The little station was known as the “Voice of Cape Ann.” From the mid-1960s well into the ’80s, the only “voice” listeners heard on Gloucester’s all-classical WVCA-FM was the dyspeptic muttering of the late Simon Geller, a one-man show who sometimes broadcast from his own apartment.
Though his knowledge of classical music was scholarly, the eccentric Geller put little stock in on-air professionalism. Devotees might hear him answering a knock at the door, or flushing the toilet. In spite of his quirks — or, more likely, because of them — Geller earned thousands of fans far beyond his adopted hometown.
Ken Philpot, an engineer by trade and an enthusiastic radio hobbyist, was one of those fans. A ham radio operator and a lover of all kinds of music, he had a particular fondness for Geller’s unscripted rants and his routine absentmindedness.
“You never knew what you’d hear,” he says. As a self-confessed lifelong “radio junkie,” he says, “you come to appreciate things that are unique.” And Geller was unquestionably that.
More than a quarter-century after Geller signed off the air for the last time, and 20 years since his death, Philpot and his son Bob have embarked on a project to bring the voice of Cape Ann back to life. They’re methodically digitizing a moldy stash of reel-to-reel tapes of Geller’s programming, hoping to create a living memorial to WVCA online. A tribute to Geller, the Internet station would also preserve a sliver of the kind of hyperlocal radio that has become nearly extinct in the age of commercial consolidation.
While surfing the Web earlier this year, Ken Philpot stumbled across a photo of Geller, with his hangdog expression and his unruly white hair. The memories came flooding back: all those hours spent listening to Geller’s classical collection and eagerly awaiting whatever strange, wonderful tangent the announcer might take next.
Philpot recalled having seen “Radio Fishtown,” a half-hour 1990 documentary by the director Henry Ferrini, about Geller and his widely publicized battle with a media company that tried to wrest away his radio license. Geller, a Lowell native, had come to Gloucester in the 1960s to establish WVCA as the only radio station in town.
In the early years, according to Ferrini, Geller operated his station in various formats: “One day might be classical, the next day rock ’n’ roll, the next day country.” But when the widow of a prominent local physician gave him a huge collection of recordings, the station went all classical.
Philpot tracked down Ferrini to order a copy of “Radio Fishtown.” Intrigued — he hadn’t sold one in some time — Ferrini replied to ask what the buyer’s connection was to Geller.
It quickly became apparent that Philpot was the catalyst the filmmaker had been seeking for nearly two decades. Not long after finishing his film, Ferrini had taken possession of several stacks of old tapes that, in effect, were WVCA: Geller’s canned station IDs, followed by his introduction of the concertos and symphonies of the master composers.
Geller left the tapes behind, sold the station (reportedly for $1 million), and moved to New York, grousing all the way. He died in 1995 at 75, in Rockville, Md.
When Ferrini stopped by Geller’s abandoned studio and discovered the tapes in the early 1990s, he learned that the radio host’s former landlord had been planning to take them to the dump. It was the dawn of the Internet era; his first thought was to digitize the recordings and create an online tribute to the radio personality. But life got in the way, and the tapes sat for years in Ferrini’s damp basement.
All these years later, after their brief correspondence a few months ago, Ferrini and Philpot agreed to work together to make the long-dormant idea for a virtual WVCA a reality.
“It was unbelievable serendipity,” says Philpot, who lives in Ohio. “I said, ‘You’ve got the right guy. It isn’t going to be fast, and it isn’t going to be painless. But boy, is it going to be fun!’ ”
Philpot and his son Bob, who lives in Lowell and, like his father, is an engineer, happened to be just the right people for the job. Both have spent countless hours tinkering with audio projects, volunteered at small radio stations, and digitized extensive collections of commercial recordings. Years ago, when Bob was young, Ken made a habit of running a tape recorder at home, documenting everyday family life. Now he calls Bob “the family archivist.”
Despite their similarities, Ken claims he and his son have disparate areas of expertise. “It’s an oversimplification,” he says, “but he’s a digital guy, and I’m analog.”
When Ken first proposed the project to his son, it took a good deal of long-distance coordination. Ferrini sent Ken boxes of 10½-inch reels — nearly 60 of them — and gave Bob about four dozen 7-inch tapes. Ken found a Teac A-2300S tape player on eBay and told his son to buy it.
To economize, Geller recorded four of his radio programs in mono on each of the 7-inch reels: one on the left-channel track, one on the right, and two more on the reverse side of the tape. It took Bob some time to find software that could split the left and right tracks. Now, at his home in Lowell, he’s converting an average of a tape a day.
“He’s beating the pants off me,” Ken says on the phone from Ohio, laughing.
The unfinished project has already had one great benefit: Working on it together has brought the father and son closer than they’ve been in years, Bob says.
“We’re banging e-mails back and forth every day. It’s all good, all of it.”
He pulls up an audio file that contains one of his favorite bloopers thus far: a station ID interrupted by a commotion that sounds like Geller knocking over a stack of tapes.
With scores of hours of programming already converted into digital files, the proposed WVCA memorial station could go live at any time. There is, however, one catch: potential licensing fees for broadcasting the recordings.
Ferrini is proposing that the nonprofit Gloucester Writers Center, where he’s a board member, petition the two major protectors of music copyrights, BMI and ASCAP, for a “dispensation for limited use” of those licenses. Last month the board agreed unanimously to back the project.
“This is a great piece of Gloucester archeology,” he says.
The Philpots have their fingers crossed.
“It’s very sad what’s happened to radio, in my view,” says Ken. “All these conglomerates owning clusters of stations. They all sound the same. Nothing has any character. Nothing is local.”
In “Radio Fishtown,” Geller is asked how he’d like to be remembered in Gloucester.
“I’d like them to forget me,” he grumbles. For some of his listeners — and perhaps someday soon for a broader audience on the Web — it’s just not that easy.