Studio room with the On Air sign lit

North Country Public Radio

Making Waves for 50 Years


Deborah Dudley

March 7, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of North Country Public Radio, and it all started with a local donation.

“We begin our history in the mid-60s,” says Ellen Rocco, NCPR station manager. Rocco notes that many mistakenly tie the station’s history to early radio at St. Lawrence University, when a 50-watt experimental station was set up by St. Lawrence Professor of Physics Ward C. Priest and Stanley Barber, a local mechanic in an old pig barn near campus in 1921. However, it was with President Lyndon B. Johnson signing of the Public Broadcasting Act (in November 1967), along with a gift from a local businessman, that North Country Public Radio’s history begins.

As John B. Johnson Jr., Chairman of the Board of the Johnson Newspapers Corporation explains, the family’s foray into FM radio in the 50s and early 60s was proving to be a losing venture. His late father, John B. Johnson, was at the helm of the family company which owned local radio and television stations as well as The Watertown Daily Times. In 1965, after shutting down their FM radio operations, the elder Mr. Johnson, who was a St. Lawrence trustee at the time, donated the FM transmitter to the University. With this gift, WSLU was conceived, but not yet born.

Lawrence Reiner, an instructor of radio and television at St. Lawrence, labored for two more years, heading the effort to establish a University radio station. With the engineering assistance of Francis Murphy and Richard Hutto, a consultant from Florida and later WSLU’s first station manager, Reiner persisted against myriad problems, including local television signal interference and transmitter tower location. 

On March 7, 1968, their persistence paid off, when the station went live from Payson Hall. WSLU was on the air for the first time. 

With a staff of two professionals (Hutto and Murphy) and a small cadre of students, WSLU aired a few hours of programming each day, consisting of locally hosted music programs, talks with St. Lawrence University professors, and brief recordings of international news broadcast from Europe and Asia. The University’s license and commitment to radio was secured and, in 1971, WSLU became a charter member of National Public Radio (NPR), increased its broadcast day to 18 hours, and began receiving support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). (See full summary of station’s history at www.ncpr.org.)

It was also in 1971, just after her graduation from St. Lawrence University, that Jackie Sauter ’71 joined the staff after seeing an ad in the paper for part-time office work.

“At that point, I hadn’t even heard of the station,” Sauter says, “I intended to stay only the year, but one thing led to another.” Before long, Sauter became an on-air announcer and eventually began producing innovative programming, such as “Women’s Voices,” which was distributed nationally via NPR. That was one of the first of many locally produced segments to reach a national audience from this young North Country station. 

“The early mission was to bring high-quality programs to the residents of the North Country, pretty simple,” says Rocco. The bulk of the format was classical music and some non-commercial news coverage like NPR’s All Things Considered. 

In 1975, another announcer, Martha Foley ’74, now the station’s news director, joined the station. By the early ’80s, when she returned to the station after a stint as editor at a local newspaper, Foley’s talent for storytelling and audio editing was an immediate game-changer and the station began expanding content to include original regional news and documentaries. 

“Those of us who got into the local station news business that early were kind of inventing the wheel all over the country,” says Foley. “It was really exciting and really fun. We just didn’t know a whole lot, but we were willing to try anything.” 

With the addition of Rocco in 1980 as development director, the trio of Sauter, Foley and Rocco represented the station leadership or what Rocco calls the station’s “founding mothers.” 

“We all came out of the ’60s, and we were community-oriented,” says Rocco. “We wanted to have an impact and add to the community we were living in, and we saw our work as serving the public.”

“It might sound trite,” Foley says, “but we try to knit the whole region together in some way and discover the common ground and bring that forward.”

Transmitting a Regional Identity

Shortly after Rocco joined the station, Bob Sauter was hired. As a modern broadcast engineer, Bob’s work expanded the coverage beyond St. Lawrence County and fulfilled requests for service that the station had been receiving from communities in the Adirondacks and around the North Country. 

“It is a big neighborhood,” says Foley, “but we have a lot of common concerns and strengths and weaknesses. You can look at a map and see this big shoulder of New York State. It’s huge.” 

In 1984, WSLU officially became North Country Public Radio when the first remote transmitter was built in Saranac Lake. This was followed by 32 more in the following decades and by the early ’90s, the station had added a technological mission— to reach the entire “Adirondack North Country,” a geographic term popularized by Rocco in her numerous grant proposals to expand coverage.

“If you looked at a FCC coverage map back in those days, one of the big gap areas was Northern New York including the Adirondack mountains, so we almost always got help. And if we didn’t, we figured out a way” says Rocco. “Bob really worked miracles. He is the real hero in that story.”

“We realized, we could do this technically,” adds Foley “but you have to follow the facilities with actual expressions of interest in that community. Even with our limited resources we try to be attentive to the whole geography.”

With a listening community geographically defined, a more cohesive Adirondack North Country identity emerged. “We felt that a regional take on the news was critical and we showed how the stories of peoples’ lives in Newcomb or Old Forge or Morley are all connected,” says Rocco.

In the ’80s and into the ’90s, the standard operating wisdom across the NPR system was to create seamless programming by taking the highest caliber programming from national sources. However, Sauter, Foley and Rocco went against the grain.

The trio made a very conscious decision: They believed the best way to serve the region was to provide news and information and made sure that part of that service focused on the region.

“We began to seriously invest in a news department,” Rocco continues, bucking the trend of using predominantly purchased programming. “It is the reason we have such a high standing in the system as a great news department. We have been doing it longer than most stations,” adds Rocco. “We got really good at it. Now, first and foremost, we see ourselves as a
news organization.”

Over the past 35 years, Sauter, Foley and Rocco have built a team of nationally recognized and award-winning journalists that includes Brian Mann, David Sommerstein, Todd Moe, and the more recent additions of Zach Hirsch, Laura Rosenthal and Amy Feiereisel, who round out the station’s multiple generations of reporting and storytelling.

“Part of our job is to enrich the experience of the people who live here,” says Rocco. “Obviously bringing interesting people, great thinkers, great musicians, artists on air enriches the region and connects us to what is going on in the rest of the country. But more than that, we knew that there are great stories across the region, really important stories that can connect the North Country to the whole nation.”

As Foley said earlier, knitting the North Country together is exactly what NCPR did during the ice storm of 1998, when staffers slept at the station and kept filling generators in order to continue broadcasting information to the region, telling listeners to turn off their battery-powered radios to save power and turn them on at the top of the hour for updates. For a while, NCPR was the only news organization able to cover the storm in-depth and get critical emergency information out to isolated communities. 

In fact, NCPR news staff have been integral in the national coverage of recent stories ranging from the high-profile Dannemora prison escape and the Lac-Mégantic train disaster in Quebec, to Northern New York communities navigating the inclusion of refugee populations, issues of homelessness, and heroin addiction, to reporting on the changing political landscapes of the nation related to green energy projects, medical marijuana, prisons, farming, immigration and more.

Mann, who has been NCPR’s Adirondack Bureau Chief for 18 years, has been consistently enlisted by NPR to report on national stories, including most recently covering the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston as wells as the tragedy of last October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas. 

Last fall, Mann officially expanded his role to include serving as NPR’s northeastern correspondent, formalizing a relationship that has existed for years. Rocco believes this is a strong testament to the high standards and integrity of NCPR’s news operation and the station’s success in bringing the stories of the North Country to the rest of the nation. 

“This is a great honor to have Brian recognized as an official regional correspondent,” says Rocco. “Another reason for St. Lawrence to take great pride in its public media organization.”

Contributing to Success

Rocco along with Foley and Sauter, who all have been recognized by numerous regional and national organizations, are hoping that the 50-year anniversary is a chance for the entire region to celebrate. In their minds, North Country Public Radio is a local success story. 

NCPR origins are rooted in a local donation of a transmitter in 1968, and the support has only grown over the past 50 years.

“This station was built on $25 donation from a lot of people across the region year after year. It is what built this station and made all of our success possible,” says Rocco. Beyond the support the station receives from its license holder St. Lawrence University and the limited funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rocco emphasizes that the station exists because of the people of the Adirondack North Country. 

The first on-air fundraiser in 1979 netted $2,000 from 45 members. By 1983, community support was 250 households contributing $20,000 annually. Today, NCPR raises $1.5 million annually from thousands of listeners and local business supporters. 

Meg Goldthwaite, chief marketing officer for NPR in Washington agrees and believes that the support for public media and stations like NCPR will only grow further.

“Looking at the tenacity of people like Ellen and her team at NCPR, and their relevance in the community, I am optimistic about the next 50 years and beyond,” says Goldthwaite. “New technologies like smart speakers and smart phones put a radio back in people’s houses and essentially a radio in everybody’s pocket. But these devices and platforms are just the latest ways for more people to discover, tune into, and engage with public radio –it’s the content and the sense of community connection that comes from stations like NCPR that really matters. Ellen’s management of the top-notch news room up in North Country is what makes devices like smart speakers sing, so to speak.”

The Next Generation

Over the last 50 years, the station has not only expanded but it has also grown up. 

“It is not so much that the mission has morphed,” says Rocco, “it has matured.” 

Fast forward into the 2010s and much of the work of Sauter, Foley, and Rocco has established NCPR as a model of excellence and a bedrock for ethical journalism for the entire system. As they assumed leadership positions at the station, they also serve on national panels and committees in the system.

“I can’t think of anyone who stands for local journalism and the importance of standing with the facts, and often, fighting for the facts and demanding answer and demanding transparency as Ellen Rocco,” says Goldthwaite. “Those of us within the system look up to her. She holds her own station as well as all of the other members and the system to the highest standards and we are all stronger for it.”

“We are in a universe where the landscape changes almost daily,” explains Rocco. Beyond her uncompromising commitment to the station’s mission and journalistic ethics, she says, “My strategic planning approach has always been to invest in training, give people the opportunity to experiment, be open to new ideas, and constantly evaluate where to put our resources to best serve our listeners.” 

The on-air voices of long-time program hosts like Todd Moe, Barb Heller, Jackie Sauter, Bob Sauter, Ellen Rocco and David Sommerstein, as well as regular local guests like Curt Stager, Amy Ivy, and Priest Associate Professor of Physics Ailene O’Donoghue have resulted in a strengthening of the Adirondack North Country identity. 

The station’s personalities are backed up by top-notch professionals in engineering and digital communications as well as fundraising. Production Manager Joel Hurd has been with NCPR since 1998, and Dale Hobson and Bill Haenel joined the team in 2001 to expand the station’s digital presence. The result of the station’s early inclusion of digital professionals culminated last year, when NCPR.org was awarded the 2017 National Edward R. Murrow Award for the best website in the country in the small market category.

“It is a transition point,” Rocco says of reaching the half-century mark. “The ‘founding mothers’ are on the cusp of retirement. We’ve worked really hard to bring in some great talent and we are positioning ourselves to pass the baton to the next generation to take this station where it needs to go.”

“Not to say that the work we have done is abandoned,” Rocco clarifies, “but it is to say that the station needs that young blood. All of us working here love the North Country. This is where we live, this is the place we love. We know that there are great stories out there, important stories that connect us to the whole nation.”

Foley concurs and believes the station’s role is to continue to show the nation that the North Country “is an important place, an interesting place, complicated, and needs to be recognized.” She says, “I think the way we work and the way we look at stories and for stories and sources, brings people together with a common understanding of where they are, who they are, and where their place is in the world.”

“As a St. Lawrence alumna, and as an NCPR-lifer,” Sauter concludes, “I’m so very proud of what we’ve accomplished. The station has been so fortunate to have had the support and encouragement of St. Lawrence over the years, as well as an amazingly talented roster of colleagues who have carried us forward. I can’t wait to see what the future brings!”


To learn more about NCPR visit www.ncpr.org

Map of the listening area of WSLU with transmitters marked by pins.
Ellen Rocco, Station Manager
An old poster advertising WSLU
Martha Foley '74, News Director
An old WSLU listener's guide
Jackie Sauter '71, Director of Broadcast and Digital Content