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Little WATD-FM plays big role in community

Call it the little station that could. Although its 3,000 watts can be heard, intermittently, around Boston and up toward New Hampshire, Marshfield's WATD-FM (95.9) is definitely a South Shore station. Owned and operated by founders Ed and Carol Perry, the little FM focuses exclusively on happenings in towns from Abington and Duxbury to Plymouth and Marshfield. If it's north of the Cape Cod Canal between routes 495, 128, and 24, then it is important to WATD.

Within those boundaries, the station covers local news, sports, and events like few other outlets. Last month, the privately held station (with only 12 full-time employees) won eight of a possible 11 regional Edward R. Murrow awards for a small-market station.

Those honors, given by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, included one for overall excellence. The station's reputation has only grown since 1977, when (after several years of negotiating) the Perrys obtained their FCC license and won the right to transmit from the Marshfield landfill -- inspiring the call letters, which stand for "We're at the Dump"). Since 1991, WATD has gone on to win seven national Murrow awards (the regional awards make the station eligible for the national awards, announced later this spring).

Such success, Ed Perry says, is due to the station's tight focus on its home base, with music, talk, and news shows that cater specifically to its region. "We know the turf," Perry says. "I'd love to say we're a Boston station, but we're not. We'd be the very worst Boston station -- but we're the very best South Shore station."

Listeners, he says, "get accessibility" from WATD. "They can call and win our contests," he says. "They can call in a request and really get a song on the air."

That involvement goes both ways. The South Shore, he explains, has a strong sense of community. Perry gives an example: Recently, a local restaurant had a hepatitis scare. The restaurant was clean, but clients were nervous. When employees of other local eateries organized an "eat-in" to show the restaurant was safe, "we sent our disc jockey down, and she did her show at the eat-in," Perry says. "That's the kind of thing a Boston station couldn't or wouldn't do, and we do that kind of thing once a week."

Such grassroots involvement pays off. When a big story breaks on the South Shore, WATD is likely to have it before the Boston stations. "We're very, very good at local news," Perry says. Being close to the audience helps, he says: "We know who runs the towns we serve. We know the firemen; we know the policemen."

Because of this prominence and the hands-on experience that the small staff gets, the station is a victim of its own success. Perry works as the station's news director now, because his regular news directors kept getting hired away. "They get noticed," says Perry, who likens WATD to a farm team like the Pawtucket Red Sox. In recent years, he has lost news directors to WRKO-AM (680), WBZ-AM (1030), ABC News, and other outlets.

"So, I become the default news director until we find a new one," Perry says. No matter how much attention the little station gets, it remains a small family business. Says Perry, "I'm also the only guy around here who knows how to fix the transmitter."

Spinning the dial "From the Top," the young people's classical music show that is produced in partnership with WGBH-FM (89.7), will be taping a Mother's Day special May 9 at Jordan Hall, featuring violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The 2 p.m. performance will be followed by a benefit reception. Tickets, including the reception, are $75 for adults, $25 for students; call 617-437-0707, ext 105. Tickets for the performance/taping only are $25 for adults, $20 for students/seniors; call 617-585-1260. "From the Top" can be heard Sundays at 6 p.m. on WGBH.

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