The Great Radio War

The year was 1927 and the town of Easton was just beginning the slow transformation from farming community to residential haven for the industrial hubs of Southern Fairfield County. The earlier part of the century had witnessed an influx of Eastern European settlers who were both willing and able to eke a living out of some of Easton’s poorer farmland as the descendants of the town’s earliest settlers began moving away from the family business of farming and transitioning to more lucrative endeavors in cities like Bridgeport. The first farms to fall victim to the transition to more housing were almost all located atop Sport Hill, where approximately 800 acres of land was nearly perfect for erecting those three bedroom bungalows with indoor plumbing that would forever change the landscape of the southern part of town. It was early summer that year when the sale of a single 50-foot by 300-foot parcel would create one of the largest controversies in the town’s history.

John Candee was the seller and the company that owned Bridgeport radio station WICC was the buyer. Almost overnight, two concrete pads appeared and construction began on two steel towers. In 1927, the Town of Easton had no zoning laws and no building regulations, for if they had, the town might have had an advanced opportunity to thwart the construction of the radio station’s new broadcasting facility. Instead, the good people of Easton scrambled to enact new laws and new regulations after the project had begun. In a classic case of “closing the barn door after the horse had escaped” they had little chance at altering the eventual outcome.

WICC – the ICC standing for Bridgeport’s designation as the “Industrial Capital of Connecticut” – had been in operation since November 21, 1926 with studios at 1188 Main Street and a broadcast antenna atop one of the buildings downtown. Originally approved to broadcast with 500 watts, complaints began almost immediately that the station was overpowering and drowning out all nearby radio frequencies. The Federal Radio Commission soon lowered the station’s broadcast output to 250 watts and the Bridgeport Broadcasting Company began its search for a more suitable site for it’s transmission tower that would also allow it to increase the output to its original level.

The Easton location was perfect. At least to the owners of the station, Mr. Candee, and the Federal Radio Commission. The FRC approved the site just one day before a town meeting hastily approved a rough set of zoning rules and appointed a board to oversee them. Amongst the new regulations was the provision that no radio transmission towers  be built with 1500 feet of any residence. Nice try, but the towers were already built and the broadcast building was halfway completed. The town’s council, Sport Hill resident Howard Shaff, would spend the next few weeks attempting to get a judge – any judge – to hear the town’s plea for a temporary injunction against the station. None was forthcoming.

Town meetings throughout July and early August were contemptuous. Land owners in the northern part of town were skeptical of any attempt to create zoning laws and building requirements. The new zoning commission wanted to enforce laws that had not been properly approved by the residents and things on that front began to fall apart.

Other area towns were well aware of Easton’s attempts to stop the radio station, and they moved quickly to adopt similar restrictions – restrictions that would be enforceable since they were created before a problem existed, rather than after.

On July 21, 1927, 24 residents or property owners on Sport Hill signed a petition and presented it to the Federal Radio Commission in a last ditch effort to get them to change their mind about granting WICC a license to broadcast from Easton. Among those whose signed were Frank S. Staples, Samuel P. Senior, William Disbrow, Minnie Edwards, Harry Escott, Edgar Jennings, Clarence Jennings, George Beers, A.H. Brothwell, Charles Gregory, Florence Gregory, Bertha Loper, Chester Hull, George Gregory, Eliza Smith, Ambrose Marsh, Fred Marsh, and Francis Gilbert. In reality, this group owned about 90 percent of the 800 acres atop the ridge and what today consists of most of the developed subdivisions south of Flat Rock Road. Among their statements was the claim that this land was “the only section of the Town of Easton suitable for and now being developed as a high class residential section.”  In early August, a group of those petitioners took the train to Washington D.C. to plead their case before the Commission. That too failed.

In December of 1927, WICC began a decade of broadcasts from the top of Sport Hill Road. The ugly steel towers are now long gone, but the square, hip-roofed building that held the broadcasting equipment is still standing and being used as a residence. The Great Recession delayed the creation of a complete and comprehensive set of zoning laws, but Easton finally adopted them just before the War broke out, and when the farms atop Sport Hill were cut up and subdivided in earnest after the end of WWII, the radio station was broadcasting from Pleasure Beach and all was peaceful once more.

 

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