One of Oswego County’s radio pioneers has died.
Robert Gessner, who operated WSGO AM and built its FM companion, died Saturday in Florida at age 86.
Gessner owned WSGO from 1971 to 1996, the final act of a career in broadcasting that begin with his amateur radio license as a teenager and included work in New York City, for CBS, and in New Jersey.
He bought WSGO-AM in 1971 and moved his family to Oswego. Two years later, he moved the station to land adjacent to a muck field in Scriba — he said the damp soil would help the station’s transmitters — and put the FM station, WGES-FM, on the air.
His radio stations were known for local programming. He maintained a news presence, and offered Jim Lowery’s sportscasts and Bill Foley’s live high school game broadcasts. Among the national talents who began their careers at WSGO were Al Roker, weather personality for NBC’s Today Show, and ESPN anchor Steve Levy.
“Mr. G. believed it was important for WSGO to serve Oswego County residents with a local brand of programming airing shows as “Swap Shop”, “Open Mic”, “Birthday Club”, “Lost Pet Patrol”, “Oswego Weather Today”, “Your Precious Health and You” and a host of others,” said Bob Hageny of SUNY Oswego, who worked for Gessner from 1979 to 1992, rising to become the station’s operations manager.
“He did everything he possibly could do to keep Ã¢â‚¬Å“hometown radioÃ¢â‚¬Â alive. He knew the importance of a radio station serving the community,” said Bill Foley, Oswego City School District Clerk, who got his start at WSGO during his senior year of college.
He was quirky and quite a character, recalled Marv Kaminsky, who served as an announcer, newscaster and program director during several stints at the stations from 1975-1990. “Maybe it was the equivalent of the regular folks like us it was serving. It was very local, very human and provided an important service to the community as a vehicle to sell the ads,” he said. “Mr. Gessner let me do a lot of thoughtful stuff that other radio people couldn’t get away with. Gessner didn’t want to upset the sponsors or anyone else, but he appreciated the creativity.”
Ed Fayette, a local teacher who created a music program called the “Monday Night Dancetrack” on the station, recalled Gessner’s passion for his work. “He was a hands-on boss, who never knew the meaning of 9 to 5. He was there constantly,” Fayette said.
Both men said that as much as Gessner believed the station’s programming should be about people, he also believed running the station should be about people, too.
“As much as he could have on his mind from running a business, if you have a question, concern, or needed advice, he would always make time for you,” said Hageny. “He always seemed to have the answers.”
“He also constantly asked what I thought new trends were and my thought of the future of radio. And he listened, and cared,” said Fayette.
Fayette said WSGO was like a family under Gessner. Two of Gessner’s four children worked for him, and one, Susan, ran the operation in its final years before the stations were sold to Galaxy Communications.
Gessner bought WSGO after ending a partnership with two other men to run a radio station in Poughkeepsie, said Susan Gessner-Carey. He had his choice of two radio stations, WSGO and a station in Florida. “His passion other than radio was boating,” Gessner-Carey said. “He liked Oswego so much. He kind of fell in love with that lake.”
She said her father enjoyed the older style of broadcasting, of doing interviews and providing local information. As the business changed to emphasize more music and less talk, “he kind of got lost in all of that,” Gessner-Carey said. At the same time, national retaliers began to move in to Oswego County. They didn’t advertise on the local radio station. “It became very difficult to make money from advertising dollars, we lost many of our locally owned businesses,” she said.
There were no local buyers for the radio station, she said. The only offer came from Galaxy, which now uses the AM frequency to rebroadcast WTLA, Syracuse and the FM frequency to rebroadcast classic rock station TK-99.
“He was a good man and it is too bad the type of broadcasting and concern for the local community that he encouraged and supported does not exist today,” Foley said.
“That kind of radio really doesn’t exist anymore. Many of us miss it,” said Kaminsky, who operates a radio-news-on-the-internet service called RadioOswego.com. “Now, the programming is like a science, there’s very litle localness, the owners are usually big corporations and the listeners are thought of as sheep, statistics, “demos,” not people. That’s not the way Bob Gessner thought of radio and this community.”
Gessner retired to Kissimmee, Florida with his wife, Karen Cremean-Gessner, where he died on Sunday after a series of mini-strokes in the midst of a fight against Alzheimer’s Disease.
His family has set up a scholarship fund at SUNY Oswego. Checks may be made out to the “Oswego College Foundation,” for the “RCG Broadcasting Scholarship,” and sent to Sheldon Hall, 300 Washington Blvd., Oswego, NY 13126.
See articles captured by archivist Tom Tryniski about Bob Gessner here: