Friday, February 12, 2010

WPRO on tractor power

The book, Sudden Sea" by R.A. Scotti summarized the event:
"When WPRO, a Providence radio station, lost it's transmitting tower, the manager connected the engine from a farmer's tractor to a power generator and resumed broadcasting."
The 1938 hurricane laid waste from the Hamptons on Long Island all the way to Mattapoisett Rhode Island. The small mention got me thinking about the difficulties of staying on air in a disaster. 630 WPRO-AM was in a very dangerous situation. It reminded me of the more recent herculean efforts of stations in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. I saw a related note on NERW here.
"While the building - a two-story wood-sided affair, painted blue - looks relatively recent from the outside, it conceals a much older core: this facility was actually built back in 1938 as a transmitter site for WPRO, whose studios were then in downtown Providence at the Cherry & Webb department store, which owned the station for decades.
It was built "back in 1938" because the original, like much of Providence, was completely destroyed by winds clocked at 186 miles per hour and a powerful storm surge that ran into downtown Providence over 25 feet high. On September 21st 1938 that was true of almost everything on coastal New England south of Cape Cod.

For most tales of the destructive gale, this is a footnote. But in that moment WPRO-AM was the only station in Providence. their tale of rising up out of the flood waters to serve their community deserves some attention. I'd like more information on the type of tractor and the configuration used to power the transmitter but some things we can guess. We can assume that in the torrent, their tower was destroyed. I know that they were back on air in a commercial capacity by 1939 because they were hiring. They hired Edwin O'Connor in the Fall of 1939 at $15 a week as an announcer.WPRO has a poorly documented history. Most sources cite a 1924 start date, but all confuse their 3-part history with WLSI, WDWF and WPRO. They shared time on 1210. Some histories change the WDWF calls to WDWK. One thing is certain, It's been 86 years and nobody knows for sure anymore. It's more concrete history begins in 1931, when it and WDWF were bought by the Cherry & Webb Department Store as The Cherry & Webb Broadcasting Company. The Epic Jeff Miller Radio History site makes the single notation:
"June 10, 1924. WKBF (WDWF, WDWF-WLSI) Cranston RI (merged: WFCI/WPAW/WPRO)"
It indicates more clearly that WLSI predates even that date. But when I examine the lists of AM stations in 1924 all I see from that set is 1050 WKBF-AM operating in Cranston. Tha tmeans that all the others arose after publication of the Department of Commerce list that year and before the 1925 edition. None of them existed in 1924. They all list transmitters in Cranston and studios in Providence when hey list anything at all. Before Cherry & Webb they were all owned by Dutee W. Flint & Lincoln Studios. Interestingly they copyrighted the Cherry & Webb Broadcasting brand in 1934 after they launched 630 WPRO. Into full-time service. WPRO joined the CBS Network in 1937.

So to fast-forward to 1938. The Transmitter is in Cranston, South of Providence. It is closer to the ocean than Providence. The winds would be stronger and the water higher. The transmitter in Cranston is lost. There is no power, the roads are closed. The lines from Providence to Cranston are down. We have no way to know where the station began it's emergency broadcasts or exactly how. But I'd guess there was no tractor in downtown Providence. It is more likely the engineer located locally in Cranston set up his improvised generator locally in Cranston and broadcast programming personally as a staff of one. The 1938 Ford-Ferguson tractors had 4 cylinders and certainly had the horse-power to power a small transmitter.

After the storm they relocated the Metropolitan theatre Building in East Providence and erected a brand new Blaw-Knox tower.