does some on-air work, station imaging and production, community contact and
lots of engineering, yet he describes his main job as “keeping everyone happy.”
The station where he works is a profitable stand-alone AM with a large staff.
After some 48 years at the same place of employment, Tom Niven has one
rule that trumps everything else: “Don’t annoy the audience!”
Niven, 75, is operations manager at the slightly contrary WGHT(AM),
Pompton Lakes, N.J.
the walls of this 1,000-watt daytimer are 21 working cart machines, several of
which are used on the air, and some classic turntables, all housed in an attractive
wooden building with a flag out front. If it weren’t for the signs (“North
Jersey 1500-WGHT”) one would think he had stumbled onto the set of “Leave It to
Just like Martin
the listeners’ standpoint, sometimes the old ways are best,” said Niven.
20 miles from Manhattan and you have everything on the dial around here. Going
back to the early days, our motto has always been to give the listeners
something they can’t get somewhere else.”
who owned WGHT between 1982 and 1993, desired to be in radio almost all of his
“When I was four, I wanted to be Martin Block, the guy who hosted ‘Make
Believe Ballroom’ on WNEW(AM) in New York,” he said.
After working as a teenager at a few stations, Niven was recruited by Bob
Kerr, who was just putting WKER(AM) on the air in 1964. Niven was at the
station on its first broadcast day, he was there when the station was rechristened
WGHT (“Greatest Hits”) in 1993 and he is still there today.
started as an announcer but he also promoted live concerts, bringing in such
artists as the Shangri-Las and local favorites the Happenings.
“The kids would come to the shows from all over, and it was a great
thing for the station,” he said. “Here’s this stinky little station going up
against NYC’s WABC(AM) and we were killing them in this area. We just connected
with the audience. We weren’t cutesy on the air and we never put anyone down.
Those are the worst things you can do besides having dead air. If we couldn’t
think of anything to say, we would just shut up and play the music. I learned
how to hold an audience from Bob Kerr, the guy who brought me here, and who
also published a programming newsletter back then called ‘For Stations Only.’”
The home of ‘North Jersey 1500-WGHT.’
typical oldies station may play about 400 records in normal rotation, but WGHT
is far from typical.
“We have a much wider selection of hits including about 2,000 carted
oldies in the studio.” he said. “And I personally replaced the pads in every
single one of those carts. While most of our music is played from CDs we also
use turntables. I have three RCA turntables and they still run, even though
they spent a little time underwater in the last flood we had.”
It’s about our town
owned by John Silliman since 1993, still plays the hits. It also has a strong connection
to its north Jersey community.
“We have a lot of local sports, and on Saturdays I can have up to 20
people working,” said Niven. “We do one high school football game live, and
that takes four people. In the studio we have a guy working the board and two
hosts, and another guy who records all the people we have calling in to update
the scores every quarter. Not many stations do this.”
addition to covering the local sports scene, WGHT participates in such charitable
events as the Arthritis Walk, Flood Aid and the March of Dimes’ March for
biggest challenge is getting back to the basics,” he said. “You can’t get away
in the long term with a one-man operation. You need people, and you have to
touch people, and that’s why we don’t voice-track.”
Niven said the station employs five salespeople. He declined to discuss
the station’s revenue. As far as the question of ratings: “We’ve tried
Arbitron, and it doesn’t work,” he said. “We’re 20 air miles from Manhattan. Arbitron
goes by counties, but we are spread over three counties. Each of the county
seats, we don’t specifically cover. That’s why we don’t get into [ratings
services]. In almost 50 years, no rating has ever proved worthwhile.
think we’re like a lot of stations would like to be, but they don’t have news
departments anymore. It’s a sad reflection on radio. … So many stations just
are interested in the bottom line. They don’t give a damn about what anything means
to the community.”
Tools of the trade: Cart tapes, cassette decks
and CD players vie for space at WGHT. The program pie chart reminds jocks to
‘give time and temp as much as possible.’
station is not on Twitter or Facebook, but it live-streams on the Internet 24
hours a day.
“We record all day long and play it back overnight using a Marantz PMD570
rack-mount audio recorder. Our studio is equipped for stereo and the device
records stereo, although our AM broadcast is mono during the day,” said Niven.
have regular listeners in Australia, in some little godforsaken town! They
listen to us [via streaming] while they’re driving snakes out of their building
or whatever they’re doing down there.” The station can be heard online at www.ghtradio.com.
Niven grew up in Long Island and has been
married to his wife Anne for more than 45 years. He lists his favorite musical
artists as James Brown and Pavarotti. Talk about a “wide variety of the hits.”
On-air and production people rely on their voices to earn a living, so
imagine how Niven felt when his raspy throat refused to get better.
was distraught,” he said. “But I kept working, even though I had to voice my
promos by recording short pieces and editing them together. I finally had
myself checked out in March 2011 and discovered I had throat cancer.” He went
through nine weeks of radiation treatment. A followup scan in November showed
no cancer and the lesion in his throat gone.
a lucky one.”
Cutting teeth cutting lawns
Niven has also served as a mentor to many over the years.
“We’ve had a lot of people pass through my little ‘school of
broadcasting,’” he said. “Kevin Burkhardt went from here to work for WCBS(AM),
then WFAN(AM) both in New York, doing sports. Several of our people went from
here to Metro Traffic, which provides on-air reporting services to a lot of
stations. Most stations don’t hire full-time people much anymore. They have
empty newsrooms and they actually contract out their news.”
well-known alumnus of WGHT is Gregg Whiteside.
“The guy walked in the door here in the 1970s looking for a job,” said
Niven. He had been all around the world but was for some reason interested in
having me teach him radio. I could tell right away the guy ‘had it.’ He was a DJ
here for a few years and then got a job at WQXR(AM) in New York City, where he
lasted for about 20 years. He was a fixture on the classical music scene.”
WGHT Main Studio Equipment
Otari MX-5050 Reel to Reel
Comrex DH30 Hybrid
dbx 215 Equalizer
Wheatstone A-300 Console
Denon DN-951 CD Players (4)
Broadcast Electronics Duratrak/Phasetrak Cart
EV RE27 Microphone
Shure SM78 Microphone
Technics Turntables SL-1200 MK2 (2)
Tascam 112MKII Cassette Machines (2)
Marantz PMD570 Recorder
Tieline TLR-300B Commander G3 Codec
Gentner/Comrex TS-612 Phone System
EV Monitor Speakers Sentry 100A (pr)
Crown Monitor Amp
Sony MDR-7506 Headphones
AudioScience cards for
Stagnitto, director of engineering for both the New York and New Jersey Public
Radio groups, is a graduate of the unofficial Tom Niven school of broadcasting.
was doing morning announcements in high school when Tom called the school
office and asked if they could send over a student who could sound natural
while reading,” said Stagnitto. “The school sent me to WKER to read, and I was
thrilled. I had listened to the station since it signed on.”
Niven was impressed by the youngster and asked him to work weekends
filing records, collating news copy, learning the board, attempting production
and reading two-minute news briefs on the air.
“Oh, yeah, I also cut the station owner’s lawn for a few extra bucks a
week,” Stagnitto added.
This led to an air stint and eventually a full-time job that lasted four
“Tom is easygoing, and I can say that to this day I’m still using some
of the stuff he taught me,” he said. “For example, he taught me to think 20
minutes ahead, and he reminded me that there is only one person listening at a
time. Basically, Tom took me in as a young high school kid and by the time I
was out of college I had five years of real professional experience. He never
treated his station as ‘small town.’ He was the perfect teacher.”
Ken Deutsch is a former DJ who says he wanted to use the air name
“Beethoven Smith” until his program director told him what a stupid idea that