Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
"Hey, Lance Venta, what would be a good excuse for a road trip?"
"There's a TV affiliation change happening in Raleigh. How about that?"
"Sounds good to me. Let's do it."
And so it was that we marked Leap Day 2016 in the calendar as our target date to be in the nation's 25th-largest TV market as Capitol Broadcasting flipped WRAL-TV (Channel 5) from CBS to NBC and Media General's WNCN (Channel 17) made the reverse flip.
For WRAL, this was a move back in history - the station signed on in 1956 as an NBC affiliate, flipped to primary ABC in 1962 and then to CBS in 1985. But the WRAL-TV staff of 1956 would have had a hard time recognizing their facility on Western Boulevard 60 years later. The original WRAL building has been expanded many times, creating a two-building campus that now also houses sister Fox affiliate WRAZ (Channel 50) and the corporate headquarters for the Capitol Broadcasting Company, with a lovely garden area separating the headquarters from the TV station.
And even as they were busy finishing up all the last-minute button pushing and rewiring that underlies a network affiliation flip, the good people at WRAL were kind enough to take a few minutes that Leap Day to show us around their facility.
This huge facility spreads out over three floors, and we start toward the back, where the station's management offices are on the ground floor down the slope of the hill. The current newsroom/studio is back here as well, occupying part of two stories of the building. WRAL does a lot of news out of here, with the usual news lineup on the now-NBC channel 5 plus 7-9 AM and 10-11 PM on Fox 50, all hugely dominant in the ratings.
(Those massive ratings help to explain why NBC was eager to jump ship to WRAL from its existing affiliate in the market; Media General's WNCN-TV, which had been an NBC O&O for a few years, was a latecomer to the local news scene here and has always lingered in third place. Under its new "CBS North Carolina" branding, will that change? We'll have to revisit Raleigh in a few years to see...)
WRAL's technical core runs along the west side of the building, including a control room for HD newscasts, a rack room with a newly-installed set of NBC gear, and several more small studio/control room pairs that can be used for shooting promos, talk shows and web content.
The master control area is one of the most recently rebuilt parts of the building. Capitol CEO Jim Goodmon was here just a few hours ahead of our visit, pressing the button to put NBC programming on the air at 7 AM. CBS is actually still running through this room; back around the corner from the WRAL-TV master control is the MCR for sister station WILM-LD (Channel 10) in Wilmington, 90 miles to the southeast, which is keeping CBS. (WILM has its own local weather but otherwise simulcasts WRAL-TV's newscasts.)
And WRAZ has its own MCR in a glassed-in area just to the right of the WRAL/WILM MCR. WRAZ moved into the WRAL building just a few years ago after starting out in a Goodmon-owned office building over in Durham, next door to the ballpark of the Goodmon-owned Durham Bulls.
Capitol is also a radio owner in Raleigh, but its radio studios long ago moved out of the WRAL-TV building. Today, they're in an office park on Highwoods Boulevard on the northeast side of town, just off I-440 in a media-heavy neighborhood right next door to the Curtis Media/Sinclair facility we showed you in an earlier Raleigh installment and just down the road from iHeart's radio cluster and WNCN-TV's studios, too.
The 800-pound (or, if you prefer, 96,000-watt) gorilla here is WRAL-FM (101.5), and its studio for its AC "Mix" format occupies pride of place in the window looking into the station lobby.
The rest of the facility forms a rectangle behind the WRAL-FM studio, with a rack room off to one side for 101.5 and its sister sports stations, WCMC-FM (99.9 Holly Springs), WDNC (620 Durham) and WCLY (1550 Raleigh). WCLY had made its own less-publicized format flip this Leap Day morning, too, switching from ESPN Deportes to English-language sports as "The Ticket," simulcasting on WCMC-FM's HD3.
All of the sports signals share a studio across the hall from WRAL-FM, with live talk rotating among the various signals - 99.9 "The Fan," "The Buzz" on WDNC and two FM translators, and now "The Ticket" on 99.9-HD3 and 1550. Additional production rooms fill out the rest of the studio cluster at the core of the building, which is shared with Capitol's satellite operations.
And as long as we're enjoying Capitol's warm Southern hospitality, we finish up our Leap Day tourism in Raleigh with a visit to the TV tower farm in Auburn, down to the southeast of Raleigh off old US 70.
In our last Raleigh Site of the Week, back in March, we showed you one side of the transmitter building that went up in 1991 to be shared by channel 28 (now MyNetwork affiliate WRDC) and WRAL-TV and their FM sisters, WQDR 94.7 and WRAL-FM 101.5.
That building and the 1989-foot tower next to it replaced an earlier tall tower for WRAL-TV that came down in an ice storm in December 1989. But while channel 28 and WQDR are still on their side of the building, WRAL-TV isn't using the left side of the building or the tower anymore. With the end of analog channel 5, this tower site on TV Tower Road now has only FM on the Capitol side. WRAL-FM has a pair of 30 kW Nautels combined to feed its panel antenna; WCMC-FM occupies the old TV side of the room with a single Nautel for its lower-powered signal.
The oldest tower out at this tower farm is the only one that survived the 1989 ice storm that downed channels 5 and 28. ABC's WTVD (Channel 11) has been located at the south end of Transmitter Road since 1958, and it's used its current 2000-foot tower here since 1978.
Halfway between the WTVD tower and old US 70 sits the newest of the tall towers at this site. This 1988-foot candelabra went up in 2000 to provide more capacity for digital TV transmission, and today it's home to four stations: Capitol's WRAL-TV (Channel 5/RF 48) and WRAZ (Channel 50/RF 49), Media General's WNCN-TV (Channel 17/RF 17) and Sinclair's CW affiliate WLFL (Channel 22/RF 27).
The transmitter building at the base of the tower is an impressive piece of engineering unto itself: it's a T-shaped building with one TV group in each "arm" of the T and a pyramidal ice shield on top to keep the structure safe from falling ice.
As the landlord here, WRAL got the room closest to the tower base, where it has two neat rows of transmitters, one for WRAL-TV and one for WRAZ, with racks in between and a tidy office space off to the side.
That office space opens up to a little entryway, with the WNCN and WLFL rooms branching off ahead and to the left.
As a Sinclair station, it's no surprise that WLFL's room has an Acrodyne transmitter similar to the one in WRDC's room at the older tower; WNCN has a Harris transmitter similar to the ones at WRAL/WRAZ.
Thanks to WRAL-TV GM Steve Hammel and Director of Engineering Pete Sockett, and to WCMC-FM's Brian Maloney for the tours!
CALENDAR IS OFF THE PRESS AND READY TO SHIP!
We have the Tower Site Calendar in our hands, but we don't want to hold on to it. We want it to go to you.
So go to our store, click on the "Broadcasting Calendars" tab, make your selection and add it to your cart. Click on the "View Cart" button, and you are ready to check out.
And don't forget our hand-numbered autographed calendar. These are a limited edition, as we only have 40 of them.
While you're in our store, check out the other calendar we're offering as well this year - John Schneider's "Radio Historian's Calendar." Each year is themed, and this year's theme features buildings that once housed radio.
Take a look at our great collection of radio- and TV-related books, too! There's a gift there for everyone.
And don’t miss a big batch of Raleigh-Durham IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Eastern North Carolina