August 21-28, 2003

Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania

Some small towns don't have much to offer when it comes to radio history. Some small towns have enough radio history for a city many times their size. Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania most definitely falls into the latter category.

If you've ever driven I-80 across Pennsylvania, you know Bloomsburg as a couple of exits west of Hazleton and east of Sunbury. If you've ever driven US 11 from Harrisburg up to Scranton, you've passed right through the historic center of town, where a beautiful old cast-iron fountain marks the intersection of Main and Market.

Overlooking that intersection is the stone building that's long been home to a station called WHLM. Today's WHLM, at 930 on the dial, is the only truly local commercial station in town, churning out a steady diet of news, oldies, local sports and Phillies baseball.

But the current incarnation of WHLM, which happens to be owned by my friend Joe Reilly (aka "Bobby Hatfield" of Rochester, Cleveland, Indianapolis and beyond), is just the latest chapter in a long broadcasting history here.

Our story begins in 1947, when Bloomsburg went from zero radio stations to two stations in just a few months. The Bloomsburg Morning Press (ancestor of today's Bloomsburg-Berwick Press-Enterprise) put WCNR on the air at 930 on the dial, while a group of local businesspeople put WLTR on the air at 690.

WCNR ran 500 watts, daytime only, while WLTR operated with 1000 watts, also daytime only, from a directional array on the property of principal owner Harry L. Magee.

(The Magee family was and is a major force in town; WLTR's studios were at the Hotel Magee, still operating on Main Street.)

Both original sites still exist, though one's almost impossible to spot unless you know what you're looking at. The WCNR site is obvious; the self-supporting tower still stands, on a road appropriately called "Tower Road," just alongside I-80 east of the PA 487/Lightstreet exit that's the entrance to Bloomsburg from the west.

WLTR's original home took more digging, but with Joe pointing the way, it revealed itself along Sawmill Road, almost directly across I-80 from the old WCNR site. The towers are long gone, and the transmitter building now serves as the garage of a modern home that turns out to belong to a Magee family member.

WLTR didn't last long, as it happens. In September 1951, the call letters went away (they're now used by the flagship of South Carolina Educational Radio in Columbia, S.C.), to be replaced by WHLM, for none other than Harry L. Magee.

And in October 1953, WHLM moved down the dial to 550, operating day and night from four very tall towers northwest of town near the spot where PA 42 now intersects I-80.

The transmitter building was built with far more space than an AM station needed, even then. This was the era when AM stations were looking to the future - and for WHLM, that meant the sign-on of WHLM-FM on 106.5, in September 1956, as well as never-realized plans for a WHLM-TV.

(As it turned out, Bloomsburg gets adequate TV service from Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, some 35 miles to the northeast, though the stations there rarely cover Columbia County events or compete for ad dollars there.)

So the competitive stage was set: WHLM on 550 and 106.5 and WCNR on 930 (sold by the Press to station manager Ed Darlington in 1966) fought it out for Columbia County listeners for more than three decades. In 1985, a noncommercial competitor joined the scene, as Bloomsburg University put WBUQ on the air at 91.1. In 1988, WHLM(AM) changed calls to WJMW, possibly for Harry L.'s son James Magee, who was running the stations; WJMW was programming country while WHLM-FM played the hits as "Mix 106.5," reaching out to a wider area by moving its antenna from the AM 550 site to Catawissa Mountain, south of town across the Susquehanna River.

And then things began to change. In 1998, WCNR's owners sold the station back to the Press-Enterprise, which received a waiver to run the radio station and the newspaper. That same year, the Magees sold WJMW/WHLM to the owners of WYGL in Selinsgrove. The studios left their historic spot in the WHLM building and moved to Selinsgrove, the FM calls changed to WFYY ("Flyte 106.5"), and AM 550 turned in its license, surrendered its calls, took down its towers and went silent. (As you can see above, the building is still there, overlooking the rolling hills where the 550 towers stood. The equipment's all gone - even the drawers are empty - but a peek inside shows that the flavor of 1950s radio is still very much apparent.)

As bad as the demise of 550 was for Bloomsburg listeners, it would get worse. In April 2001, the Press-Enterprise shut down WCNR, leaving the town with no local AM service. (Down the road in Berwick, things were just as ugly; WBRX 1280 went dark about the same time, leaving just an FM station that was targeting Hazleton instead of Berwick.)

That's where my buddy Joe entered the picture. In September 2001, he bought the WCNR license and began making plans to bring local radio back to Bloomsburg. It wasn't easy - especially when his purchase included only the license and not the tower site along I-80, which the newspaper intended to keep and eventually redevelop commercially.

So Joe found himself a different tower site, on property Bloomsburg University owns along Arbutus Park Road, closer in to town than the old WCNR site (and thus providing better coverage for the 23-watt nighttime signal - and eventually for a directional array that will allow even more power after dark.) He moved into the vacant WHLM studios in the WHLM building - and picked up the WHLM call letters that had gone unused for three years.

In November 2001, Joe put WHLM 930 on the air from a temporary wire antenna, running a Christmas music format for a couple of months until the real thing debuted in February 2002. That's when "Bobby Hatfield" left the building at Rochester's WBBF (93.3), where he had been PD and afternoon guy - and the "Bobby Joe and Larry Show" debuted in morning drive on WHLM. ("Larry" is Larry White, another Rochester radio veteran; still another Rochester veteran, former WHAM programmer Kevin Fennessy, ended up buying the silent WBRX over in Berwick and resuscitating it as WFBS, "Radio Smiles.")

Today, Joe and his family are having a grand old time doing radio in Columbia County. Joe does mornings, his wife Nancy helps run the office, their son runs the board for the occasional Phillies game, Larry does news and plays morning sidekick, and several salespeople keep those spots coming. And what's that in the back room? Why, it's the legal main studio for WOGY (1300 West Hazleton) and WGGI (95.9 Benton), two farflung pieces of the Entercom Scranton/Wilkes-Barre cluster that are too far from the main Entercom studios in Pittston to legally call that site home. Since Joe's still on good terms with his former Entercom employers, his studios became a natural home for their stations' public files after a dispute over the use of "The Mountain" as a nickname forced WOGY and WGGI out of the studios of WKAB, Berwick, where they had been located (at least for FCC purposes).

And that's our story of a small town with a very big radio history. Next week, we'll move a few miles down the road and check out another great radio town, Pottsville. Wait until you see what lurks in the transmitter buildings there!

Tower Site Calendar 2003 is now SOLD OUT! Stay tuned in the weeks to come as we open ordering for the even more exciting Tower Site Calendar 2004!