“This traffic report is brought to you by The Sofa King. If you’re looking for quality, no one else is Sofa King good.”
So went a typically goofy, and clever (get it?), break on the afternoon show on rock radio station WHJY-FM Providence, Rhode Island, in the late 1990s. Geoff Charles hosted, with John Laurenti, while “Traffic Troll” Steve Conti reported for listeners on the roads. (His traffic information was real, even if the sponsors weren’t.)
All content originated from the station’s cozy, homey studios in East Providence, two left turns into an otherwise quiet suburban neighborhood.
I worked in the beige, red-trimmed, two-story building from 1999 to 2002, under the shadow of soaring transmitter towers also on the property, as music director and on-air host at sister adult contemporary station WSNE-FM (and I once faked my way through running a syndicated show on fellow tenant AM talk station WHJJ).
Sometimes, I’d be taping in a small studio when the Traffic Troll would need to go on-air, and I’d happily move aside, chuckling throughout. (My poor attempt at imitating his humor, rather specifically, on WSNE: once, when calling in from a remote broadcast from a furniture store, I instructed the DJ to ask me how it was going, all so I could say, “So-fa, so good!”)
In 2002, all three stations moved from that building, and, next door, the even cozier (and, literally, homier) two-story house that included offices, into a more modern building (atop a factory on the bottom floor), not in a neighborhood, but overlooking Interstate 95 in Providence. Radio ownership consolidation had surged after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and WHJY, WSNE and WHJJ upgraded to their slicker new headquarters, joining oldies station, and fourth cluster mate, WWBB.
I departed WSNE at the end of 2005 and moved to New York to join Billboard in June 2006. With family in Boston, I often travel back on weekends, but I hadn’t been to the stations’ former confines for years until, on a recent drive through Providence, I got curious. The stations still broadcast from their perch above the highway (I always like to glance up when driving by), but I was unaware of the current state of the old property.
I knew the radio towers were still there, but what about the buildings?
It was a sunny day, and I was in no real rush, so I thought: Why not see what things looked like? I followed the roads through East Providence, which instantly felt familiar even after so long, and found the street leading to the neighborhood.
Then, one left turn. And then, another.
WHJY and WHJJ broadcasted from East Providence long before WSNE joined them at the facility. WHJY and WHJJ’s studios occupied the bottom floor, with offices on the second story. When WSNE moved in, in 1999, the station’s on-air studio replaced a conference room, with a newly-equipped production studio, formerly an office, one room over.
Since many employees worked on all three stations, the new layout worked well. WHJY and WHJJ remained in their cave-like studios below, while WSNE had plenty of room in the sunnier upstairs (fittingly, as the station had been known as “Sunny 93.3” in a prior incarnation).
24/7, the three stations played the soundtrack of Southern New England from the building (aka, a “work-free drug place,” as dubbed by rock station WHJY, of course. That liner might not make it past HR in 2018).
WHJY played Tom Petty, Rush and The Rolling Stones, alongside an intriguing new blend of rap and rock from acts like Limp Bizkit. WSNE targeted a female audience with matchbox 20, Goo Goo Dolls and Sheryl Crow, while WHJJ’s playlist starred Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with Rhode Island’s own colorful political characters.
At the time, the Internet had become a part of daily life, but on desktop computers. No Twitter or Facebook then, so radio’s status as a news and entertainment media source remained largely unchallenged.
If the Sofa King had existed, it probably would’ve been doing good business, thanks to those radio ads.
I made the second turn, and there it was. The studio building was still there, although the house next door wasn’t. It apparently hadn’t been for a long time, either, given the lush, green look of the lawn that covered its former foundation.
The studio building looked … different, mostly since trees and bushes had grown unchecked. The sign in front was down five of its eight letters; while it had once directed visitors (including eager prize winners) to WHJY and WHJJ (“WSNE” never got added), it now read: “WHJ .” The final “J” was gone, along with all below.
The small circular road in front of the building felt more claustrophobic than I’d remembered, and even if I could’ve driven around it, I decided not to, given the debris in the way. A dumpster that hadn’t been there the last time I was there seemed in danger of overflowing with assorted pieces of drywall (and upon closer inspection on foot, more than one TV set. Not flatscreens, either, the big, heavy kind. A convenient metaphor for how traditional media used to be bigger in many ways).
The front door to the building was boarded-up, reinforced by padlocks and covered in graffiti. What the ample shrubbery gently foreshadowed, wood and steel more ominously made clear: Do. not. enter.
The other potential opening to the building that I knew, and perhaps the more-often-used one in its day, was through the men’s room on the other side. It, too, was now sealed off. (More than one job interviewee is said to have entered the building that way, only to be greeted by an occupant. There were no walls, doors or any kind of dividers in the room. If prospective employees could get past that, no question in an interview was likely going to throw them.)
I walked further around to the side of the building, and what looked like a groundhog ambled across the driveway next to the torn-down house and into some bushes. He didn’t seem to be expecting my pop-in (to use a ’90s-era Seinfeld term). Given the condition of the grounds, he probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable having company.
A small bird fluttered away, too, and I made my way to the back of the building. Whereas the front was being reclaimed by nature, the back was open. Literally open. Glass windows on both floors were broken, and blinds swayed aimlessly. On the first floor, an entire section of plywood covering a window had been moved off to the side, affording the only entrance to the building that I could find.
I debated. Should I go in? It would obviously be trespassing … but it was kind of a former home, considering all the hours (at all hours) that I had spent there.
I decided against it. The boring choice, but the moral one. Also, the groundhog hadn’t invited me in, and I wasn’t sure who he might have for a roommate.
The men’s room had never before seemed so fancy an entrance by comparison.
Standing there for the first time in so long brought back many memories.
Beyond the Traffic Troll’s reports (I hope no one in the accounting department ever thought that the Sofa King was real and wondered why it never paid for its ads), he was funny off-the-air, even when he didn’t mean to be. He once described the bathroom on the house’s second floor as “romantic,” as golden rays of sunlight streamed through in the afternoon. I can confirm that, as far as bathrooms go, the description was apt.
The buildings weren’t all about bathrooms (or sofas). Many artists came by, and left impressions.
In my time there, it was where Jewel, in a visit with then-WSNE afternoon host Doug O’Brien, called me “tiger.” I later learned that she calls lots of people “tiger,” which lessened the memory’s appeal (but only a little).
It was where we turned down an in-studio appearance by Dido, which didn’t seem like a big deal until “Thank You” hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Today, over a decade after her last hit, declining her visit might not seem that regrettable after all, but she did help coin the term “stan,” thanks to Eminem‘s sample of her song.
David Coverdale of Whitesnake visited WHJY, and I ambushed him to record a liner for my Saturday night ’80s show on WSNE. He happily obliged, in his rich, British baritone. (Someone on the show had to have a deep voice.)
Actors stopped by, too, promoting various projects. One day, I found myself staring (way) up at Lou Ferrigno, and luckily he wasn’t angry (I wouldn’t have liked him if he were), or green. He was, of course, as muscular as he looked on TV. As a huge fan of The Incredible Hulk, I was relieved that he simply gave me a friendly smile, like his character did whenever he saw a bunny in the woods before calmly turning back into David Banner.
And, Barry Williams visited (here’s the story). A few of us assembled for a group photo, and I remember him directing the person with the camera (not a phone) where we should all stand, for the best lighting. Greg Brady knew how to be filmed.
Not all memories bring smiles. I was in the small studio where the Traffic Troll regularly reported when WHJY had to make the announcement, in November 2001, that George Harrison had died, at age 58.
Over two months earlier, I had been driving in, listening to the breaking news of 9/11. Once in the building, it was like nothing else I had experienced there. WSNE was simulcasting WHJJ’s news, and Bill Hess, then-program director of both stations, was, as deftly as anyone could, overseeing the chaotic, and incomprehensible, developments. Music decisions were suddenly beyond unimportant.
Eventually, music returned to WSNE, although for weeks after, we played Alan Jackson‘s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” We’d never put such a core country song into rotation before, but anything that helped bring comfort to listeners, who were requesting the ballad, seemed fitting, mirroring the song’s lyrics.
In that same WSNE studio, Nelly Furtado visited (we weren’t going to make that Dido mistake twice), and then-midday host Steve York called the singer-songwriter, who was ascending with “I’m Like a Bird,” a “radial among retreads.” Radio people just have a way with words. (They also leave the best voicemails. No radio talent I know can resist basically doing a break after the beep. All that’s missing is the song intro underneath.)
As I worked at the AC, not rock, station, most of my memories from the building are PG. Although … Instead of broadcasting live, thanks, in part, to technological advances, I pre-recorded overnights for a time (which seems safe to admit now). I later found out that one employee brought a date back to the studio, where the station played through speakers, even in the dark of night. The only details I know for sure (or want to) is that, as he told me not long after, “Gary, I always like hearing your voice, but that was one time I really didn’t want to.”
A radio station’s building is a home for staff. You spend so many hours there, and sometimes sleep there, with the station always on, like a comforting night light.
So, to see the remaining building in its state today felt unsettling, bittersweet. At the same time, I really like visiting abandoned places. There’s mystery, an unfinished story, and sometimes an allure of the forbidden. (And, less of a chance of awkward social interactions. I’m the person who, whenever I get up from my desk at Billboard, times it so that I run into someone turning around a corner, or I’m on the other side of a door opening at that exact moment. Almost every time. It’s a talent, I suppose.)
Most of all, places like these are safe, maybe not physically (groundhogs), but mentally. You can remember only the good and simpler times, before the overload of social media, when Tom Petty came around with new music, and we heard it on local radio (as his “The Last DJ” portrays).
A documentarian/trespasser/non-groundhog-fearing person with a camera (phone) recently revealed what the building looks like inside now, and, after the clip was posted by a one-time staffer on Facebook, a wave of fond memories swelled from former inhabitants. (Social media can be good!) Many wrote that this was, indeed, a shared home, and to see it abandoned, unprotected, and vandalized, felt hurtful. Others mused that two beloved late co-workers, WHJY’s Mike “The Doctor” Gonsalves and Mark “Mountain Man” Gaudet, are still there in spirit. Another half-joked that the building, in its current decay, “doesn’t look much worse than it did” when it was in use.
(It’s believed, I’ve now learned, that the studio building was to be demolished over a decade ago, but hasn’t been due to potential cost, or that it was perhaps to be sold to another broadcaster, with radio equipment included.)
“I loved that little dump of a station,” wrote one alum on Facebook, as, in radio, the basics are often enough. The imagination of the jock at the mic can take it from there.
Put another, perhaps best, “nice, weird, strange, lovely, kind, genuine, odd people at that place.”
The radio towers still loom over the location, even if the building is locked, overgrown, and open in the back for any creatures that venture in, or out. Seeing it in person felt conflicting. It’s still there, but not really.
I won’t go so far (so good) as to say that if I really listened in the parking lot, I could hear the station’s past voices and music. But if I could, they’d probably be sponsored by the Sofa King. Remember, if you’re looking for quality, no one else is Sofa King good.