Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
On the week when our interminable election season has finally come to an end, or at least a pause, what better place to visit on Site of the Week than the quadrennial epicenter of American politics, Manchester, New Hampshire?
And for the better part of half a century, the epicenter of that epicenter is New Hampshire’s only commercial network affiliate, WMUR-TV (Channel 9). From humble beginnings in an old Elm Street mansion back in 1954, WMUR has thrived, in no small part on political ad money. It left the mansion in 1987 for a new home in the Millyard area along the Merrimack River, then grew so fast that it needed to move again in 1996, this time to a nearby South Commercial Street site that had once housed a Service Merchandise warehouse store.
Take a right turn off the lobby, as we did when we visited in June, and you’re walking straight into WMUR’s busy newsroom. Until recently, this was the only TV newsroom in New Hampshire (we’ll see the new entrant in that field next week); even long after primary season, it’s actively covering all the other news that’s a little out of the range of the Boston stations.
A glass wall along one side of the newsroom looks into the control room; at the far end, another glass wall forms the back of the main news set that fills much of the south end of the building.
A hallway behind the newsroom takes us to the master control area. Even after WMUR came under common Hearst ownership with its erstwhile ABC competitor from Boston, WCVB (Channel 5), operations up here have stayed quite separate – master control is done locally here, including the MeTV signal on WMUR’s 9.2 channel that also features a 10 PM newscast.
And where do all those visiting reporters go every four Januarys when it’s primary season here? Across the lobby, there’s a huge open area that was once the Service Merchandise warehouse and is now rented out to CNN, ABC and other broadcasters that need temporary Manchester space.
On this beautiful June day, we followed up our studio visit with a ride up Mount Uncanoonuc, where the 1320-foot south peak enjoys both a lovely view eastward toward Manchester and also a crown of TV and FM towers.
We missed out by a year or so on seeing the original WMUR transmitter house up here, which was originally a house belonging to New Hampshire governor Francis Murphy. In 1948, the house became the transmitter site of WMUR-FM (95.7), which lasted only a few short years up here. The site of the house is now empty land in front of the prefab structure that houses WMUR-TV’s digital transmitters. (You can see Garrett Wollman’s 2004 photo of the old house here.) You don’t need much power on VHF for digital, and those two little Larcans are dwarfed by the rack of other gear in the room.
WMUR’s main tower got some company at the start of the DTV era, when a smaller tower went up here with the interim DTV signal on channel 59. The DTV tower is still up here, even though WMUR returned to VHF channel 9 in 2009.
Just down the hill from WMUR is a little tower that holds the two directional antennas of religious WLMW (90.7), a relatively late addition to the hill.
Turn around from the WMUR-TV site and you’re looking at the site of WZID (95.7), the oldest FM up here, with a history of continuous operation dating back to 1947 as WKBR-FM. Originally on 100.1, it moved to WMUR-FM’s old 95.7 frequency in 1956. Today, it shares its tower with Saga sister station WMLL (96.5 Bedford), as well as translator W260CF (99.9), which relays WFEA (1370).
Adjacent to the Saga tower is the tower of WNEU (Channel 60), the NBC-owned Telemundo outlet which is about to become famous as the northern end of the new “NBC Boston.” The old analog channel 60 antenna (ex-WGOT) is gone from the top of the tower, and the RF channel 34 digital signal now comes from a little side-mounted antenna up here.
A little up the hill from those towers, we come to the old (now aux) and newer towers of WGIR-FM (101.1), iHeart’s rock station. Look very closely at the aux tower and you’ll see not only a three-bay directional antenna at the top but also, lower down, an even older five-bay horizontal antenna.
We’ll show you one more stop this week before we lost daylight on this trip: our longtime radio buddy Harry Kozlowski invited us over to Bedford, 10 miles or so from Manchester, to see his latest project, WBNH-LP (105.1).
Operated by Bedford Community TV, this is a model of what LPFM can be: a well-equipped studio (where local folks were recording a computer show right after we snapped that picture), a transmitter room right down the hall, easy access by town emergency personnel to get on the air when there’s an emergency, and the cable TV studio right next door. And when there’s no emergency, it’s nice to have a radio pro like Harry on hand to keep things going with an alternative rock format that’s unique to the market!
Thanks to WMUR’s Michael Saffell and Duncan Shaw and WBNH-LP’s Harold Kozlowski for the tours!
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Next week: Manchester and Concord