Hartford’s Radio History with Swing

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Caleb Smith, Staff Writer

I’m a music student at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School. For a few years, now my time has been consumed by classical music and the fruits of the genre. As much as I love this style of music, I have a passion for something a little different: big band and swing. When I’m not playing Mozart with the Hartt Orchestra, I’m playing some rendition of Fats Waller on the piano. By delving into the rich history of jazz from Hartford to St. Louis, I uncovered Hartford’s radio history at the Travelers Insurance Co. radio station, WTIC. I’ve been conducting research on WTIC for almost a year now. I’ve been in contact with various personnel that has either worked for or knew people a part of WTIC.

For instance, I was connected to David Kaplan from the era following the “Golden Age” in the 1940s. Kaplan did not have a lot of light to shed on the whereabouts of ephemera, specifically documents of past employees and radio transcriptions. I was also put in contact with a jazz expert from the Lincoln Center and Dick Bertel’s son, a long-time engineer. Unfortunately, no one could offer any information regarding what happened to the documents and transcriptions.

I reached out to local institutions like the public library’s Hartford History Center. Their collection on WTIC was less than impressive. There were only a few cassette tapes that someone recorded in the 1980s, including the voice of Bob Steele. However, there was nothing substantially old. Even the Connecticut State Library’s biggest archive had nothing to say about the matter.

I finally decided to write WTIC, which is known today as 1080 NewsTalk. I got a response from their director and was informed that no archive existed. There were no old recordings or documentation in their possession. Not too long after, I finally struck something investigating the Library of Congress holdings. They had old radio announcements, including some Bob Steele and music! The downside was none of it was digitized and it was all property of NBC. There was also no way to contact their archive department because it was shut down years ago at NBC Universal. I was left to wonder, what was at the library down in Washington and how could it be resurrected.

That leads me to where I’m currently: A student at the Hartt School, a secret listener of big band music, and a Hartford history buff. I tried proposing a project to the school and library, but I was ignored. Nobody seemed to acknowledge the historical connections we had to Hartford. I got the attention of one individual, who worked at the University’s nonprofit station, WWUH. Without disclosing any names, this individual was very helpful and provided answers to many of my questions. This individual had first-hand knowledge of where the WTIC’s early radio broadcast records were located. The individual was also aware of the Travelers Insurance librarian and shelves of records that existed in the 1970s. However, all those records ended up in the trash after several changes, including a move from the Constitution Plaza. All that remained was a forgotten closet with one box of records left. These were later transferred to CD format and presumably left to the next organization that took over WTIC. It seems Hartford has not been too kind to its broadcasting history.

My grandfather had a personal connection to WTIC. He was an arranger for bands in Hartford at the height of the swing era. His name was Caleb O’Connor, a native of New Haven and a former resident of West Hartford. He was written about in several Hartford Courant articles from the early 1940s. He was also mentioned at the former Bond Hotel, a recording place for the station. I had high hopes that one of my grandfather’s arrangements had been recorded at WTIC’s studio orchestras. Mr. O’Connor did write to Mark Gordon, a West Hartford local in the early 2000s, sharing accounts of his experience in arranging and playing for big bands. This included the time big band leader, Charlie Barnet asked him to fill in as his guitarist in 1941. That was the year the Barnet band came to play at the old State Theater in downtown Hartford, another recording location for WTIC. I’m calling any local historian, jazz connoisseur, or anybody that’s interested to get involved! I believe Hartford has a history in music and broadcasting that’s worth preserving. I’m an avid researcher but can only gather so much on my own.

Feel free to contact me with any questions, email [email protected]