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IDEAS | TED WIDMER

Channel 38: Broadcasting to hearts and minds

Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant in 1978
Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant in 1978Handout

Emily Dickinson may have been a recluse, but she had a room with a view. Specifically, she liked to look out her windows. There were 75 of them in the Dickinson home in Amherst, and she made liberal use of them, peppering her poetry with references to objects sighted through glass. “By my window have I for scenery,” she wrote in 1864. To a friend in 1884, she wrote that she had built a “permanent rainbow” by putting hyacinths outside one of them.

For children growing up a century later, a different kind of window brought in the outside world. Television was a rainbow unto itself, especially after color was introduced in 1953. Future historians may have trouble tracking the interior lives of New Englanders, because so much that was broadcast into the hearts and minds of young Bostonians has simply vanished into the ether. But with some new tools, including YouTube, where old archival footage lives forever, it’s possible to go back through some of those windows.

The history of Boston television goes back a long time now. As with the American Revolution, the trouble began in Lexington, where there were pioneers tinkering with the new technology in the 1920s, making crude broadcasts available to the small number of people who could receive them. Network broadcasting began in the late 1940s, when GIs were returning from World War II, starting families, building homes, and putting TV sets at the center of their new reality. The stations came in quick succession: WBZ (channel 4) was launched June 9, 1948, as an NBC affiliate; the CBS affiliate was WNAC, and it started 12 days later, on June 21, 1948. Channel 5 came online later (Nov. 26, 1957) as an ABC affiliate, WHDH. The historian’s job is not made easier by the fact that many of the affiliations and call letters have switched since then. Channel 2 started on May 2, 1955; its call letters, WGBH, paid tribute to the place where its transmitter beamed out its programs, atop the Great Blue Hill in Milton. That is sacred ground for Massachusetts historians; the original place referred to in the word “Massachusetts,” which means “at the big hill.”

It would be simple to poke fun at the triviality of early television, when it was often described as a “vast wasteland,” in the words of Newton Minow, President Kennedy’s FCC chair. As if to prove it, the S.S. Minnow on “Gilligan’s Island” was named after him.

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But a lot of light came through these windows: the Red Sox and the Boston Braves (nearly in an all-Boston World Series that first year, 1948); Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; Sputnik, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates, which were, of course, popular locally. Boston stations innovated with programming of their own — Julia Child’s cooking shows, for example, which began in 1963. And they followed national dramas, too. The Vietnam War played out nightly on the network news throughout the 1960s, but there were happier stories as well, and one of the reasons the 1967 Red Sox were a sensation is that so many New Englanders could watch the games live on TV, on Channel 5.

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By their next World Series, in 1975, the Red Sox had switched to Channel 38, WSBK, and here it is worth pausing to celebrate a cherished local institution. The major networks on the VHF band were always richer, and their signals easier to receive. UHF was slower to arrive, after some resistance from the FCC and lobbying by the big networks. Younger readers will have no idea what UHF even means. “Ultra-High Frequency,” as it was called, came fitfully, from smaller broadcast towers, and its signals were more easily blocked by hills and buildings — older readers will remember the joy of adjusting the antenna, sometimes adding a coat hanger, to improve a TV’s reception. In fact, the Great Blue Hill was a major impediment to those living south of it.

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After a law passed by Congress in 1962, TV manufacturers were required to include UHF tuners, which were allocated to stations between numbers 14 and 83. Boston was given 25, 38, 56, and 69 (the latter never used).

Channel 38 did not seem likely to break any new ground at first. It launched in 1964 as WIHS, an affiliate of the local Catholic archdiocese, heavy on religious broadcasting and unlikely to appeal to the surging demographics of the baby boom. But after it was purchased by a small media chain, Storer Broadcasting, in 1966, it soon broke away from the pack with an innovative blend of old movies, original programming, and lots of sports. The call letters were switched to WSBK, and soon the station began to acquire the rights to broadcast local sports. Beginning in the 1967, it had the Bruins, exactly as they were beginning a sensational run that would include two Stanley Cup titles during the Bobby Orr era. Ratings were so good that Storer owned the Bruins outright between 1972 and 1975.

Channel 38’s timing was good again in 1975, when it began to broadcast 100 Red Sox games a season. With two major Boston teams, WSBK earned a bit of swagger — and began to command more respect from advertisers. At the same time, it retained some of the gleeful anarchy of the smaller UHF stations, showing a lot of old Looney Tunes cartoons, Three Stooges episodes, and the much-missed “Movie Loft,” hosted by its deep-voiced, green-sweater-clad host, Dana Hersey.

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These were golden years for Channel 38. By 1978, it was the top-rated independent station in the country. At a time when the three networks had aging anchors and insipid programs like “The Love Boat,” one could reliably switch to Channel 38 and tap a richer vein, including the greatest hits of earlier television. The station’s unpredictability was part of its charm, and one could end up anywhere from “The Munsters” to a World War II drama to the complex mound gyrations of Luis Tiant, throwing Cuban missiles for the Red Sox in the middle ’70s.

Empires never last, of course, and Channel 38’s success in some ways led to its downfall. A hot property, it was bought and sold a couple times in the go-go 1980s, tried briefly to become a “superstation” in the cable era, then was acquired by Viacom in 1994. Older shows like “The Movie Loft” were phased out, WSBK lost the Red Sox after 1995, and suddenly it was hard to distinguish from the stations owned by national media concerns.

But for a few short years, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the window of the TV screen had presented some fascinating scenery. That included the Red Sox, whose Nation coalesced in the same years, thanks in no small part to a reliable local broadcaster whose quirks mirrored our own. As the Sox gird for another run at glory, the old Channel 38 deserves a tip of the cap for elevating a team into a great local story, long-running, with multiple plot lines. For a generation raised in front of the window of television, it would be hard to ask for a better show.

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Ted Widmer is the Saunders Fellow for Public Engagement at Brown University and a senior fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.