May 16-23, 2001

Grand Island, N.Y.

Drive from Buffalo to Niagara Falls or from Rochester to Toronto, and there's no avoiding Grand Island. The island, and the town by the same name, sit right in the middle of the Niagara River just a few miles south of the famous falls, linked to Niagara Falls on one end and to Buffalo on the other by two bridges carrying I-190 across.

For the average tourist, Grand Island offers little beyond an old amusement park. For the discerning radio tourist, though, the island offers a little something for any taste.

To the left, for instance, is one of the prettiest AM sites in the Northeast. WBEN (930) was the first station on the island when it moved to this site near the southern edge of Grand Island, just a few miles north of downtown Buffalo.

During the day, WBEN's nondirectional signal is widely heard in western New York and southern Ontario, thanks in part to the water path from this site to just about anywhere in the region. At night, WBEN goes directional from these two towers, aiming mostly south into Buffalo and north to Niagara Falls and Toronto.

When your editor took these pictures in the summer of 1996, on a whirlwind one-day tour of almost every site in the Buffalo market (thanks, Greg and George!), one feature of the site that drew comment was the old five-wire transmission line out to the towers. Is it still in use now, or just a visible relic of the old days? We don't know.

The STL dish seen above was then pointed south, at the building a few miles south of the bridge that had been home to WBEN AM-FM-TV since 1960. Since then, the TV station (now known as WIVB) has become the sole occupant of 2077 Elmwood Avenue, and the radio stations now broadcast from a new studio complex in Amherst.

Next on the island, and a few miles north of the WBEN site, is the only facility on Grand Island not licensed to Buffalo. WHLD (1270) is a Niagara Falls station in name at least, though it's been based in Erie County for decades. For most of that time, its ethnic programming came from a little white building at 2692 Staley Road on Grand Island. Your editor remembers visiting there in the early nineties, when a big neon sign in the window proudly proclaimed WHLD's presence there.

Since then, WHLD has pulled up stakes and moved on to bigger things. The studios left a few years ago, moving south to downtown Buffalo. And since last year, the two WHLD towers have been silent on AM, with the 1270 signal now diplexed from the five towers of WNED (970), far to the south of Buffalo in Hamburg.

WHLD was always a directional signal, hemmed in to the east, west and south. Pointing north from Grand Island gave it fine coverage in Niagara Falls; by moving to Hamburg, that northern beam now takes in Buffalo and its many ethnic neighborhoods as well. (And by day at least, the 5000 watts still sound just fine in the Falls; nights are another matter with just 122 watts!)

So why are these towers still standing? There's another occupant that's not going anywhere. WKSE (98.5) is Niagara Falls' lone FM station, descendant of the old WHLD-FM by way of WZIR ("The Wizard") and WRXT in the eighties.

Now known as "Kiss," it's a Buffalo station in all but license. The studios moved to Buffalo when WKSE became a sister station to WWKB (1520) in the mid-eighties, and are now in Amherst at that same Entercom complex as WBEN. (As we'll soon see, there are historical links binding all of these Grand Island sites.)

But you can't really see WKSE from the 190 as you speed across Grand Island, and you can only make out WBEN if you look to the west at just the right moment. What catches your eye from a distance, instead, are the TV sites east of the highway on Whitehaven Road.

WUTV (Channel 29) was here first, launching as Buffalo's first independent station in 1970 from the same site it occupies to this day. Why Grand Island instead of the existing VHF towers in the hills south of Buffalo? Here's my theory: WUTV's independent fare was as welcome in Toronto's three-station environment as it was in Buffalo. UHF receivers of the day were far less sensitive than they are now, so by locating 30 miles closer to Toronto on Grand Island, WUTV could better serve that lucrative Canadian audience, something it still does to this day (though largely via cable coverage, which now takes the WUTV signal east to Ottawa, west to London and nationwide by satellite).

A similar motivation might have insipired Buffalo's public TV station, WNED-TV (Channel 17), to make its own move to Whitehaven Road in the eighties. WNED was the descendant of WBUF-TV, one of NBC's early experiments in owned-and-operated UHF stations. When WBUF-TV went dark in 1959, the facilities were donated to public broadcasting, and for the next two decades or so, WNED-TV used the studios and tower at 184 Barton Ave. that had been WBUF's. Moving to its own tall tower on Grand Island greatly improved the Channel 17 signal, especially into Canada - and WNED now identifies as "Buffalo-Toronto."

WNED added a second signal after moving to Grand Island. WNEQ (Channel 23) debuted in 1987 from an antenna side-mounted on the channel 17 tower and enjoyed a little over a decade as a public broadcaster before being put up for sale in the late nineties.

Sinclair, whch owned WUTV, was the initial prospective buyer, and it was perhaps with channel 23 in mind that the station built a new tower in the late nineties next to its existing 1970 stick. While it appears shorter in the photo to the left, the new stick is in fact a bit taller; it's just deeper back on the property than the old tower.

Sinclair never bought WNEQ, though it at least now has plenty of tower space for the DTV conversion at WUTV (once the international treaties are finalized to clear the way for DTV in our area, that is).

Sinclair also never built its planned studio complex in downtown Buffalo, which would have housed the TV stations and the radio group it then owned, including WBEN and WKSE. The radio stations were later sold to Entercom, and WUTV stayed put on Whitehaven Road. (WUTV also holds the curious honor of being the largest-market Fox affiliate with no local news, another nod perhaps to its large Canadian audience.)

Channel 23, meanwhile, did finally get sold. In early 2001, it relaunched as commercial independent WNLO, a sister to CBS affiliate WIVB. It remains on the WNED tower, though -- and therein lies the last thread of the connections that weave among all these sticks. For WNLO's studios, with WIVB at 2077 Elmwood Avenue, are not just the former home of WBEN (which in turn became a sister to WKSE and WUTV later on). You see, that building was originally built in the late 1950s by NBC, as the future home of 17.

And if I were a certain well-known veteran radio commentator, I'd say you now know...well, it's his phrase, not mine. Instead, I'll simply invite you back in a week for a trip all the way to the eastern end of NERW-land. See you then!