June 24, 2005

WPOR and WZAN, Portland, Maine


It's always nice when a morning of tower hunting ends up including some "bonus" sites that weren't in the original itinerary - and so it was a few weeks ago when we wrapped up quick visits to a couple of sites in Portland (WMGX and WGAN/WYNZ, profiled here last week) with an hour or so to spare before we had to be on our way. Better yet, our host for the morning - Saga's chief engineer in the market, Andy Armstrong - had some time to spare, too, so when he offered us tours of a couple of his other sites, we were delighted to take him up on it.

From the WGAN/WYNZ site, it was a quick drive north on the side roads paralleling (and then crossing under) the Maine Turnpike that took us to Blackstrap Road in Falmouth, Maine, and it was there that we pulled up in front of a 1950s-vintage building with a 374-foot self-supporting tower out back.

The "Blackstrap Tower" (so named because it sits on Blackstrap Hill) has a long and proud history in the Portland market, for it was here that WCSH-TV (Channel 6) signed on back on December 1, 1953.

Channel 6 didn't stay here long, though - a decade or so later, it headed northwest to the high land around Sebago Lake, building a 1300-foot tower that gave it much more of a regional presence (not to mention a signal equal to those of competitors WGAN-TV 13, which had recently built a nearby tower that was briefly the tallest in the world, and WMTW-TV 8, with its huge reach from Mount Washington) and left the Blackstrap tower vacant.

Now owned by the Blackstrap Tower Company, the tower is today home to two FM tenants: WPOR (101.9), using the antenna at the top, and more recent arrival WMSJ (89.3 Freeport), using a set of bays mounted partway down the tower.

Inside, the big room that was once filled by the channel 6 transmitter has been divided up; in a long room at the back, we find WPOR's main transmitter (the BE shown below), as well as a Harris backup and the WMSJ transmitter (hiding to the left of the WPOR racks in this picture), as well as the local National Weather Service transmitter (KDO95 on 162.550, if you're curious.)

This site was also home to WMGX for a while during the reconstruction of its downed tower; it must have been fairly crowded in here then!

(One more bit of information - the FM bays atop the Baxter Boulevard tower of the former WPOR 1490, now WBAE, were never a primary site for the FM, it turns out; just an auxiliary for WPOR-FM. WMGX used that site, too, for a brief time after its own tower collapsed.)

And with time still to spare before we need to be on our way over to New Hampshire, we follow Andy down the turnpike to Scarborough, just south of Portland, where the drive down the long off-ramp from the exit takes us right past the two-tower array of WZAN (970).

This site, too, has a WCSH connection; in fact, 970 was WCSH(AM) until 1983, when it was sold to Buckley Broadcasting and paired with WYNZ-FM (100.9 Westbrook). This building, on Elmwood Avenue a few blocks from where the Scarborough Connector hits the Blue Star Highway (US 1/ME 9), then morphed from AM transmitter site (which it had been since 1940, when WCSH moved from its original site atop the Congress Square Hotel in downtown Portland) into studios for what became an AM/FM oldies simulcast.

Back then, you'd walk up the stairs and in the front door, where you'd find studios almost directly in front of you and sales offices to the left. The transmitter and phasor (for 5 kW directional night operation; it's 5 kW ND by day) were down the stairs in the basement.

In 1993, Saga bought WYNZ, moving the studios to its WGAN facility in South Portland (just a couple of miles north of here, near the Portland Jetport) and splitting the simulcast. 970 became WZAN, a "hot talk" counterpart to WGAN that featured shows like Don Imus in the morning.

Today, the WZAN schedule also includes the Southern "Lex and Terry" show later in the morning, as well as "Don and Mike" and Tom Leykis.

And today, the building in Scarborough has its windows and front door boarded up, with the upstairs studios and offices occupied only by storage boxes. Downstairs (now entered through what looks like it was once a basement entry), WZAN's main and backup transmitters (a Gates Five and a nice old Continental) and phasor occupy one room, with others filled by wireless carriers leasing space on what was once the STL tower behind the studio building.

But the real niftyness here is outside, where that two-tower directional array is made up of 1940-vintage Lingo "flagpole" towers, each 244 feet tall and top-loaded. You don't see too many of these anymore, and you certainly don't see many directional arrays made up of nothing but "flagpoles." Andy says they're holding up quite nicely, too. (And no, the one to the left of the building isn't really bowed in the middle of that; blame wide-angle lens distortion for that!)

Thanks to Andy Armstrong for spending the morning showing off his sites!

It's here - the 2005 Tower Site Calendar is now available at special clearance prices! Click here for ordering information!