Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Pittsburgh's TV towers are, for the most part, all located on the north side of town - with one very notable exception. East of downtown, in the Oakland neighborhood that's home to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University, a distinctive tower topped with two antennas sits prominently on one of the city's higher hills, home to public broadcaster WQED-TV (Channel 13) and its FM sister, WQED-FM (89.3).
Tucked away at the top of a winding road that runs through the Pitt campus, this site has been home to WQED since its beginning as one of the nation's first educational broadcasters back in 1954.
WQED's early history is one of donations: civic leaders chipped in to provide the station's first studio site downtown, and Westinghouse provided the station with its first tower and transmitter. The tower had been purchased when Westinghouse itself had hoped to get channel 13, but by the time WQED was on the verge of becoming a reality, Westinghouse had instead bought out DuMont and was in the process of converting then-WDTV (Channel 2) into KDKA-TV. Since channel 2 had a monopoly on VHF TV in town, it was in Westinghouse's very best interest at the time to get an educational service up and running on Pittsburgh's only other VHF channel, stalling any potential commercial competition on the VHF dial for a few more years.
(It was 1957 before WIIC, now WPXI, signed on channel 11, and 1958 before WTAE-TV signed on channel 4; in the meantime, Pittsburgh viewers seeking additional choices could tune to Johnstown's WJAC-TV, which relocated from channel 13 to channel 6 as part of the post-1952 shuffle that cleared the way for 13 in Pittsburgh in the first place.)
As for UHF, there were two struggling entrants, WKJF-TV (Channel 53) and WENS-TV (Channel 16), and after WENS folded in the face of new VHF competition, the channel 16 license and transmitter were also donated to WQED, which used them to launch a second signal, WQEX, from this site in 1959.
The current 570-foot tower, topped with a crossbar holding antennas for channels 13 and 16, was erected on this site in 1972, providing additional tower space and height to allow for the addition of WQED's FM outlet on 89.3, which debuted in 1973.
Heading inside the simple 1950s-style brick building, there's an office inside the front door and a storage area adjacent to it, leading into a spacious transmitter room. The configuration here has changed rather dramatically over the years as transmitters have shrunk in size and analog has replaced digital. At one time, you'd have walked in and seen WQED-FM on the left, WQEX at the back of the room and WQED-TV along the right-hand wall, but the only relic of that arrangement is on the left side of the room. There we see WQED-FM's original RCA transmitter, still available for backup use, next to racks of processors and STLs and the two modern Continental transmitters that now power the classical FM signal.
WQED-TV operated transitionally on channel 38 at the start of the digital era, but returned to VHF with the end of analog in 2009. Its current digital transmitter (or at least the transmitter it was using when we visited in 2011) is a compact Axcera unit that sits just inside the doorway of the big transmitter room, generating the 4680 watts of output power needed for WQED's 25 kW ERP digital signal.
The former WQEX has a more colorful history, though some of it was in black and white: it continued to use the old WENS transmitter, which couldn't pass color, well into the 1980s. A new transmitter finally turned WQEX into a colorcaster, but WQED decided by the mid-1990s to unload channel 16, paving the way for years of struggles with the FCC to turn channel 16 back to commercial use. An attempted swap of facilities with religious station WPCB (Channel 40) fell through, but in the end channel 16 was leased and then sold to Pax, now Ion, which turned it into WINP.
After operating transitionally on channel 26, WQEX/WINP inherited WQED's former channel 38 transitional operation, and so the transmitter that's now WINP is the former WQED-DT, also an Axcera.
Downstairs from the main transmitter room is where we find HVAC and electrical units, as well as two-way radio services and a bunch of low-power TV stations in little partitioned rooms toward the back. The stations here include the flagship of the "Bruno-Goodworth Network," independent WBGN-CA, formerly on analog 59 and now on RF 16, WQEX's longtime home. There's now also a fill-in digital translator for ABC affiliate WTAE (Channel 4), operating on channel 22 to reach parts of town that have trouble getting the main WTAE signal from a site far to the southeast. And what of that interim WQEX channel 26 transmitter? It has moved downstairs as WPDN-LD on channel 24, a Daystar religious outlet.
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Next week: WRCT and Saturday Light Brigade studios, Pittsburgh, 2011