On November 22, 2023

Ken Squier, a champion of radio, racing, 88


By David Goodman/VTDigger

Ken Squier, an American broadcasting legend and a beloved champion of Vermont, died on Nov. 15, following a brief illness. Squier, who spent most of his life in Waterbury and Stowe, was 88 years old.

In January 2018, Squier became the first journalist inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a recognition of his lifetime achievement as a broadcaster with CBS and TBS and as the founder of Motor Racing Network. NASCAR’s annual honor for media excellence, the Squier-Hall Award, is named for Squier and radio broadcaster Barney Hall. 

“It was his golden voice that took NASCAR to a national audience thirsting for live coverage, giving his insider’s view of what he famously described as ‘common men doing uncommon things,’” the NASCAR Hall of Fame said of Squier. 

He was best known to Vermonters as the owner of WDEV Radio, the 92-year-old independent network, and the founder of Thunder Road Speedbowl, the race track that he built on a hilltop in Barre in 1960. For some six decades, Squier hosted a twice-daily sports show and a weekly program, Music to Go to the Dump By, with WDEV broadcaster Jack Donovan.

“I’m the host, and he continues to treat me like the custodian,” Squier facetiously complained about Donovan, in a 2020 interview with me on The Vermont Conversation, the podcast and radio show produced by VTDigger and aired on WDEV. “He’s a terrible human being,” Squier said of Donovan, employing his highest compliment. His dry wit was his trademark.

Squier was a renaissance man. He was an avid reader of history and a lover of classical music. He served as chair of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and launched WCVT, originally a classical music station that now broadcasts classic rock. He loved dogs, especially Buster, a border collie who Squier referred to as co-host of Music to Go to the Dump By. 

Squier traveled the world as a TV sports broadcaster, covering everything from NASCAR to Olympic speed skating (“It’s just like car racing. They all crash coming around the turns,” he said). 

But when I asked Squier in 2020 what he hoped his legacy would be, he replied quickly, “WDEV. I love everything about this radio.”

Gov. Phil Scott, a lifelong friend and a racer at Thunder Road, said in a statement Thursday that many would remember Squier for his contributions to broadcasting and racing. 

“But for me, what I will remember most was his friendship and deep devotion to his community, which was the entire state,” Scott said. “Ken was always looking for opportunities to give back and help those in need. He instilled those values as the backbone of Radio Vermont, which has been an essential part of the fabric of Vermont since its creation — always finding new ways to support more and more Vermonters.”

The governor continued, “From the booth, he often described those racing as ‘common men doing uncommon things.’ But in reality he was describing himself — because Ken was indeed a very common man who did extraordinary things.”

From Vermont to the world and back

Kenley Dean Squier was born on April 10, 1935, in Waterbury. His father, Lloyd, owned and operated WDEV, founded in 1931. At age 14, Ken Squier announced his first stock car race from the back of a flatbed truck at a dirt race track in Morrisville. It was the seed for a lifetime of adventure and service.

After graduating from Boston University, Squier returned to Vermont and, at age 25, opened Thunder Road, a quarter-mile oval racetrack that he co-owned with Tom Curley. Squier sold the track in 2017.

In 1970, Squier co-founded Motor Racing Network and was its lead radio announcer throughout the 1970s. In 1973, Squier joined CBS Sports. In a move that transformed motor sports, Squier persuaded CBS to broadcast the 1979 Daytona 500, the first live flag-to-flag national coverage of a car race. The race ended in a crash and a fistfight between race leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, as third place driver Richard Petty raced to victory. Squier called the finish blow-by-blow.

“The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat,” Squier narrated excitedly for a rapt national audience.

“Absent Ken Squier, it would have taken this sport probably another decade to find its way onto national television and radio,” said Mike Joy, FOX Sports’ NASCAR announcer. 

Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, said, “Ken is arguably the best storyteller in our sport’s history. He would talk with people. When he was broadcasting, it was like he was sitting beside you on the couch.”

Richard Petty, a NASCAR Hall of Fame driver and friend, added, “He knew everyone in racing personally, that’s why it was easy for him to commentate. He was a people person.”

Squier was generous as a mentor. 

“Ken’s greatest legacy is the number of people he mentored, guided and opened doors for over the years,” said Dave Moody, a former Thunder Road announcer who is now a lead announcer on Motor Racing Network.

Darrell Waltrip, a NASCAR racer turned national television broadcaster, told me, “He taught us all how to do TV. He taught me how to communicate with people. I never met anyone who didn’t love Ken Squier.”

He saw the potential in everyone he encountered, even a young Red Sox fanatic and aspiring reporter, my son Jasper Goodman. Starting when he was 9 years old and continuing for a decade, Jasper and Ken jousted, joked and commented about sports every week on WDEV.

“Ken represented all the best things about Vermont. He was passionate, loving, gritty, and had a deep appreciation for his community,” said Jasper, who now reports for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. “I’m forever grateful for his mentorship, friendship, and support and will miss him dearly.” 

A passion for Vermont

With all that he accomplished on a national stage, Squier’s passion always remained Vermont. His daughter, Ashley Squier, recalled the story of her father’s first time on the radio during World War II. A child in the community had celiac disease and needed bananas, which were in short supply because of the war. A young Ken went on the radio to ask the community for help. Listeners responded with bushels of bananas.

“From that moment, service to the community and the business of radio were one and the same,” Ashley said. “He’s proudest of being somebody who worked all his life to make that true, that WDEV was a radio station that served its community.”

One of Squier’s proudest moments came during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. As the storm raged through the night, WDEV opened its phone lines and hearts to worried Vermonters who told each other in real time what was happening around them. At the station the morning after flood waters had ravaged the state, Squier looked a bit haggard from the long night. Boxes of muffins delivered by grateful listeners were lying about. But WDEV remained the essential source of information that kept people together as a storm threatened to tear us apart.

“We get our news from the people,” Squier said matter-of-factly. That had been his lifelong mission.

Thanks to an old friend in the dark hours of an epic storm, we never lost touch with each other.

Squier remained fiercely independent as the media world consolidated around him. “If there was ever a person who understood both the power and romance of independent local media, it was Ken,” said author and activist Bill McKibben, who wrote a novel, “Radio Free Vermont,” that featured a central character based on Squier. “WDEV — because of his insistence — became the best example in America of a broadcast outlet that took its community seriously, providing it with information, inspiration, and culture both high and low. He was the literal voice of our mountains.”

On a personal note, when I began hosting The Vermont Conversation on WDEV in 2013, Squier offered me some much-needed advice. “It has to be good radio. And it has to be relevant,” he implored me. Squier believed every program should be a conversation with the community. Our job as reporters was to create a kitchen table where everyone could be heard and where the powerful were accountable.

Throughout his life, Ken Squier ensured that everyone, from the common to the uncommon, had a seat at his table.

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