It was a Sunday afternoon nearly 50 years ago when the bell rang at WGBB radio station of Freeport.
Gary Lewi, a morning drive newscaster at the station, answered the door. It was a family of listeners who had driven in from New Jersey. They wanted to personally meet the DJ and newsman on duty at their favorite radio station.
"That was the furthest extent of our signal, and that was if the wind was blowing in the right direction. The idea of this local station having that level of loyalty among its listenership, I don’t know if that exists anymore,” said Lewi, now a public relations executive.
On Tuesday, Lewi and others gathered at the site in Freeport where the station was founded in 1924 to commemorate the start of Long Island’s first and oldest radio station.
Officials unveiled a plaque honoring the spot on Bedell Street where WGBB sent out its first broadcast some 95 years ago.
The radio station “truly defined the region, the South Shore of Nassau County, for decades,” Lewi said. “It is no surprise you are getting that kind of response today from people — alumni and fans of a station long gone.”
Freeport Mayor Robert T. Kennedy called the radio station “a great accomplishment for the Village of Freeport.”
It was started by local businessman Harry Carman in a garage behind a house at 217 Bedell St., officials said. It then moved into a small brick house next door, and then to several other Nassau locations in the area — mainly in Merrick — over the years.
The station became the heart of the community — the go-to place for information on everything from school closings because of storms to Long Island politics and even lost pets.
“It was really part of the home scene,” recalled Lorraine Avitabile, vice president of the Freeport Historical Society. “We had it on all the time.”
She recalled playing a “birthday game” in which the station would call out a birthdate and the first one to call in who was born on that day would win money.
Alumni of the station recalled covering memorable stories. Tom Preston said he was at the news conference in July 1969 when New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath — fresh off leading his team to Super Bowl III — announced he was coming out of retirement and selling his interest in a Manhattan nightclub called "Bachelors III" as the NFL was demanding.
At the news conference, Namath had some choice words for legendary ABC Sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, who had backed the NFL position, Preston recalled. After that journalists from smaller outlets like his actually had a chance to get a word in edgewise over the loquacious Cosell.
David North of the Press Club of Long Island, which was a major backer of the move to erect the marker, said Freeport was a natural spot for an AM radio station in the early days of the industry.
AM radio signals carried best in salty, marshy conditions, he said, and Freeport along with other shoreline communities such as Suffolk's Patchogue fit the bill perfectly.
He said it also made sense to establish Long Island’s first radio station in Freeport because it was close to the New York City population center.
“This was a very moving project for us at the Press Club,” North said. "Things are changing so much in the world with media."
And the current state of WGBB seemed to underscore his point. Nearly a century later, the station is still running, though it has changed dramatically. Its studio is based in West Babylon. And the broadcast content is mainly in Chinese.