Bill Swartley, 104; launched New England’s first TV station

Mr. Swartley accepted an award from Robert Gardiner of United Community Services of Metropolitan Boston in 1964.
Mr. Swartley accepted an award from Robert Gardiner of United Community Services of Metropolitan Boston in 1964.

In the race to own the airwaves, broadcasting pioneer Bill Swartley launched New England’s first TV station on June 9, 1948. Viewers first saw an aerial shot of the transmission tower with a voice proclaiming: “WBZ-TV is on the air.”

Mr. Swartley, who dabbled in performing radio plays earlier in his career, managed WBZ radio and TV, both owned by Westinghouse. At the time, some TV broadcasts included little more than sports games or the test patterns that helped manufacturers and dealers tune sets.

“The first big national show was ‘Howdy Doody,’ ” Mr. Swartley said in a 2010 interview with the Needham Times, when he was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame at 102. “We showed that in the morning for the kids and they loved it.”


Mr. Swartley, a former regional vice president for Westinghouse and a longtime resident of Newton and Nantucket, died of heart failure Jan. 23 in a hospice in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He was 104.

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“It was clear to Bill Swartley television was the next thing and he wanted to make sure Westinghouse was ahead of the curve,” said Donna L. Halper, a broadcast historian who teaches at Lesley University. “He didn’t harrumph at the new technology. He had a very forward-thinking attitude.”

She said Mr. Swartley and program director Gordon Swan “worked together to make sure WBZ-TV would be the first to go on the air in Boston and to ensure it would be at the forefront of good programming. And it was.”

Born in 1908 in North Wales, Pa., a small town north of Philadelphia, Wilmer C. Swartley Jr. was the second of four children. His father was an entrepreneur who rebelled against Pennsylvania Dutch country farm life, taught himself English, and launched a steel company.

Mr. Swartley graduated from Cornell University in the early 1930s with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and played violin in the university orchestra.


He kept playing violin until months before his death, sometimes taking requests for tunes he performed over the phone for friends.

“My favorite was ‘Danny Boy,’ of course, and he’d put down the phone and he’d play,” said his friend Joe Ryan, who spent 31 years in broadcasting and worked with Mr. Swartley at WBZ in the 1960s.

Ryan recalled an era during which he and Mr. Swartley would conduct scores of interviews with community leaders as part of a Federal Communications Commission rule requiring license holders to survey their market’s needs.

“He was a real pleasure to work with,” Ryan said. “He was a fine gentleman and he’ll really be missed. They don’t make them like him anymore.”

Mr. Swartley began his Westinghouse career in Pittsburgh before being sent to clean house at a radio station in Fort Wayne, Ind.


“In those days of radio, broadcasting was entertainment and the managers of the stations I soon found out were playboys,” Mr. Swartley said in the Needham Times interview. “They were womanizers who acted like Hollywood big shots. The company was getting fed up with the actions of the entertainers and the managers.”

‘It was clear to Bill Swartley television was the next thing and he wanted to make sure Westinghouse was ahead of the curve.’

He spent two years at WOWO radio in Fort Wayne before Westinghouse sent him to Boston to shape up WBZ radio, where a manager had consumed too many beers at the company picnic and used coarse language on the air, Swartley recalled.

“I had to call the FCC and tell them what had happened,” Mr. Swartley said. “We told them that it had happened too quickly and that we had made an on-air apology.”

During World War II, he became a major in the Army. He returned to WBZ in 1946, according to his family.

He ran a tight ship. Westinghouse enforced a strict no-alcohol rule and Mr. Swartley once fired a technician for drinking beer in the TV station during the holidays, recalled retired WBZ cameraman Nat Whittemore, who began working for the station in 1957.

“He made you responsible for your own actions,” Whittemore said. “He was a no-nonsense boss and he was certainly fair.”

Mr. Swartley was married for 70 years. He met his future wife, Eleanor McKnight, in Pittsburgh when he had minor surgery and she was his nurse.

When they were living in Fort Wayne, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

As a sign of Mr. Swartley’s optimism, “he bought her a fur coat for Christmas and spread it on her sanitarium bed, betting she would get well to wear it. She did,” his family wrote in a tribute.

“He was a glass-half-full person,” said his daughter, Ariel of Los Angeles. “He saw the good in whatever was happening. He was really positive.”

Mr. Swartley’s wife died in 2007 at age 95.

“He was very generous and had the most integrity of anyone I ever met,” said his granddaughter, Austen Rachlis of Los Angeles. “He was very exacting. He was opinionated, but open to other people’s points of view. He just really liked people.”

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. April 27 in the chapel at Newton Cemetery.

During Mr. Swartley’s tenure at WBZ, some of those he hired became New England broadcasting legends, such as radio and TV host Dave Maynard, radio news anchor Gary LaPierre, and meteorologist Don Kent.

Handling both radio and television was “two headaches at once,” Mr. Swartley told the Globe in a 2008 interview.

“We had to play at both sides,” he said. “We needed circulation to pay the freight in television, and the more circulation we got, the fewer people watched radio.”

Mr. Swartley also was a past president of Boston Rotary Club. After he retired from WBZ in 1969, he enjoyed puttering in his workshop, reading poetry, and spending time on Nantucket, his family said.

At his induction luncheon into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, Mr. Swartley put his walker aside as he entered the ballroom. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, Halper recalled.

“This guy was old school,” she said. “He had deep respect for radio and he had a deep respect for television. It wasn’t one or the other. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at