Several former Masuk High School students gathered at Tambascio’s Italian Grill in the Dodgintown section of Newtown one recent Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of WMNR Fine Arts Radio, while reminiscing about the efforts of husband and wife, John and Carol Babina, who are recognized as the driving force behind the effort to start up a community radio station in Monroe, embarking on a journey which actually began in 1971.
To make the dream possible, the Babinas had led volunteers in a massive fundraising effort with the help of Masuk students like Ken Farkas.
“Back in the day, I lived just a couple of houses down from John and Carol,” he recalled while delivering a speech at the restaurant. “This meant that when John was heading out with students to raise money by selling WMNR bumper stickers door-to-door, I got picked up first.”
Students would run out of Babina’s Ford to try to convince homeowners to buy the stickers.
“Meanwhile, John was waiting in the car basically pushing us to get to the next house, so this had to happen fast,” Farkas said. “Ironically, this was very successful. I believe that we raised over $1,000 dollars this way and on top of that, the Mothers Club was matching us.”
Overall, he said volunteers raised $8,000 in cash donations and $11,000 in used equipment and in-kind services to get WMNR off the ground and on the air. It acquired its first FCC license on November 30, 1973.
Students helped erect a tower atop a hill by Stepney Elementary School and to build the station, originally housed at Masuk before moving to its current location at Lantern Ridge on Main Street when the school building was renovated in 2003.
In 1982, WMNR changed its focus from a high school radio station to a station broadcasting classical music to listeners in Connecticut and New York, sticking with that format for over 40 years.
But students played a key role in running the station in its earliest days. Among them was Doug Taylor, 65, a member of Masuk’s Class of 1976, who got involved as a freshman.
“To me, it was the most interesting thing at Masuk,” Taylor recalled. “I built the furniture of the first station with my older brother Dale. I climbed to erect the tower with other students under the guidance of a tower rigger who volunteered his time to guide us.”
“At the time we started the station, we had about 100 albums,” Farkas said. “I can recall loading armfuls of my personal record collection into my parents’ station wagon to prepare for a radio show.”
“I remember Doug Taylor being mad at me for having, basically, an AM radio format on FM radio,” he said. “FM was too cool for that at the time. I admit it, I used to listen to WDRC and plagiarize their song list. Of course I had to buy a few popular 45s to do that.”
As a student broadcaster, Farkas learned some of the tricks of the trade.
“I learned if things weren’t going that well on the air, you could always run a PSA to get back on track,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “that’s right, Nannette Fabray Saved the Children — and me a few times.”
Tom Schutte, one of the original Masuk students involved with the radio station, serving as a general broadcaster in its earliest days, also attended the anniversary celebration. He recalled going door-to-door to sell bumper stickers and reflector numbers for mailboxes, enabling emergency responders to find people’s homes easier.
Taylor said some other fundraisers included dances and bake sales, adding some Monroe businesses made donations for the radio station.
Aside from music, John Babina said some of the earlier programming included coverage of churches on Sundays, a show on the Pop Warner youth football championship one season when a Monroe team played in Florida, and interviews with Monroe’s famed ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Honoring key contributors
The former high school students since got older and raised families of their own. On Saturday, June 24, over 20 of the people responsible for WMNR’s success attended the reunion at Tambascio’s Italian Grill.
Displays included the first vintage board the radio station bought new. The mixing console played music cartridges. Scrapbooks included old photos, newspaper articles, a listing of significant milestones and, sadly, members they lost over the years.
A memorial page listed the names of Al Anzalone, Doris David, Elliot David, Ron Dudak, Larry Keene, Keith Lester, Frank Mastrone, Mike McCarthy, Tom Meath, Bob Monteleone, Foss Terry, Bill Weiss, Marie D’Ambrosio Williamson, Charles Wade, Bart Weller and Ralph Winquist.
Taylor said Winquist is a name that should be remembered. Winquist, a registered engineer, master electrician, plumber and tower rigger, offered pro-bono assistance to numerous noncommercial radio stations, including WMNR.
Dennis Jackson, a guest at the reunion, befriended John Babina when both were engineers at Norden Division United. “We had a common interest in radio,” Jackson said. “He and his wife Carol were starting WMNR in Monroe and I was working on WWPT at Staples High School in Westport.”
Jackson said Winquist, a chief engineer at WICC at the time, helped them both.
Taylor said Winquist went through reams of paperwork to ensure WMNR could fit the biggest signal it could into the smallest possible space, while not violating FCC rules.
“He did it all for gratis, a pat on the back,” Taylor said.
Original team members signed a framed picture of the radio station’s headquarters in Lantern Ridge that Saturday, highlighting the 50th anniversary of WMNR and thanking John and Carol Babina for their support.
Kurt Anderson, the general manager of WMNR, who has been involved with the station for 41 years, read a proclamation from Monroe First Selectman Ken Kellogg recognizing the anniversary and the Babinas’ efforts.
John and Carol Babina were presented with a plaque and a gift for their key roles in starting WMNR and helping it to flourish over the decades.
The original spirit lives on
Today, WMNR can be live streamed from anywhere in the world and its reach extends to approximately 32 states with a signal that can reach 1.2 million people.
“It’s amazing to me that we started with a 90 foot antenna and a 300 watt transmitter,” Farkas said. “We had one frequency 88.1. and now the station has many FM dial points.”
The dial points are spread out over Fairfield, New Haven and Litchfield counties, the eastern Connecticut shoreline, central Connecticut, Westchester County and Long Island.
Taylor said WMNR was the largest high school noncommercial publicly funded radio station and, since its license went from the Board of Education to being held by the town of Monroe, it’s New England’s largest publicly licensed noncommercial radio station.
Carol Babina, who met her husband when both were involved with WHUS radio at the University of Connecticut, is credited with helping WMNR to raise over $19 million in donations over its history. She marveled over the fact that no town tax money has been used to operate the radio station all these years.
“That, to me, is phenomenal,” she said, “that this has existed for 50 years with the public backing. They gave us the funds to broadcast the music they love.”
Carol also marveled over how students and other volunteers worked with officials to make the radio station happen and about those who staffed it over the decades.
“It’s astonishing. It’s an amazing experience to see so many come through for the project, volunteering their services,” she said. “They do it out of the goodness of their hearts and for the community of Monroe. Now, worldwide you can stream it. It started with the kids.”
“Lots of stations are 50 years old, but there are few with the original founders still involved,” Anderson said. “There are usually changes in management and ownership, and the spirit and goodwill is lost. The goodwill and the spirit they started in 1971, while being on air since 1973, is still going strong. We didn’t lose sight of our original values of integrity and sincerity.”
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