WBZ NewsRadio, a pioneering voice in the early days of radio and a fixture in the Boston media landscape, is marking its centennial anniversary on Sunday.
The station’s first broadcast hit Massachusetts airwaves 100 years ago on Sept. 19, 1921, from the fairgrounds of the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, now best known as “The Big E.” It’s one of the oldest radio stations in the US and was the first in the country to receive a commercial license, according to records.
To mark the occasion, tidbits of history from previous broadcasts have played on WBZ airwaves over the past 100 days, and the celebration will culminate on Sunday with a reporter broadcasting live from the Big E.
Recent listeners could hear an on-air host in 1963 describe “the shock, the grief, [and] the stunning numbness,” of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In another clip, veteran reporter Streeter Stuart wonders aloud “let me know if I’m still on the air,” after the WBZ-TV television tower in Brighton came crashing down in high winds from Hurricane Carol in 1954.
In a nod to the station’s centennial year, Governor Charlie Baker issued WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM a governor’s citation Wednesday and President Joe Biden, who has given interviews on the station’s broadcasts a number of times, sent a personalized note.
“Radio has long been an important aspect of American life — narrating the triumphs and tragedies that have defined America as well as the day-to-day news that keeps listeners engaged with their communities,” Biden wrote. “Over the decades, radio stations like WBZ NewsRadio have been on the forefront of journalism, providing entertainment and valuable information to people who tune in throughout the day.”
A former Westinghouse property that was based in East Springfield in its early years, the radio station’s first Boston broadcast hit airwaves on Feb. 24, 1924, from the Hotel Brunswick in downtown under the WBZA call letters — WBZ was reserved for Springfield.
It wasn’t until 1931 — 10 years after its first broadcast — that the station’s focus (and the call letters) WBZ shifted to Boston. There, the station began to thrive, dipping into sports and airing interviews with big-name politicians.
“For a very long time, we were called the spirit of New England,” said Bill Flaherty, WBZ NewsRadio’s director of operations. “That was the slogan for WBZ and I think that has never gone away. That Boston spirit, the Boston personality is still here.”
Countless legendary broadcasters have appeared over the decades on WBZ radio. There was Don Kent, the innovatory meteorologist, who split his time between WBZ TV and radio for nearly three decades beginning in 1951. Carl DeSuze was the signature morning host for more than 40 years, beginning his tenure in 1942 and retiring in 1985.
Over its first decades, the station’s spotlight toggled between reports, music, and talk shows. It was in 1991 during the first Gulf War that its sole priority pivoted to the news.
“There was bombing going on, and I remember coming in the next morning — I was working with Tom Bergeron at the time — and I looked at him and I said, ‘I don’t think we should be playing Christopher Cross anymore,’” said Flaherty, recalling a conversation with the former Boston radio personality. ”And Tom said, ‘I don’t think we should be playing music at all.’”
WBZ radio has shifted in ownership twice in recent years, becoming a CBS affiliate in 1995 after Westinghouse acquired the TV giant, then shifting again in 2017 when it was sold off to iHeart Media.
Through it all, the station has remained viable through decades of ever-shifting American culture. But its core product — straight, to-the-point newscasts — has stayed the course.
It’s news hours still feature the same, fast-paced news hits they did 100 years ago. What has changed, Flaherty says, is the marketing, which has adapted to each new punch of the fluctuating news industry.
Effective social media strategies, for example, have helped extend the station’s reach beyond its typical audience. Flaherty cites the WBZ NewsRadio TikTok as a particular success (as of Friday, the account had amassed well over 250,000 likes).
“In the last 20 years, with how the media landscape has changed, it is quite amazing,” said Flaherty. “We have changed different frequencies as the technology changed. But basically, we’ve been around 100 years, giving information to New England — the information that they need— and it hasn’t changed a lot.”