Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
In last week's installment, we lamented that our 2011 visit to Florida left us with somewhat less time in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market than would have been ideal - and this week's installment should make that lamentation even clearer. The way our schedule worked out, had just a half-hour or so to drive through downtown Tampa to catch quick exterior views of studio buildings - and since it was February, we had even less daylight to work with than on most of our trips.
We'll start our quickie studio tour out on the west side of Tampa, near the Tampa International Airport and even nearer to the sports complex that's home to the NFL's Buccaneers and the spring training stadium of the Yankees. Bucs fans visiting Raymond James Stadium don't have to look far to find the market's ABC affiliate: WFTS (Channel 28) operates from a modern facility right across Himes Avenue from the football field. Like the stadium, WFTS is a fairly recent arrival in this neighborhood: it began as an independent station (and later a Fox affiliate) from much smaller quarters on the east side of town, moving here only after it flipped from Fox to ABC in the big New World shuffle of 1995.
Long before there was a WFTS, there was a WEDU: founded in 1958, Tampa's original public broadcaster was one of the nation's earliest educational TV stations, and its prime channel position on low-VHF channel 3 helped insure it not only a sizable local audience but also made it a very reliable E-skip catch up here in the frigid north for many decades. (On several occasions, commercial UHF broadcasters in Tampa tried to negotiate channel swaps with WEDU, but political and regulatory factors intervened to keep WEDU firmly planted on 3.)
WEDU's current digs are at 1300 North Boulevard, about a mile east of WFTS in the West Tampa neighborhood. (We didn't make it over to the University of South Florida to see the other public TV station in town, WUSF-TV 16, or its sister NPR outlet, WUSF 89.7.)
Also in West Tampa, out on Kennedy Boulevard, is WTVT (Channel 13), Tampa's Fox affiliate. The station has always been at this location since going on the air in 1955, but not in this building. Its original home (chronicled magnificently in this history of the station's early years) was a converted Greek restaurant, expanded two years later into a larger studio complex that served the station until the late 1980s, when new owner New World Communications built the current facility right next door. (New World, of course, touched off the big 1995 affiliation shuffles when it hooked up its cluster of CBS affiliates, including WTVT, with Fox; CBS eventually ended up across the bay at WTSP-TV 10, which lost its ABC affiliation to WFTS.)
Fox eventually bought the New World stations, so this is now a Fox O&O, the only network O&O in the market.
Moving eastward into the heart of downtown Tampa, we next see the outside of an interesting broadcast partnership. The Tampa Tribune put WFLA-TV (Channel 8) on the air in 1955 as the market's first VHF station, grabbing a huge share of the audience away from WSUN-TV (Channel 38), the St. Petersburg-based UHF that had brought TV to the bay two years earlier. The TV station and the newspaper didn't work very closely together for their first half-century, with TV (and sister stations WFLA 970/WFLA-FM 93.3) located in a state-of-the-art (for 1955) building on East Jackson Avenue. Radio moved out in 1983 when the Tribune sold the AM/FM combo (turning channel 8 into WXFL for a few years, since the FCC didn't yet allow callsigns to be shared among separate owners), and then TV left Jackson Avenue in 2000, moving across the Hillsborough River to a new $40 million "News Center."
The new building was touted as a triumph of convergence, putting the news staffs of WFLA-TV, the TBO.com website and the Tribune all together in a multi-level newsroom attached to the old Tribune building. But it wasn't enough to save the Tribune, at least not under common ownership. In 2012, Media General sold off its newspapers, with a local investment group picking up the Tribune at a fire-sale price. For now, the newspaper remains in the News Center as a partner to Channel 8, but that's expected to change at some point.
Enough with the studio drive-bys: how about a look at some tall, tall towers? In the Tampa market, the place to find them - and the place to be if you're a TV or FM station - is Riverview, some 15 miles southeast of downtown along I-75.
There are (or have been) nine towers out here of 1000 feet or taller, lined up from north to south along Boyette Road and from east to west along Rhodine Road. What's so special about this area? Not much where height is concerned: this is all flat, flat land, barely above sea level - but this spot southeast of Tampa is ideal for serving not only Tampa and St. Petersburg but also Lakeland to the east and Sarasota to the south, all while wasting as little signal as possible over the Gulf.
WFLA-TV came here first, building a 1059-foot guyed tower for TV (and for WFLA-FM 93.3) on Boyette Road shortly before its 1955 debut. WTVT signed on later that year from a different site a little closer to Tampa, but it moved out here in 1964, staking out the easternmost site in the farm. WUSF-TV (Channel 16) signed on from the northern end of Boyette Road in 1966, on a thousand-foot tower that also held (and still holds) WUSF-FM (89.7).
The UHF era brought new sticks: WTOG (Channel 44) signed on in the late 1960s from a tower on the north side of Rhodine Road that also became the analog home of WEDU (Channel 3); later on, WFTS (Channel 28) went on from a tower at the end of Rising Oaks Trail, south of Rhodine at the west end of the farm.
The advent of DTV brought still more new towers: the original WFLA-TV tower was augmented by a new 1572-footer at the same site, serving not only WFLA itself (now on RF 7) but also WTTA (Channel 38, later DTV RF 32) and eventually the DTV signal of WFTS (RF 26) as well. WTVT (on RF 12) built a new 1463-footer next to its original analog tower; WEDU (on RF 13) left its longtime perch on the WTOG tower and built a new DTV tower next to the old WUSF site, sharing it with WUSF-DT (RF 34).
And the tallest tower of them all? It went up midway along Rhodine Road, rising to a candelabra 1592 feet above ground level. Owned by American Tower, this stick eventually became home to five full-power TVs, several LPTVs and now to all but two of the FMs operating from the Riverview farm.
When we stopped by in early 2011, it wasn't quite that populated yet: Clear Channel's Riverview FMs (WFLZ 93.3, WMTX 100.7 and WFUS 103.5) were just starting to build out a move to this site from the WFLA-TV candelabra, and WTSP (Channel 10) was still operating from its old analog site way up north in Holiday, which we showed you in this space last week.
What did we get to see here, then? Along a long hallway leading down from the main entrance, we got to see several of the TV rooms here. Religious WCLF, licensed to Clearwater, started out in 1979 on channel 22 from a site up in Holiday not far from WTSP. It relocated here in 2000, and now operates digitally on RF 21; still here to be seen, though, is the old Comark transmitter that was WCLF's first, way back when.
We didn't get to see Telemundo affiliate WVEA-TV, licensed way to the south in Venice; it came here in 2002 on its old analog channel 62 after starting out as WBSV down in the Sarasota area, and now uses RF 25 digitally.
What's now independent WMOR started on analog 32 way to the east in Lakeland but came on in digital form (RF 19) from this site to provide better Tampa coverage. Ion's WXPX is another Sarasota-area move-in, operating down near its city of license of Bradenton on analog 66 before coming up here digitally on RF 42. (We'll see its original analog site, now repurposed for a big-coverage FM, in next week's installment!)
FM? There's plenty of that here as well, tucked into some smaller rooms in a two-story section of the building next to the tower. Cox's WPOI (101.5) used to be over at the WFLA site, but it came here in 2001 along with sister station WWRM (94.9), which moved just a bit west from its former home at the WTVT site.
Community station WMNF (88.5) was also over at the WTVT site, but it came here in 2008, occupying a small transmitter room up on the second floor next to the big combiner room that feeds the FM antennas mounted on one tine of the candelabra.
On the left is the high-power combiner that feeds all six FMs to the 8-bay master analog antenna; at right is the smaller combiner that feeds HD signals from the two Cox FMs and three Clear Channel FMs to another master antenna mounted just below.
(Itching to see more of the Riverview antennas, and the Clear Channel transmitters after they moved to this site? Sure you are - and our pal Mike Fitzpatrick is at your service, with his pictures taken later in 2011 over at NECRAT.us...)
There's still, alas, more on our "next time in Tampa" list: we didn't get to a newer FM tower along Tamiami Trail south of downtown Tampa that's home to WQYK-FM (99.5) and WRBQ-FM (104.7), the two CBS Radio signals that had been using a site atop a downtown skyscraper until RFR concerns sent them packing. We also didn't get to a few of the AMs on the Tampa side of the market - and of course there's plenty of studio tourism still awaiting a future visit, too. Someday...
Thanks to Cox Radio's Ed Allen for the tour!
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Next week: Sarasota, 2011