Ken Squier: a personal reflection

Photo by Peter Miller, Courtesy of WDEV Radio Vermont

On November 15th, Ken Squier, a much loved Vermonter, ascended into the Green Mountains above his home in Stowe. Ken was the last of his family to manage one of the few remaining “heritage radio” stations in the region, Radio Vermont, WDEV.

I grew up in Morrisville listening to Lloyd Squier and Rusty Parker on my Bakelite Zenith radio: “The Hermit of Hunger Mountain,” “Green Mountain Ballroom,” “Music to Go to the Dump By,” “The Pony Boys,” and “The Trading Post.” One could hear on The Trading Post phoned-in offers for anything from cars to tools, to animals… “for sale cheap, two guernsey heifers, good milkers, best offer.”

Before the “sanitary landfill” came into fashion, “Music To Go To the Dump By” broadcast live from local dumps, airing bluegrass, down-home country and live interviews with people about what they were dropping off and why.

I remember being at the Morrisville dump behind our house as a kid one Saturday when WDEV was broadcasting and being asked why I was there on my bike? “Gonna  pop rats with my .22 when they close,” I answered proudly into the mic.

Most nights I fell asleep listening to The Green Mountain Ballroom,” and Dad would come into my room later, kiss me goodnight, and turn off my radio. The only other station I ever listened to was a “border radio” station out of  Mexico that played “hillbilly” music.

This was the Vermont I knew as a child. I enjoyed a lifelong friendship with and reverence for WDEV’s owner Ken Squier, even when I chaired the board of his arch-enemy, Vermont Public Radio (VPR).

Licensed in 1931, WDEV was acquired by Lloyd Squier in 1935. Since then, the Squier family has contributed to and enriched the larger community of Vermont. When Lloyd died in 1979, ownership passed to his son Ken, who managed or oversaw it continuously since that time.

Citing his age, Ken put the station up for sale in 2017, but it continued under the management of Steve Cormier who had been WDEV’s ad salesperson. Ken maintained his office on the first floor of their cramped headquarters on Stowe Street in downtown Waterbury, offering a guiding hand while Cormier has continued to manage the station. Now a sale appears imminent.

WDEV is one of the few remaining “heritage radio” stations left in the region. When historical artifacts are deemed relevant to the wellbeing of a culture, society makes an effort to preserve them for their current and future value. I hope and trust this will be the case with Radio Vermont. Whether its sale will perpetuate its rich heritage for so many Vermonters or it will be acquired as a “media influencer” tool to promote the right or the left is up in the air.

WDEV was never a partisan tool of tribal politics. It’s been a community commons that carried information of all political stripes akin to London’s Hyde Park Speakers Corner. One can hear Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” or Bill Sayre’s “Common Sense Radio” and I learned from listening to both. I especially appreciated the civil discourse that free and open discussion generated.

I am known as a liberal and have many times been a guest on Bill Sayre’s show. Bill, a wise conservative Vermonter, has always had a commitment to open dialogue. Our mutual respect for a wide spectrum of ideas and opinions generated a rich friendship and an abiding respect for one another’s often differing opinions.

We could agree to disagree or, as often happened, agree. But without our on-air banter, we would never have discovered how many opinions we shared. There’s far too little of this in our social media world today where people can hurl anonymous insults at one another from a computer and say things they would never say in a town meeting, much less on air.

I would always stop by for a visit with Ken after leaving Bill’s show, and I’d tell the receptionist I needed to meet with “Dr. Squier.” She would ask, “May I tell him your complaint?” To which I would answer, “I’m suffering from acute liberalism.” She would pick up the phone and then announce to me that “Dr. Squier will see you now.”

The ownership of Radio Vermont has every right to sell to whomever they please. I just hope that the rich tradition of community radio that two generations of Squiers served up to Vermonters doesn’t disappear in this sale. More than ever, we need less partisan posturing and more civil community discourse to heal the deep tribal wounds that affect our communities and our country today.

Nationally, there’s an emerging understanding of the importance of local news, with many regional efforts now collaborating to sustain local media.

But there’s a voracious appetite for news media among private-equity groups, many of whom have a clear political agenda.  I have grieved in a prior column the steep loss of Vermont local news, radio, and television sold off to private equity and conservative family-owned companies looking to expand their media influence. Many private-equity acquisitions gut local editorial and real-estate costs and infuse their own syndicated news, often with a political agenda.

The Martin family’s WCAX/Channel Three was recently sold to Gray Television owned by the Gray family which owns 180 stations in 113 markets and, not unlike Sinclair Broadcasting, has a decidedly conservative agenda.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996, “An act to promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher quality services for American telecommunications consumers and encourage the rapid deployment of new telecommunications technologies.” enabled a single company to greatly expand the number of broadcast stations it owned.

By way of example, in 1995 Clear Channel Communications owned 43 radio stations; currently they own some 1200, claiming an American audience of 130M listeners. Their tactic to streamline expenses was to drop local news gathering, local commentary, and event calendars, play syndicated music, and sell regional advertising.

I have not left to other wiser commentators to remind us of Ken’s rich history with car racing, his founding and ownership of Thunder Road Speedbowl in Barre and his meteoric rise as an announcer and promoter of NASCAR. I urge you to look at Montpelier native Lukas Huffman’s film Youth Drivers at Thunder Road which aired on Vermont Public’s “Made Here” series in May. It will give you a sense of Thunder Roads’ relevance to Vermonters.

We can only hope that the rich Squier family broadcast heritage is perpetuated by its next owner in the interests of all Vermonters.

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