So WATD covers the local sports teams, of course, but it also covers other youth activities. “It’s pretty easy to get your name and picture in the paper if you kick or throw a ball,” says Perry. “But not if you do drama club or orchestra. We try to find things the kids are doing that aren’t necessarily sports, and make sure they get some recognition as well.”

For instance, WATD recently recorded a mock trial at the federal courthouse in Boston, sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association. “It’s for kids who want to be lawyers to get out and practice in a courtroom,” Perry says. He’s proud to add that the Marshfield team made the semifinals.

WATD is a family affair. Perry’s wife, Carol, has been there since the start. With a master’s degree in economics, she’s the one who reminds Ed that “it’s actually a business and not a hobby.” Their daughter Katherine anchors newscasts and produces news features, including some for NPR and WGBH. Two years ago, she won an Edgar R. Murrow award for a story she did on going to the town dumps in Duxbury and Wellesley, which often yield great finds.

Their youngest son, Will, works halftime, helping with the website and keeping the computer systems going. Oldest son Franklin is coming on board soon to help with radio sales.

“We have fun with it,” Ed Perry says of the station. “And you can actually change the way people’s lives are affected.”

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.
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