Making Airwaves

AMSTERDAM – A week after flood waters from the Otsquago Creek wrought devastation in Fort Plain, a local radio station was on the air Friday with Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Thayer.

“Obviously the water events here have had a tremendous impact on the county,” Thayer tells the listening audience of WCSS AM 1490, who are no stranger to the devastating flooding events throughout the county over the past few years.

Thayer makes a call for real-time water-level gauges so more accurate readings can warn people of when they need to evacuate.

“We need that valuable minute to get people out of harm’s way,” Thayer says as he talks with on-air personalities Mike Mancini and Sam Zurlo, who have been hosting a morning radio show together for about a decade.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara calls in to the station in the Riverfront Center, as planned, and then an unexpected call from U.S. Rep Paul Tonko lights up the phone line.

At 10 a.m. Mancini and Zurlo remove their headphones, and the show is a prime example of why a local radio station with a stake in the community is so valuable: local programming when it counts.

“Even though we’re doing a talk show in the morning, we have an eye and ear to the community, so if something happens, you get it instantly,” Mancini said.

About six years ago the Tesiero family, known for Cranesville Block Company, purchased WCSS. Now, they’ve expanded with two new stations on the air in St. Johnsville and Speculator. In January, WYVS 96.5 FM began broadcasting from atop Oak Mountain with 5,000 watts and an adult-contemporary format. A St. Johnsville station, WKAJ 1120 AM, was licensed Tuesday with a powerful 10,000 watts – 10 times more than flagship station WCSS. St. Johnsville and WCSS have similar formats playing 50s, 60s and 70s tunes.

Joe Tesiero said his father, John Tesiero Jr., wanted to purchase WCSS about six years ago from now General Manager Joe Isabel because he wanted to keep it local.

“I think my father was aware of what a positive force a radio station can be in the community,” Tesiero said. “When the community grows, our other businesses will flourish, too. Economically, it’s good, but I think the main reason is that my father has a lot of pride in the community [in which] he grew up.”

Tesiero made a winning bid at an FCC auction for the Speculator station and then took on a Little Falls license for a station.

“I spent some teenage summers in Speculator, and I loved it. Then there was a license for Little Falls. The station wasn’t going to be built, probably because the man who owned it knew what it would take, we didn’t so we decided we were going to try and do it,” Tesiero said with a laugh.

That wasn’t an easy process. The company overcame a few hurdles after it didn’t get the station up and running in time due to the August 2011 flooding fallout form Hurricane Irene.

“We had some problems getting built in time so our license was suspended. We had to reapply for our construction permit,” Tesiero said. “We bought a construction permit that says we’re allowed to put up an antenna in a specific place and broadcast at a specific power. We wanted to move it to our property on St. Johnsville, so we had to apply for permission to move it. Then we had to get an engineer to prove it wouldn’t interfere with anyone else. We had to construct four different antennas, and the transmitter actually shapes the coverage area to look like an imperfect clover.”

The clover leaves extend more north and south than west and east, he added, spreading the broadcast into traditionally undeserved markets.

Tesiero said he had to travel to Washington, D.C. to plead his case, and though he and his family are predominately Republican, they received help from lawmakers across the aisle who saw the area needed a radio station.

Radio stations, like most news media, count on advertising revenues, so how does a small local station stay profitable? According to Tesiero, that’s not the main concern.

“We’re in the radio business because we want to see the community prosper, and hopefully that will spill over into our other businesses,” Tesiero said. “The main reason is that it’s our community.

WCSS supports about a dozen part-time jobs, Tesiero said.

Tonko’s phone call was a prime example of how lawmakers will go on the air if they’re in the district to give the latest news, morning show host Mancini said.

When about 40 cars derailed off the CSX tracks along Route 5 between Mohawk and Palatine, Mancini said WCSS had the news on the air before emergency responders arrived at the scene.

“With the flood last week, and the train wreck a couple days before that, we had the news on the radio because a person was driving by, saw it and called us,” Mancini said.

Isabel said when the disasters happened, they were able to switch all three stations to the same broadcast to get the news out. They’re all monitored in a control room at WCSS headquarters.

Isabel started working at the station when he was in high school and Phil Spencer owned the station. From there he was hooked on radio, and eventually bought the station.

Isabel said he’s happy with Tesiero’s plans for the station, and it’s still doing well in the market. Tesiero said WCSS has the highest listenership for Amsterdam according to a ratings agency.

“He’s really interested in seeing the community flourish with a radio station,” Isabel said.

The station has a rich history dating back to the 1940s, and was a launching pad for Todd Pettengill, a famous New York City area disc jockey who also was an on-screen interviewer for the World Wrestling Federation.

Even though Mancini likes the talk show, his greatest on-air passion is providing a unique music set for listeners during his morning show. Mancini’s show features his own music collection of more than 2,000 songs. You won’t hear the same songs as every other oldies stations because most others run a loop of 250 to 300 songs, he said.

“I’m having a lot of fun with it,” said Mancini, who many also will recognize as a retired 37-year city firefighter who handled public relations for the department.

Zurlo’s experience in the news media goes back to the 1950s when he started with WCSS. In 1957 he took a job with The Daily Gazette, until he retired from the paper in the 1990s. He stuck with WCSS throughout the years, and also once worked with WENT 1340 AM in Gloversville.

To Zurlo, a station like WCSS and its sisters are so important because they offer a local focus, instead of just national news shows.

“It’s a community-based station. We emphasize community functions, local news, the things that pertain to the residents of Montgomery County and the area. Our talk shows here always focus on local issues have local guests,” Zurlo said. “It’s locally based, and we focus on local issues and local people. We get down to the nitty gritty. It’s churches having field days and the United Way having a fundraiser – it’s very local.”

Zurlo he’s excited about the potential to bring community news to the western Montgomery County area.

“I think that is going to be helpful to the upcounty area around St. Johnsville and Canajoharie, so these people will have a local station to carry community events and local talk shows to cater to that area,” Zurlo said.

In August 2012 WCSS began contracting with blogger Rick Morrison to provide news coverage.

“Working with WCSS was really a no-brainer for me. WCSS has an iconic presence in the city of Amsterdam and sits very near the outer limits of the Albany radio market. Sam Zurlo has been a part of the news scene for decades and when he announced he wanted to cut back and we started talking about bringing to broadcast radio it seemed a natural fit. The response has been phenomenal,” Morrison said.

Another radio host, Robert Von Hasseln, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development, noted the role a local station plays in economic development.

“It keeps that city feel to have a local radio station and local newspapers,” Von Hasseln said. “I’m very enthusiastic about WCSS’s expansion.”

Morrison said the Tesieros seem “forward looking and interested in even more growth.”

“They are responsible professionals with a stable financial base and great work ethic. At the same time they are most anxious to provide a quality product for each of the communities they serve. So far [it’s] a terrific partnership,” Morrison said.