Simon Geller: radio fish out of water in Gloucester

By JAMES V. HEALION   |   Aug. 7, 1983
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GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- As one old broadcaster to another, Simon Geller says he and Ronald Reagan aren't on the same frequency.

Geller runs a vestpocket radio station out of his basement apartment and plays classical music 14 hours daily for 43,000 listeners who get their news and weather from other sources.

The music is uninterrupted, except for a half hour to 45 minutes of talk, every day except Sunday.

The Federal Communications Commission revoked Geller's license to operate WVCA-FM (The Voice of Cape Ann) in May 1982 and awarded it to a competing applicant, who pledged more diversified programming.

The FCC said by failing to provide 'adequate' informational programming, Geller left news gathering to the Gloucester Daily Times, a newspaper serving the fishing community of 27,000 about 32 miles from Boston.

'The police blotter none of my listeners want,' says Geller. He noted the paper has a full staff covering the city and 'I don't want to do anything half-way.'

Personally, he'd rather be someplace else.

'I'm 63, but I feel like 163 since I came to Gloucester. Boy, this town is the end of the world,' he said in an interview. 'The place I'd really like to live in is New York. We lived in Union City, N.J., the gangster town of the 1930s. Gloucester is a dead town. A retired school teacher told me Gloucester was a good place to be born and die in but in between get out.'

His lawyer, Dan Burt, the head of the Capitol Legal Foundation, which is handling Geller's appeal, said Geller's license predicament is 'an extraordinary example of the infringment of First Amendment rights of broadcasters.'

'They are saying they don't like this man's programming and, therefore, we will take his license to give it to some large, rich company,' said Burt.

'That's a terrifying judgment. If they don't like soul music, a black station could be next and then a station playing Irish music, one playing Jewish music and so on.'

Until he exhausts the lengthy appeal process -- his license was first challenged in 1975 -- Geller says his listeners will continue to get their Glazunov and the three Bachs.

'I think my audience likes the idea of an individual: one guy going up against the system,' Geller says. 'They know that when the establishment takes over, the establishment gives it what the establishment wants and not what the public wants.

'It's frustrating to be on the outside looking in without a chance of breaking through and once you do break through, having them set it up to take it away from you. That's capitalism at its best in this country. That's how fortunes are made. They find something somebody is doing better than anybody else and take it away from them.'

He depends on a handful of sponsors and contributions from listeners. He told of receiving three donations of $100 and three of $50 in a period of three weeks.

Everybody pays a flat rate for commercials and Geller claims that the Boston radio establishment is after his scalp because he only charges $32 for a 60-second spot compared to the $300 charged by Boston stations.

Since WVCA can be heard in Boston, he says, 'the (broadcast) establishment in Boston wants me out.'

Geller has been on the technical side of broadcasting since he first started in New York more than 40 years ago. He is not one for appearances, judging by his apartment-studio with its unmade bed, hot plate, and clothes slung on pipes.

'I scrape by,' he said.'That's what I been doing all my life.

'When I started in this business I got a job for four years in a New York City station. Then at the end of the war, another guy came in. He had friends. He went to the boss. Eventually, I lost the job.'

A tape began the first movement of a viola concerto for Geller's listeners in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire as he talked about owning a 250-watt radio station in Washington, N.J., a 'daytimer' on the AM band that by regulation closes down in the late afternoon except in summer.

'I started symphonic music in the evenings toward summer when I had late hours. All of a sudden in September when I had to cutback to sign-off time, I lost 'em all. So I said the heck with this, I can't build an audience that will stay with me.'

Geller came to Gloucester in 1957, but didn't get on the air until 1964 because of FCC denials for an AM-FM license. He got the FM approval and assumed a rock 'n' roll format was the way to go.

By 1967, he was insolvent with just $15 to his name. He managed to pay his creditors the $15,000 he owed them, switched to classical music and, as he says, 'I went on starving.'

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