Musical tribute to a radio

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GE’s radio station, WGY, broadcast its first live broadcast from the Kenmore Ballroom in Albany on February 20, 1922, an event that launched only the 10th radio station in the country and also placed the region of the capital at the forefront of broadcasting and entertainment. This historic day is celebrated on Sunday afternoon February 20 with a recreation of the original broadcast, a project that brought together three cultural organizations in the region, Schenectady Light Opera Company, Musicians of Ma’alwyck and miSci. Spectators with tickets will be welcome for the event, and the performance can be heard live on WGY (810 AM and 103.1 FM), which devotes the entire afternoon to centennial programming.

“GE engineers wanted to start a station, but the head of engineering thought it was a passing fad. An engineer by the name of Walter Baker thought it was too good to pass up and went to the publicity manager and convinced him to start a radio station,” says Chris Hunter, Vice President of miSci, the Schenectady Science and Technology Museum which houses the extensive GE archives.

“At the time, GE was realizing the value of its brand,” continues Hunter. “The publicity department clung to the idea of ​​a radio station for the public good, a way to give back to the community. GE also made all the transmission equipment for the stations and, through co-ownership with RCA, also made the radios for consumers. WGY has become a showcase for technology.

In addition to GE’s focus on ‘brand’, the company has pursued another endeavor that has contemporary resonance: the need to create ‘content’.

“There was music constantly playing over the airwaves and it was all live. Walter Damrosch conducted the GE Orchestra. They played music by Sibelius who was a popular living composer. It’s breathtaking, this caliber of music in full Schenectady,” says Ann-Marie Barker-Schwartz, founder of the Musicians of Ma’alwyck.

In addition to having performances in its studio, WGY also broadcast from the ballrooms of downtown Albany hotels, including the Kenmore, Ten Eycke, and DeWitt Clinton. Well into the 1940s, artists like Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra were drawn to these venues because of the opportunity to get exposure on WGY, which was heard on the East Coast.

Just a few years after the station’s launch, GE executives were pleasantly surprised to learn from a survey that 50% of the citizens of Albany, Schenectady and Troy already owned radios. That’s according to miSci’s Hunter, who also highlights the involvement of local talent. “There was representation from the region from the start. You had the engineers from Schenectady, a theater company from Troy, and a team of announcers from the college of teachers from Albany.

Today, WGY broadcasts a news/talk format and is owned by iHeartMedia. The centennial celebrations were overseen by Director of News and Programs, Jeff Wolf. Last month, his team launched a podcast series called “Wireless: 100 Years of WGY” featuring discussions with past and present staff members. Other events are in preparation.

To commemorate this first broadcast, Wolf wanted a new radio play and he turned to Schenectady Light Opera Company. SLOC President Matthew Dembling suggested writer Ben McCauley, a 31-year-old Colony native who now lives in Chicago. Also an improv performer, McCauley has worked extensively creating scripted comedies with live sound effects. It’s just that instead of being aired on the radio, they’re distributed as podcasts. (Some of his work can be heard at starlightradiodreams.com.)

For his WGY commission, McCauley was inspired by the inaugural show, which featured an adaptation of Eugene Walter’s play “The Wolf: A Play of the Canadian Woods.”

“I took it upon myself to find the play and some of it was pretty dated, so I changed the plot a bit. It’s now a fictionalized account of the WGY players staging the first radio play,” says McCauley. Titled “A Play in the Canadian Woods,” the play features a cast of six drawn from SLOC and WGY staff. The director is Michael Camelo, who is also a cast member.

As it all came together last year, Barker-Schwartz was following a trail of research that led to WGY and its upcoming centenary. Last summer, she got in touch with the station and soon her planned gig was put on the show. “It was a natural choice of course,” explains Wolf, the program director.

Besides being a violinist and impresario, Barker-Schwartz is something of a cultural historian of the region. In the GE archives at miSci, she reviewed years of bi-weekly newsletters. Each issue had listings of programs for WGY, but the company offered a lot more to its employees, things like fishing competitions, a women’s camp in Lake George, English classes for immigrants, and bands from each division of the company. “It’s a fascinating slice of life that’s hard to understand today,” she says.

It is not hard to imagine that such research will feed into the future programming of the Barker-Schwartz set. But for the centenary broadcast, the Musicians of Ma’alwyck are getting closer to what was done 100 years ago. The lineup includes a movement from Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (the first music ever performed on the station) and Sibelius’ “Rigaudon” for violin and piano. Tenor Charles Eaton will perform songs by Rachmaninoff, Kern and Hermann Lohr, with Max Caplan on piano.

The event kicks off at 3 p.m. with a talk from miSci’s Hunter on early radio before and after the launch of WGY. “GE’s involvement in radio dates back to 1906,” he says. “Before there were tubes, they built alternators and a generator helped send radio signals. These weighed 4,000 pounds.


Also at the Kenmore, there will be a pop-up exhibit of photographs from the era. That’s just a sample of what’s available in GE’s archive, which includes 800 boxes of corporate documents and publications, including 4,000 photos. A more comprehensive photo exhibit, “WGY: The Radio Lab Celebrates its Centenary,” is currently on display at the museum, and in the fall, a major exhibit on the history and evolution of communications technology.

joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

Celebrating 100 years of WGY

A live broadcast featuring Musicians of Ma’alwyck and Schenectady Light Opera Company

When: 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 20

Where: Kenmore Ballroom, 76 North Pearl St, Albany

Tickets: $35. Available at the door or order online at:musiciansofmaalwyck.org.

Note: The program begins with a presentation by miSci Archivist Chris Hunter on the history of WGY and early broadcasting. The show begins at 4 p.m. and will air live on WGY (810AM and 103.1FM), where the on-air centennial celebrations begin at 1 p.m.

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