Site of the Week 3/1/2013: Orlando, 2011, part 4 – the Bithlo tower farm

Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH

If it feels like we spent most of February in this space just recapping our time in Orlando two years ago…well, we did. And the amazing thing is that everything that we’ve shown you here was shot in the space of just a couple of days in town. This week, we wrap up our Orlando visits by turning our attention a little more to the TV side of the aisle, starting with the city’s oldest TV station.

WKMG's studios

WKMG’s studios

WKMG's main hallway

WKMG’s main hallway

Sleepy small-town Orlando didn’t get its first TV station until 1954, when pioneering radio station WDBO (580) put WDBO-TV (Channel 6) on the air from a short tower and small studio on Texas Avenue, just north of Colonial Drive in what was then probably the northernmost outskirts of town. The station’s studios stayed there until the early 1980s, when channel 6 (by then renamed WCPX in anticipation of a sale to Columbia Pictures that never materialized) relocated to a much larger and more modern home just two miles or so to the north on John Young Parkway. (The new digs were just down the street from the new home of WDBO radio, built around the same time when the radio station left its longtime home on Ivanhoe Parkway near downtown, in a facility that had also served as the TV station’s business office.)

The old WDBO transmitter

The old WDBO transmitter

WKMG master control

WKMG master control

Channel 6 went through several owners along the way, ending up with Meredith and then, in the late 1990s, being swapped to Post-Newsweek in exchange for WFSB (Channel 3) in Hartford, Connecticut. In keeping with the Post-Newsweek penchant for using executives’ initials as callsigns, channel 6 changed calls once more in 1998 to become WKMG-TV, in honor of Katharine Meyer Graham, the company’s chairwoman. (Sister station WPLG in Miami was named much earlier for her late husband, Philip L. Graham.)

Old control room...

Old control room…

...and new

…and new

The facility on John Young Parkway is very early-1980s central Florida, with lots of skylights and glass. Entering through the main atrium, most of the station’s technical plant is laid out along the main first-floor corridor, including a smallish master control area across the hall from what used to be the production control room. When we visited in 2011, that control room had just been decommissioned in favor of a new HD control room across the hall. And what’s that at the far end of the hall? In tribute to channel 6′s origins as WDBO-TV, one of the original WDBO radio transmitters occupies a place of pride down there by the doors that lead back into the main news studio.

WKMG-TV's newsroom

WKMG-TV’s newsroom

The WKMG-TV studio

The WKMG-TV studio

The studio, in turn, connects to a spacious newsroom that looks out into the main hallway (and looks to have been remodeled considerably over the three decades the station has been here.)

bithlo-wide

A panoramic view of the Bithlo/Christmas towers

Our Orlando journey concludes some 15 miles to the east and a few days later, as we returned to Orlando from an excursion to Florida’s west coast. (You’ll see more of those pictures in the next few weeks!)

Keep driving east along Highway 50 (Colonial Drive) from the birthplace of TV in Orlando, and you’ll eventually come to the little town of Bithlo – and by the time you do, you’ll see a whole bunch of tall towers out on the horizon to your northeast. Today, there are six towers out here of 1500 feet or higher, carrying nearly all of Orlando’s TV signals and many of its FMs as well.

You can see five of them in the panoramic image above (click on it to enlarge it!) We’re looking from the south here, so the towers are arrayed roughly west to east as we look from left to right: strung out along Lake Pickett Road, there’s the original TV tower site out here (which we’ll now call the “WMFE/WPOZ tower”), the WOFL-TV tower and, after Lake Pickett crosses Fort Christmas Road and turns into dead-end Brown Road, the Brown Road TV master tower (the candelabra way off in the distance). Off to the right are two of the three towers strung out along Fort Christmas Road: the Richland master TV tower and the master FM tower. Out of view to the east is the sixth big tower here, the Cox tower. Let’s go exploring, shall we?

Brown Rd. tower

Brown Rd. tower

Brown Rd. tower

Brown Rd. tower

FM master tower

FM master tower

We’ll start out at the end of Brown Road, where we find the tallest tower in the farm. At just under 1700 feet, the Brown Road candelabra tower is also one of the newest out here, having gone up in 2001 to provide a platform for digital TV in the market. Today it’s home to many of the market’s biggest stations, including NBC affiliate WESH-TV (Channel 2/RF 11), public broadcasters WBCC (Channel 68/RF 30) and WDSC (Channel 33/RF 15), My affiliate WRBW (Channel 65/RF 41) and, yes, WKMG itself (Channel 6/RF 26). Many of these stations came from sites outside the Bithlo farm: WESH’s analog signal came from a tower in Orange City, north of Orlando, while WBCC and WDSC came from sites closer to their cities of license, Cocoa and Daytona Beach, respectively.

We didn’t get many good shots of the 1606-foot American Tower site on Fort Christmas road that serves as an FM master tower, but you can at least see the eight-bay master and four-bay aux that service Clear Channel’s WRUM (100.3 Orlando), WJRR (101.1 Cocoa), WTKS-FM (104.1 Cocoa Beach) and CBS Radio’s WOMX (105.1 Orlando).

Richland tower

Richland tower

Richland tower

Richland tower

Looking up the Cox tower

Looking up the Cox tower

Next door to the FM tower (though accessed by a separate entry off Dill Road to the west) is the 1682-foot candelabra tower owned by Richland. This tower was the analog home of WRBW (and still holds a digital aux), and now holds the digital antennas of many of the smaller TVs in the market: religious WACX (Channel 55/RF 40), WHLV (Channel 45/RF 51) and WTGL (Channel 52/RF 46); Telefutura’s WOTF (Channel 43/RF 43) and CW affiliate WKCF (Channel 18/RF 17). It says something about the size of this sprawling TV market that these stations are licensed, respectively, to Leesburg (way out to the northwest), Cocoa (30 miles east), Leesburg again, Melbourne (some 45 miles to the southeast) and Clermont (way out to the west).

(If you’re curious about which of these antennas is which, Mike Fitzpatrick has some great close-ups of all of them on NECRAT’s Orlando pages…)

The Cox building

The Cox building

WFTV and WRDQ

WFTV and WRDQ

Making our way south on Fort Christmas Road brings us to the southernmost tower in the farm, the 1612-foot Cox tower.

As we noted a few installments back, Cox owns both radio and TV in the market, and this tower provides space for both in a facility also designed to accommodate other tenants. Cox’s two TV stations, WFTV (Channel 9/RF 39) is here, of course, and in the background of the transmitter-room shot is the transmitter of its independent sister station, WRDQ (Channel 27/RF 27).

WWKA 92.3

WWKA 92.3

WHTQ (now WDBO-FM) 96.5

WHTQ (now WDBO-FM) 96.5

WWKA and WHTQ's auxes

WWKA and WHTQ’s auxes

The WWKA/WHTQ combiner

The WWKA/WHTQ combiner

Cox owns radio in the market, too, and two of its three class C FMs call this tower home. (The third, WCFB 94.5, is licensed to Daytona Beach, just far enough away that it can’t quite get a city-grade signal from this far south, though there was briefly a WCFB transmitter here under STA after the station’s main tower collapsed a few years back.)

The two licensed FM occupants here are 92.3, the original WDBO-FM that’s now country WWKA, and 96.5, which had started out as WHOO-FM at the AM 990 site off Silver Star Road that’s now used by Cox’s WPYO 95.3/WMMO 98.9. The 96.5 signal was rock WHTQ when we visited in 2011, and now it’s WDBO-FM, carrying the news-talk format that used to be on AM 580.

The two FMs have mirror-image L-shaped transmitter setups, with a Continental main for 92.3 and a Harris main for 96.5 and Harris HD transmitters for both. There are also Continental auxes for both stations, all feeding a combiner that feeds a massive 8-bay panel antenna high up on the tower, which is crowned by the UHF master antenna for channels 27 and 39.

Before we finish up with the towers along Lake Pickett Road, let’s take a look at two more wide shots: the image below at left shows, in addition to some luscious looking orange trees, the “WMFE/WPOZ tower,” the WOFL tower and, in the distance at right, the Brown Road candelabra, lined up from west to east along Lake Pickett Road and Brown Road.

In the image below at right, we’re looking from Lake Pickett Road south along Fort Christmas Road, where we once again see the Richland candelabra, the ATC FM tower and, in the distance to the south, the Cox tower.

Bithlo: Lake Pickett Road

Bithlo

Bithlo: Fort Christmas Road

On we go, then, to the oldest part of the farm, along Lake Pickett Road. The 1473′ tower seen below at left is the second-oldest tower in the farm, having gone up in 1973 for the 1974 debut of independent station WSWB (Channel 35). That station failed in 1977, and after a failed attempt by Ted Turner to buy the license (he did apparently briefly own the tower site), channel 35 returned in 1979 as WOFL. It eventually became a Fox affiliate and (after Meredith swapped it to the network in exchange for KPTV in Portland, Oregon) ended up as a Fox O&O. Today, that’s a digital channel 22 antenna up on top of the tower.

The WOFL tower

The WOFL tower

The WPOZ/WMFE tower

WPOZ/WMFE

WMFE's antennas

WMFE’s antennas

And that brings us to the very first site out here, which is also the first site you’ll see heading into the tower farm along Lake Pickett Road. The original 1500-foot tower at this site went up in 1969 as a joint venture of WDBO-TV (Channel 6) and WFTV (Channel 9). Channel 6, as we’ve seen, came to Bithlo from its original Texas Avenue site; channel 9 had started as WLOF-TV, transmitting from the WLOF (950) site in Orlovista, west of Orlando, that we showed you two weeks ago. Orlando’s public TV station, WMFE-TV (Channel 24), joined them here soon after the tower went up.

WDBO-FM (92.3) went up on the original tower here, too, and on June 8, 1973 a second FM, WDIZ (100.3), was in the process of putting up its antenna here when the tower collapsed, killing two workers. (An investigation later determined the tower had failed when several diagonal tower elements were removed.)

The WPOZ/WMFE compound

The WPOZ/WMFE compound

WPOZ's transmitter room

WPOZ’s transmitter room

WPOZ's transmitters

WPOZ’s transmitters

The tower was soon rebuilt to its present 1600-foot height, and continued to carry channels 6, 9 and 24 until the end of the analog era, as well as 92.3, 100.3 and eventually two noncommercial stations, WMFE-FM (90.7) and WPOZ (88.3).

We’ve seen that channel 6 went to Brown Road, channel 9 and 92.3 to the new Cox tower and 100.3 to the ATC FM master tower – and that left just three stations still on this tower. The old WFTV building at the rear of the compound is mostly empty these days, and WMFE-FM still broadcasts from the building to the right of the driveway. WMFE-TV, which ended up on digital RF 23, is a story unto itself: it gave up its PBS membership in 2011 and put its license up for sale. Daystar attempted to buy it, but court challenges ensued and eventually the station went instead to the University of Central Florida.

UCF already had an FM station, jazz outlet WUCF-FM (89.9), and when WMFE-TV left PBS, it started a “WUCF-TV” to carry the main PBS feed over a subchannel of Brevard Community College’s Cocoa-based WBCC (Channel 68/RF 30). That lasted through most of 2012 until UCF acquired the former WMFE-TV (which had been carrying Spanish-language V-me in the meantime) and renamed it…yup, WUCF-TV. Its channel 23 antenna sits side-mounted on the tower, below the now-dark Channel 6 panel antenna and the now-dark Channel 9 antenna that tops the tower.

WMFE-FM transmits from a 12-bay ERI antenna that’s side-mounted a bit lower down, and WPOZ’s antenna is almost invisible, a five-bay mounted on the side near the top of the tower, just under the old channel 6 panels.

WPOZ ended up buying the tower not long after our visit; its transmitters (an HD Harris and an older CCA for backup) sit in what was once the channel 6 transmitter room, where the last channel 6 analog transmitter still sits silently on the opposite wall.

Thanks to WPOZ’s Jim Hoge and Randy Woods for the tour!

It’s 2013! Do you have your Tower Site Calendar 2013 yet? We’ve still got some left, and they’re shipping right away from the all new Fybush.com store! Order now and your wall can be festooned with Florida and much more all through 2013. (We’ve also got the very last FM Atlas copies available for sale, and the new edition of the National Radio Club’s AM Log.)

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And don’t miss a batch of Orlando IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!

Next week: Tampa, 2011 (part 1)