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April 20. 2014 11:10PM

Radio station finds a home at Bethlehem's Colonial Theatre


Stephen Dignazio and Perry Williams stand in front of radio station WCNZ’s equipment. (Debra Thornblad)

BETHLEHEM — Through the efforts of volunteers, the little town of Bethlehem now has a radio station of its own.

WCNZ, 99.9 FM, just got its license and began broadcasting earlier this month out of the projection room of the Colonial Theatre, itself operated mainly by volunteers.

The Colonial Theatre is celebrating its 99th year of operation.

“It is reputedly the oldest continuously operated movie theatre in the country, Stephen Dignazio, executive director of the theatre said. “We’re gearing up for our 100th anniversary next year.

The Friends of the Colonial Theatre, which is also behind the new radio station, took over the operation of the theatre in 2000. The theatre was built in 1915 by Karl Abbot, who owned several hotels in the North Country. In those days Bethlehem had over 30 hotels and trains arrived four times a day in the summer.It was sold to Jack Eames in 1922. The Eames family, which owns the JAX theatre in Littleton, continued to own it until 2000.

When the Eames family decided to sell the theatre, they approached the North Country Chamber Players, of which Dignazio was the executive director at the time.

That group wasn’t interested but Dignazio began discussing the idea with people in the area and the Friends group was formed. They bought the theatre and immediately had to deal with a roof threatening to cave in and a marquee that fell off the building.

“We’ve put three quarters of a million dollars into renovations,” Dignazio said.

The theatre is now listed on the state Register of Historic Places.

One of those upgrades was for a digital projector, needed to get the latest movie releases today.

Unlike commercial stations with DJs and control rooms, small community stations like Bethlehem’s are not manned 24/7. A card similar to that used in the digital camera can hold three days of programming and can be loaded off-site.

The station can do live programming as well, and that is in the planning. Dignazio and Perry Williams of Lyman, who is helping with getting the station up and running, said some people have expressed interest in doing shows and once the theatre opens for the season, the station will broadcast live shows put on there.

Williams is an electrical engineer by training and a ham radio operator who has been helping several low power FM stations get up and running.

At present the station broadcasts out between 5-15 miles, depending on topography, but an upgraded antenna they will install will allow them to broadcast a little further.

Dignazio said the Friends of the Colonial Theatre decided to get involved because it fits with the group’s mission, to bring arts programming to the area.

“This is just another platform for doing that,” he said.

As time goes on, the station will be doing a combination of recorded music, live music, public service announcements, children’s programming and other live and recorded shows that people in the community want.

Currently volunteers are working on putting together a play list and several people in the community have donated CDs for that purpose.

“We’re trying to stay away from the typical music that can be heard elsewhere,” Williams said. “We want to play stuff people may not have heard, or heard in awhile. Our modus operandi is ‘keep listening, you may like the next one even better.’”

Both said the community response has been tremendous. In addition to donating music, people have told them how much they appreciate the station.

Barb Thompson, who owns Raggamuffins, a gift shop right across the street, recently wrote a letter of support in local newspapers.

“It’s a great station. Everyone I’ve talked to loves it. It’s changed our lives,” she told the Union Leader. “The music they’ve picked out is great. It gives the flavor of this community,” which she described as having “a live and let live attitude that’s not so much keeping up with the Joneses.”

Thompson said the music is positive, folksy music that hasn’t been heard in a long time. They play not only music from well-known artists, but music from local artists as well, such as the Crunchy Western Boys from Franconia.

“I see it as a mouth piece for the community,” Dignazio said. “Bethlehem is a pretty groovy place any way, this will just make it better.”


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