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September 25 - October 2, 2003

WDEL/WSTW, Wilmington, Delaware

When I sat down a few months ago to write a NERW Mini-Rant on the state of broacast consolidation, I reached deep into the stack of Broadcasting Yearbooks to pull out Steinman Stations as an example of the sort of small group owner that doesn't exist any longer.

It didn't take long for the e-mail to begin flowing in, letting me know that while Steinman is long since out of the TV business in New Bedford and Lancaster, it's still alive and well in the radio business in Delaware and Maryland as the Delmarva Broadcasting Corporation.

And thanks to DBC engineers Charlie Slezak and Bill Blatz, I can share some nifty photos of DBC's flagship stations, WDEL (1150) and WSTW (93.7) in Wilmington, Delaware, taken during a late-July swing through the mid-Atlantic states.

WDEL is the First State's oldest radio station, having signed on in 1922 from downtown Wilmington. It's been in the same ownership since 1931 - and since 1947, it's operated from this site on Shipley Road north of Wilmington, a couple of miles south of the Pennsylvania border.

Those are Blaw-Knox towers there - not the signature "diamond" shape, but built just as solidly. There are actually four of them on the site, two 231-footers, a 329-footer and the 342-foot big one, and there used to be a fifth at the south end of the property.

That tower was home to WDEL-TV, which signed on in 1949 as channel 7, the first TV station in Delaware. The channel 7 allocation was problematic from the beginning, proving to be too close for comfort to New York's WJZ-TV and Washington's WMAL-TV (it probably didn't help that the station ran just 1 kilowatt of visual ERP!), and by 1951 WDEL-TV had moved to channel 12, running programming from NBC and DuMont and powering up to reach viewers in Philadelphia (whose own local stations had themselves boosted power and moved to the Roxborough tower farm, thus providing clear signals to Wilmington and obviating the need for local TV there.)

Realizing that the future of TV in Wilmington was dim, Steinman sold WDEL-TV to Paul F. Harron in March 1955 for $3.7 million. Harron changed the station's calls to WPFH, then sold the station in March 1957 to Storer Broadcasting for $5.6 million. By then, the channel 12 studios had moved out of the building on Shipley Road (Storer operated studios at 2809 Baynard Blvd. in Wilmington and a studio in Philadelphia), and the TV transmitter moved to Glassboro, N.J., where it would remain well into the seventies (Storer bought land in Roxborough but never built his planned tower there; it would finally be used 20 years later for Philadelphia's channel 57), leaving just the WDEL transmitters. (Here's a question for which I don't have an answer: is channel 12 the only TV station in the U.S. to have operated transmitter sites in three states during its history?)

Storer changed channel 12's calls to WVUE and tried to run it as an independent, bringing former WDEL-TV talk show host Joe Pyne back east from Los Angeles to do a late night talk show that's said to have increased channel 12's ratings 30-fold. That was a rare bright spot for WVUE, though; concluding that there was no room for an independent VHF station in market #4, Storer returned the license to the FCC in 1959 and signed WVUE off for good.

(Once you've recovered your breath, I'll note that the channel was then reallocated for noncommercial use and occupied in 1963 by WHYY, which had signed on in 1957 on Philadelphia's channel 35. And that's why Philadelphia's PBS station is still licensed to Wilmington and operates a satellite studio there...)

Today, the only remaining sign of the old WDEL-TV can be found up above the ceiling tiles in the center of the Shipley Road building, over what's now a sales area and mailroom.

Poke up above the false ceiling and you can see the much higher original ceiling of the channel 7 studio - and if you look carefully, you can even make out some old-fashioned TV lighting fixtures still hanging up there all these years later.

Meanwhile on the radio side, WDEL left its studios at Tenth and King in downtown Wilmington in the early sixties and moved its entire operation north to the Shipley Road site, where they've lived happily ever after.

The transmitter room on the north side of the building is itself something of a museum, showing off several generations of transmitters. In the panorama above, you see the RCA BTA-5T that's been there since 1963, and next to it the Continental 816R4 that powers WDEL's sister FM station, WSTW (93.7). The phasor for WDEL's four-tower DA is down the hallway at the right edge of the picture, and next to it at the edge of the frame is the Continental 315R1 (the former Collins Power Rock design) that's been WDEL's main transmitter since 1985. Out of frame is the RCA BTF-20E1 that was installed in 1968 when WDEL-FM went stereo and changed its calls ("We're Stereo To Wilmington," in case you were wondering.) I'm told the transmitter room is already undergoing additional renovations to accommodate new transmitters, expected by year's end.

Because Wilmington gets its TV service from Philadelphia, anyone looking for local news in northern Delaware has to turn to either the newspaper (Gannett's News Journal) or to radio, and WDEL excels in providing local coverage to the Wilmington market. Though it carries Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, WDEL also has much more local news, talk and sports than most AM stations in markets its size, with a newsroom that's sent many talented newspeople off to bigger things, including Radio World editor Paul McLane.

(And WDEL even has competition - Wilmington's WILM 1450, itself owned by Steinman until the early forties, runs a local all-news format under local owners.)

On the FM side, WSTW is no slouch either; while its big class B FM signal, coming from eight bays atop one of the two tall towers (the other holds a mast that once carried another WDEL-FM antenna) easily reaches into most of the Philadelphia market, it's stayed focused on Wilmington, regularly ranking either first or second in the market.

In the last few years, the Delmarva group has expanded, adding stations in Havre de Grace, MD, Milford, DE and the Salisbury/Ocean City, MD market. We'll try to feature some of those stations next year - but in the meantime, join us next week for a very special look at a very special tower site, Philadelphia's Roxborough tower farm.

Oh, and one final note - there was indeed no Site of the Week last week because we were busy bringing baby Ariel Joy home from the hospital! Check out her baby pictures if you haven't seen them yet...

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