September 24 - October 1, 2004

Hanging Out, South of Pittsburgh

One of my earliest memories of late-night DXing was the night I dialed around and happened upon 590 AM, where a local call-in show was in progress at around 11 PM, with an earnest discussion of the labor situation and unemployment. (Local talk at 11 at night? Yes, this was a long time ago now...)

Further listening revealed that I had tuned in to WMBS from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and after a few repetitions of the call-in number, I picked up the phone and called in, only to be quizzed on-air about the labor and unemployment situation in Rochester. (Did I mention that I was about 11 at the time?)

So WMBS always had something of a special place for me - yet it would be another two decades and change before I finally made my way down Route 51 (in the company of southwestern Pennsylvania's pre-eminent radio expert, Clarke Ingram) to see the place for myself.

A lot has changed in Uniontown in the ensuing time (though not, presumably, the labor and employment picture), including WMBS. It's still there on 590, still running a kilowatt day and night, with a directional antenna after dark protecting co-channel stations in Kalamazoo and Scranton. But the late-night local talk show is long gone, replaced by satellite standards, and the studio building downtown that I called in to is now a parking lot, or so I'm told.

Clarke and I found today's WMBS studios in a converted house in a quiet residential neighborhood northwest of downtown, and we were treated to a friendly tour of the small but comfortable studio facilities (including a production room coated in what looks like blown-on recycled paper scraps!) And there's still much to praise about WMBS' community committment; there was local talk underway that afternoon when we visited.

Clarke remembered an impressive "W M B S" sign outside the old studios, and any question about its fate went away when we drove south to PA 857 and the two-tower transmitter site; as you can see below, the sign was simply mounted on the transmitter fence! WMBS uses that big self-supporter all the time; it adds a little guyed tower to create the three-lobed night pattern.

From Uniontown we headed northeast, up towards the small town of Connellsville. WCVI on 1340 was the local station here for many years, later adding Uniontown-licensed FM sister WPQR (99.3), and we found what was left of it on Snyder Street - a big old three-story brick building that still had the prominent "WCVI" signs but little else. (It's hard to see in the picture above, but the writing in the window to the left of the door offers the building for sale for $60,000.)

WCVI and WPQR spent some time dark before being bought by Keymarket, which changed the FM callsign to WPKL and the AM to WPNT (warehousing an old Pittsburgh call that once belonged to KDKA's sister FM station, now WLTJ 92.9.) Today, they're simulcasting oldies as "The Pickle," a format Keymarket's slowly spreading to other Pittsburgh-area stations (it just showed up this week in the New Castle market on WKPL 92.1 Ellwood City PA.)

Keymarket's doing a nice job maintaining the 1340 transmitter site, over on PA 120 at the edge of town; the tower looked freshly painted and the grounds were well trimmed when we pulled up.

As you can see by the sidewalk, the WCVI building sits on a steep slope, and if you keep heading uphill you find yourself on Springfield Pike, a twisty hilltop road. Up at the top - so far above the town below that there was still snow on the ground this chilly mid-March day - is another neat local station, Stan Wall's WLSW (103.9 Scottdale).

"Music Power 104" runs just 325 watts from its short stick up here, but that's 780 feet above average terrain from a very favorable hilltop, giving WLSW coverage of much of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The programming's live and local, for the most part, too - a nice blend of oldies and more current AC tunes with friendly jocks like afternoon guy Jeff Girard and PD Debbie Larson, who welcomed us graciously into the small studio and even put Clarke on the air briefly.

It's nice to see little guys like this still making a go of it in the world of corporate broadcasting, circa 2004, even if they're not taking calls about labor issues and unemployment at 11 every night!

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