Bringing Back WVCA-FM
Henry Ferrini - January 31, 2016
Back in the late '80s I made Radio Fishtown, a short film about Simon Geller, the only one-man radio operator in the country. Kenny Riaf, Jud Wilson and I were members of a group called TATV, or Total Assault Television. Jud and I would run around town during his lunch hour with a VHS camcorder and talk to people about their impressions of the man that everyone heard, but nobody ever saw. By this time, Simon had sold WVCA. He got a million bucks and vanished. After years of poverty and a lengthy legal battle that received national attention, he grabbed the golden ring. Some say he sold out, some disagree. The three of us were fascinated with the story and the man who was the Voice of Cape Ann. We called him up and asked him for an interview. When we made it to Manhattan, Simon was ensconced in his penthouse apartment. We were surprised that he granted us an interview. He knew we lived in Gloucester and he had kind of a difficult relationship with our city. But he talked, and Kenny and I came back and cut a thirty-minute show together. Robert J. Lurtsema, the voice of Morning Pro Musica on WGBH, agreed to do the voice over and WGBH-TV ran the show. And that is usually how things end in the independent world of documentary films. Some screenings, some air time, and finito- but not this one.
After we finished the film, I'm driving around town and passed the building that housed Simon's last station. I spotted Charlie Works, Simon's old landlord, and stopped to ask if the Voice of Cape Ann left anything behind. He escorted me upstairs to Simon's hovel above the local car wash. Everything was in shambles; dirty laundry, records, empty envelopes from supporters and bits of half-eaten fried chicken. Being a trash picker from way back, I figured there had to be something. Then I opened a closet door and voila - mother lode revealed. Orderly stacked and waiting to be rescued was the entire WVCA tape-recorded library; a couple hundred pounds of reel-to-reel tapes that ended up yielding about 700 hours of music. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I asked Charlie what's going to happen with the tape. He pointed to the dumpster and said, "Take 'em, and good riddance." I couldn't let this stuff go to the landfill, but I wasn't sure what I was going to do with what was left of Simon Geller's life in Gloucester. Charlie was happy to see me load all those boxes into my car and drive away. At home I found a nice place in my not-so-dry and intermittently flooding basement.
This was the late '80s, the beginning of the digital revolution. I got out my old Sony 1/4 inch reel to reel player and threaded up a seven inch reel. There he was, Simon in all his glory. I loved the tapes because Geller sets them up in his cranky, curmudgeonly, Roxbury Jewish accent. This was the soundtrack in Gloucester during the '70s when I moved here. The tapes provide a window into another time not long ago, when a shy, idiosyncratic old man could run his own station and broadcast beauty to all who cared to join him. This was an archeological find and worth saving from the dust bin of history.
I was starting to digitize my old videotapes from the '70s so I thought maybe I'd get an intern to help me to digitize some of the tapes. Audio didn't take up much room, and I had a huge 20 MB drive. I thought I had a plan. But for the next couple of decades there were other projects for interns to do. The tapes sat and molded and sat and molded. When the Mother's Day Storm of 2006 hit, my 5 year old announced that our basement was now a swimming pool, but the water didn't reach the tapes. I'd walk down and check on the tapes every five years or so, but things didn't look good. The archive remained in my cellar for 26 years. Then I got an email from Ken Philpot...everything was about to change.
Simon Geller was the Voice of Cape Ann. He served Gloucester for decades, delivering Classical Music to thousands. It was a business, but I think it was more. Writer Joe Garland called WVCA, an "island of individuality in a sea of soul destroying sameness." During the post-Geller era when WVCA was becoming homogenized into the rest of the radio dial, other things were changing in Gloucester. The fish dehydration plant closed and the condo craze was building momentum. For me, this Archive is a document of that time. It was a time before computers when life had a different pace, when a person could eke out a life on the sea, or in Simon's case, casting the music out to the community. I thought this music deserved to be back in the cultural sphere of Cape Ann, and luckily Ken, Bob, and I had happened upon each other.
A few months ago, the Gloucester Writers Center, a local non-profit where I work, agreed to take ownership of the tapes. The Center's mission is to "honor, preserve and celebrate Cape Ann's rich literary legacy and to encourage writing and citizenship in the belief that all our voices count." Simon Geller was a significant Gloucester voice, and this project is a tribute to his service. It brings the past into the present for the future. Geller was called a "Yiddish Yankee." He represented the heterogeneous voices that Gloucester is, as well as the tenacious individualism of its fishermen. We are honored to open this window into the not too distant past, and allow the Voice of Cape Ann to speak again.
Ken Philpot - February 1, 2016
The e-mail in my inbox back in June read:
Not one of my most popular titles. What is your connection w/ Simon Geller?
He was referring to an order I had placed for a DVD copy of Radio Fishtown. Henry was the creator of the documentary tribute to Simon which I had seen years hence on public TV and had owned in VHS form but was now lost in the same history.
I wrote back explaining that I had been a faithful listener of Simon's radio programming back in the '80s, and that I had great affinity for the one of a kind nature of his work and his dedication.
Little did I know what was about to happen.
I was amazed when Henry wrote back:
Since you have a history, I will tell you something I've been hoping to do for 20-25 years. Soon after Simon left town I was driving by the car wash on Maplewood Ave in Gloucester. This was the location of Simon's last station, just above the car wash. I saw Charlie Works, his landlord, outside. I stopped and asked him if Simon had left anything when he left town. He brought me up into Simon's hovel and showed me a closet filled with Simon's tape recorded library. I asked what he was going to do with the multiple boxes of tape and he said he was going to take it all to the dump. I asked him if I could have them and I loaded them into my car. They have been in my basement ever since. When the Mother's Day Storm of 2006 hit, my 5 year old announced that our basement was now a swimming pool but the water didn't reach the tapes. I'd walk down and check on the tapes every five years or so but things didn't look good. The archive remained in my cellar for 26 years. It has been my intention to digitize all of them and create a virtual WVCA on line. The tapes have Simon giving setting up the music he is about to play. Unfortunately I have just not had the time to get around to the laborious task in the last couple of decades.
I told Henry me and my son Bob were both interested in possibly working on this project together, but first to send me a few reels to see what condition they were in and if indeed any of the contents were salvageable after all this time stored essentially under water.
The heavy box of tapes was at my door in a week.
Two weeks later I reported back:
The 7 inch reel is recorded at 3 3/4 IPS in 4 track mono complete with Simon's intros. Audio is clean and really rather impressive for such a slow speed and narrow track. The music is dubbed lovingly from vinyl. Recording levels are entirely acceptable and I do not hear any print through from being stored for 20 years without rewinding. It was as if Simon were announcing in the room with me with such clarity after all these years. His voice sounds younger than I remember it. Of course there is no telling where or when it was recorded but I doubt he did it there in Gloucester. It was also slightly eerie to listen to.
The 10 inch reel unfortunately looks to be in pretty rough shape. There is mold all through the layers. I can safely say that I won't need a 15 IPS deck to play this. If it is recorded at 3 3/4 IPS like the 7 inch there will be many many hours on each side - much in keeping with Simon's operation. I don't want to try playing it until I can rewind it, inspect the accretion, and possibly clean it up which may take me a while.
It would be good if you could open some of the boxes and inspect the reels for mold. It will be obvious on the surface of the wound tape on the reel. Right now we are at 50% / one out of two look good.
I went on...
What are your thoughts? Bob and I are both in if you want to do something. A virtual WVCA with Simon doing all the intros is certainly possible. It won't be easy, and it won't be fast, but boy is it going to be fun! Comment invited...
Henry later wrote:
"Faster than my Gloucester dog can suck down a squid, I had a team who wanted to make this a reality."