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October 9-16, 2003

Roxborough Tower Farm, Philadelphia PA (part II)

In last week's edition, we began exploring one of the most fascinating tower clusters in America, the thirteen towers and 38 stations that call the tower farm at Roxborough, on the western edge of Philadelphia, home.

This week, we finish off our visit to Roxborough by looking at the stations that occupy the five tall towers on the eastern side of the cluster, lined up along Domino Lane and nearby Paoli Avenue.

WCAU-TV: The first station to sign on from Domino Lane was the Philadelphia Bulletin's CBS affiliate, WCAU-TV 10, which had signed on in 1948 from the top of the PSFS Building in Center City. Since Philadelphia is not a city of skyscrapers (there was a longstanding agreement that no building would rise above the statue of William Penn on City Hall, though it's since been breached), that tower site was fine for covering Philly, but it was insufficient to compete with WFIL-TV and KYW-TV when they moved from shorter towers (at Roxborough and Wyndmoor, respectively) to their shared tall tower at Roxborough in the mid-fifties.

So WCAU-TV broke ground on the east side of Domino Lane for a 1200-foot Dresser-Crane tower, which carried channel 10 and WCAU-FM 98.1 to a wide new audience as far away as the Lehigh Valley, northern Delaware and the Jersey shore. The Bulletin sold the WCAU stations to CBS in 1958 but kept the Muzak franchise, which was soon moved to a new Bulletin-owned FM station, WPBS (Philadelphia Bulletin Station) on 98.9, still operating from the channel 10 tower and a new studio/transmitter building at 440 Domino Lane. The building is still in use to this day, as the studios for 98.9 (now WUSL) and its Clear Channel sister station WJJZ (106.1), which doesn't even transmit from Roxborough - it's at the old WPTZ site in Wyndmoor!

When we first visited Roxborough in 1995, WCAU's status quo had held for nearly forty years - it was owned by CBS and operated its FM and TV signals from the 1950s Dresser-Crane tower and the original brick transmitter building shown at left.

But later that year, CBS merged its TV station operations with Westinghouse (which would then go on to acquire CBS), forcing a decision to be made. Since Westinghouse and CBS both owned TV stations in Philadelphia, one would have to go - and the choice was to keep Westinghouse's KYW-TV, flip it from NBC to CBS, and sell off CBS' WCAU-TV. The natural buyer was NBC itself, which traded its Denver and Salt Lake City stations and its superior TV signal in Miami (CBS was then on the rimshot channel 6 signal, which had to operate from far south of Miami because of spacing restrictions to Orlando's channel 6 and West Palm Beach's channel 5; it ended up with NBC's channel 4 and forced NBC to channel 6) for WCAU-TV, which promptly became "NBC 10," though still with CBS' FM facility on 98.1 (by then it was oldies WOGL) and WUSL on 98.9 on the tower as well.

The tower site apparently didn't go along with the station, and ended up in the hands of American Tower, which had bigger plans for 310 Domino Lane.

Seeing the advent of DTV on the horizon, and knowing that space would be needed for all those new signals, American Tower put up a new 1256-foot candelabra tower next to the old WCAU tower in 2002. There's a four-bay ERI master antenna system and combiner there for FM tenants, though WOGL is the only one at the moment. (WUSL has a CP to relocate to the WIOQ site, the original 1947 channel 6 tower, even though its studios are right here on Domino.)

On the TV side, the new tower is home (naturally) to WCAU-TV 10 and WCAU-DT 67, as well as to Univision's WUVP (Channel 65, a recent move-in from New Jersey and still licensed to Vineland NJ) and WUVP-DT 66; Tribune's WPHL-DT 54, Viacom's WPSG-DT 32 (we'll see where their respective analog sites are in a moment), Pax's WPPX-DT 31 (licensed to Wilmington, Delaware, with its analog channel 61 site over in New Jersey) and independent public broadcaster WYBE (Channel 35) and WYBE-DT 34.

At some point in the not too distant future, American Tower apparently plans to take down the top few hundred feet of the old WCAU tower, which will then be relegated to auxiliary duty.

Fox Tower: Just south of the WCAU site, at 340 Domino Lane, is an 1184-foot structure known locally as the "Fox Tower." The uninitiated may think this has something to do with the fact that it's owned by Fox Television Stations and is home to Fox O&O WTXF (Channel 29) - and they'd be wrong, believe it or not. In fact, this tower is named for William, Irwin and Benjamin Fox, named for the two brothers and their father who owned WIBF (103.9) in the Philadelphia suburb of Jenkintown and, in the early sixties, secured a construction permit for WIBF-TV 29, which went on the air in 1965 from this very spot. WIBF-FM, which broadcast from a tower and studios at the Fox family's "Benson East" building (named for William and Irwin, Ben's sons...get it?), moved here in the seventies, running a whopping 180 watts ERP, later increased to 340 watts ERP, from nearly a thousand feet up on the tower.

The Fox family sold channel 29 to Taft Broadcasting after a few years, and it soon became WTAF-TV, a prominent independent station; with the coming of the Fox television network in the mid-80s, it became a Fox O&O as WTXF, leaving the old building on Domino Lane behind in favor of a bigger new building slightly up the hill closer to the tower.

The old channel 29 space became home to WYBE (Channel 35) when it launched in 1990, then became vacant again a year ago when WYBE moved up the street to the WCAU-DT tower. (Channel 35 was the original home of public broadcaster WHYY in the late fifties, but when Wilmington's channel 12 became available in 1963, WHYY moved there, keeping channel 35 as secondary service WUHY until shutting it down sometime in the early eighties.)

That leaves one tenant in the old 29 building, in the last little corner that still has electrical service: the 103.9 facility that started out as WIBF.

The Foxes kept WIBF going as a leased-time ethnic station well into the nineties, but finally sold out to Jarad Broadcasting, which flipped the station to modern rock as a simulcast of its WDRE on Long Island, eventually moving the WDRE calls to Jenkintown when Long Island reclaimed the old WLIR calls.

Later on, Jarad sold out to Radio One, which flipped 103.9 to urban as WPHI, its current calls and format.

And note something interesting here: WPHI, a class A facility on 103.9, is located just a few hundred feet from WSNI, a class B facility on 104.5, just 600 kHz away. How can this be? Simple - both stations existed before 1964 and get to operate under less restrictive spacing rules. Check out that filter there - it's designed to keep WSNI's signal out of WPHI's antenna, and it works just fine. (Yet the FCC just spent a lot of money on a study designed to see whether or not 100-watt LPFM facilities 600 kHz from full-power FMs can cause interference...)

One more note about WPHI's unusual allocations situation: it's 10.6 MHz away from WMMR (93.3), the other major Philly FM that's not at Roxborough, and as a result the WPHI license includes a line noting that WPHI is required to lower power to 270 watts ERP if there's IF interference with WMMR.

Banks Tower: Across the street from the WCAU and Fox sites sits another tower that's a relic of the early days of UHF in Philadelphia.

Channel 17 was actually the first UHF operation in Philadelphia, licensed to Camden, N.J. and signing on in 1960 under the ownership of Percy B. Crawford's Young People's Church of the air as WPCA. With 12 kw of visual power at 580 feet from a site somewhere in Center City, one might imagine that there were few viewers, and indeed, WPCA signed off within a couple of years. In 1964, its license was sold to the Philadelphia Broadcasting Company, owned by Aaron Katz and Leonard Stevens, for just over $200,000.

Renamed WPHL, channel 17 signed back on in the fall of 1965 from the old WPTZ/WRCV channel 3 site in Wyndmoor, but before long moved to a 1095-foot tower at 329 Domino Lane, between the WFIL-TV/KYW-TV property we chronicled last week and the west side of Domino.

Channel 17 changed hands, but not calls, several more times in the years that followed, including a stint as an owned-and-operated part of the very short-lived Overmyer Network, and was eventually sold to Tribune in 1992 for $19 million, a far cry from the $200,000 Katz and Stevens paid for it way back when. Today it's a WB affiliate, still operating from the "Banks Tower."

(Why not the "Katz Tower" or the "Stevens Tower"? This takes a bit of explaining - it seems that Stevens was related to William and Dolly Banks, owners of WHAT 1340 and WHAT-FM 96.5, and the Bankses ended up as part-owners of WPHL before the sale to Overmyer. William and Dolly Banks would eventually lend their initials to their FM station, which became WWDB and was located on this tower for a while. In any case, the name stuck, and even though this, too, is now an American Tower site, it's universally known as the Banks tower.)

The tower soon acquired more tenants: WHYY moved channel 12 here soon after the tower went up, and eventually its sister FM operation, WUHY 90.9, later WHYY-FM, joined it on the Banks tower.

More FMs moved in here as well: in the seventies, Len Stevens (still engineering for WPHL after the station was sold) installed one of the first master FM systems in the country, with a two-layer ERI cogwheel antenna and a three-port combiner that became home to WDVR (101.1), WMGK (102.9) and WRCP-FM (104.5). 101.1 and 102.9 left eventually (we'll see where they went in a moment), but new tenants arrived: WYSP (94.1), relocating from the old channel 6 tower (and before that, the side of one of the WIBG 990 sticks down Ridge Pike a few miles - 94.1 began as WIBG-FM, after all), and WDAS-FM (105.3), relocating from one of the WDAS 1480 towers across the Schuylkill River on Edgely Road.

Today, Banks is home to WHYY, WYSP, WMGK and WDAS-FM, as well as a licensed aux site for WMWX (95.7) and 101.1, now WBEB.

Gross Tower: We'll finish up our Roxborough visit with the last of the UHF towers to go up here - the 1158-foot tower at 216 Paoli Avenue, just north of Umbria, built in 1979 by William S. Gross for his new channel 57, WWSG(TV), a subscription TV operation. (In later years, channel 57 would be sold to independent TV entrepreneur Milt Grant, who renamed it WGBS-TV, then to the Paramount Stations Group, which renamed it WPSG and made it a UPN affiliate, which it remains to this day.)

The Gross tower quickly attracted FM tenants: 101.1, by then WEAZ (and now WBEB) moved over from the Banks tower, as did WWDB (96.5, now WPTP) and WMGK (102.9).

WXTU (92.5) moved into Roxborough in the early eighties from its former site in Norristown, on Potshop Road not far from the WTEL (860) towers. WMWX (95.7), the first FM in Roxborough back in its WFLN days, relocated to the Gross tower in 1999 from its old home at 8200 Ridge Pike; once there, it rejoined Temple University's WRTI (90.1), which also moved to Gross from the old WFLN tower.

And so to recap: you see above, in a 2001 view from the top of the PSFS building in Center City, one of the most important sites in America. From left to right, if I'm reading the image correctly:

  • WPVI/KYW Tower: WPVI (6), KYW-TV (3)
  • WGTW Tower: WGTW (48), WXPN (88.5), and now WPLY (100.3)
  • 1947 WFIL-TV Tower: WIOQ (102.1), WUSL (98.9 CP)
  • Gross Tower: WPSG (57), WRTI (90.1), WXTU (92.5), WMWX (95.7), WPTP (96.5), WBEB (101.1), WMGK (102.9)
  • Banks Tower: WHYY-TV (12), WPHL (17), WHYY-DT (55), WYSP (94.1), WSNI (104.5), WDAS-FM (105.3)
  • Fox Tower: WTXF (29), WYBE (35, since moved), WPHI (103.9)
  • WCAU Tower: WCAU-TV (10), WOGL (98.1), WUSL (98.9)

Since this photo was taken, two new towers have gone up:

  • WPVI-DT/KYW-DT Tower: WPVI-DT (64), KYW-DT (26)
  • WCAU-DT Tower: WCAU-TV (10), WCAU-DT (67), WPPX-DT (31), WPSG-DT (32), WYBE-DT (34), WYBE (35), WPHL-DT (54), WUVP (65), WUVP-DT (66)

Guess I need to get back to the PSFS building again to reshoot, huh?

(And in the meantime, the Sept. 24 issue of Radio World contains an article of mine with more historical information and nifty photos of Roxborough - check it out here!)

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