August 28 - September 4, 2003

Pottsville, Pennsylvania

When we recounted our trips to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in last week's episode of Site of the Week, we mentioned that some small towns are simply richer than others when it comes to radio history. Little did we know, as we pulled out of Bloomsburg and headed south to Shamokin and then east on PA 61, that we were headed for a particularly rich vein of radio memories.

The early part of that drive was less than promising; in Shamokin itself, WISL (1480) was sputtering along at low power, playing oldies with nary an ID (even at the top of the hour) - and down the road in Mount Carmel, the WMIM (1590) tower was still standing, but the station itself was gone, having gone silent and returned its license to the Commission.

By the time we pulled off 61 in the little town of Shenandoah, we were ready for some living radio - and in that part of Pennsylvania, the most reliable choice in that department is "T102," the mighty signal of Pottsville's WAVT (101.9), emanating from a tower in the Shenandoah Heights neighborhood (just around the corner from another dead AM, Shenandoah's WMBT 1530, whose tower and building were still standing.) And what luck we were about to have - as we stepped out of the NERW-mobile, the door of the stuccoed WAVT transmitter building opened and a real live engineer emerged. And looky what we found inside...

WAVT, you see, is a very old station as FM broadcasters go. It signed on the air as WPPA-FM back in 1948, from this very spot in Shenandoah Heights, and it's been on the air ever since.

So not only is this building much bigger than your typical FM transmitter shack, it's just loaded with history, including the big dusty studio with a rotting piano still sitting in the corner.

Three generations of transmitter can be seen here, too, from the current Nautel (sitting in a gutted space that was once an office and a bathroom) to an older QEI (above, right) to a much older RCA (above left, looking very anachronistic next to that swoopy new Optimod processor!)

And in a former control room, looking out at the RCA through dusty glass windows, sat the old control board seen at left, below some very old WPPA-FM licenses on the wall.

For all that history, though, there's plenty that's new here at WAVT, including the six-bay antenna on the tower out back. T102 took a nasty lightning hit last year (we saw the holes in the old transmission line), and it was running at low power for much of last winter until the new antenna could be installed.

We thought we were pretty lucky to have seen this bit of Pottsville radio history - until our new engineer friend mentioned that he was headed down to the WPPA site, and would we like to come along?

To get from WAVT down to WPPA, you head downhill - down from Shenandoah Heights, through Shenandoah itself, then down Route 61, across I-81 and down a steep slope that leads into the heart of Pottsville, a pleasant community best known perhaps as the home of the Yuengling brewery, the nation's oldest.

On either side of that Route 61 slope are hilltops crowned with AM towers. To the east sits WPAM (1450); to the west, on a normal day, you'd see the five towers of WPPA (1360), which usually operates with 5000 watts by day and 500 watts at night.

"Usually" is the key word here. How often do you see an AM station replace a five-tower array? That's what the Pottsville Broadcasting Company was doing at the end of North Street when we reached WPPA, where four of the five towers were gone and brand-new tower segments sat next to the doghouses, awaiting erection.

Never fear - WPPA was still providing sterling service to this community, far outside any recognizable TV news market, with 1500 watts day and 125 watts at night into the remaining tower. The Phillies were on (and losing) that afternoon, but WPPA is a firm believer in live, local AM, with lots of news, talk, oldies and remotes (including a fun one from the Schuylkill County Fair as we were heading out of town!)

You can see WPAM's tower in the distance from WPPA (though not in this picture) - but the real fun is inside the WPPA building. This, too, was once a studio facility, and time has stood still out here. (Literally - the clock on the wall was broken!)

That's a relatively modern Nautel transmitter glimpsed through the glass; as noted, these guys spend money to make money. We drove by their studios downtown as we headed out of town, though we didn't have a chance to make good on an invitation to stop in. (We did notice that WPAM's calls are still on the door as well; Pottsville Broadcasting recently ended an LMA of 1450, which is now running satellite classic rock as "1450 the Phoenix.") Next time!

Tower Site Calendar 2004 is NOW AVAILABLE! Click here for advance ordering information!

Scheduling Note: We've already been knocked off schedule this summer by a blackout - but be prepared for another brief hiatus in Tower Site of the Week updates sometime in the next couple of weeks. With the impending arrival of Baby Fybush any day now, we may miss a week sometime in September - so if there's no Site on Sept. 4 or 11, you'll be able to guess why. Thanks for your patience! (And yes, Baby Fybush will get to take her first tower trip this fall, stopping in Toledo en route to the grandparents in the midwest...at which point we'll keep going to the Windy City to get some more exciting sites for your enjoyment. Stay tuned!)