July 6 & 13, 2007

A Day in Syracuse, NY (Part II)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to some extensive last-second travel for the WCBS-FM format switch, there's no new Site of the Week for July 13. Instead, we've updated our July 6 installment with some new information, and we'll be back with part three of our Syracuse visit July 20. Thanks for your patience!

Over the last seven years of Tower Site of the Week, we've taken you (virtually speaking) all over the world in search of interesting broadcast facilities - everywhere from Bonaire to Paris to Tijuana, with "guest episodes" from Nome and American Samoa, too.

Amidst the thrills of seeing Walla Walla or Dubuque, though, we tend to forget about all the nifty broadcast facilities closer to our base in western New York. So when our colleague Mike Fitzpatrick called up last summer and mentioned he was interested in spending a few days visiting Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester, it was all the excuse we needed to finally get around to showing you some of the sites in our neighborhood.

The first city on our busy agenda was Syracuse, and after a morning looking at sites in the city and in the hills southeast of Syracuse, early afternoon found us up at the premier TV/FM tower farm in the Salt City, the Sentinel Heights towers about seven miles due south of downtown and 1200 feet above sea level.

There are some markets where the spot for an FM/TV tower farm is obvious, and Syracuse is one of those spots: from up here, there's an unobstructed view down and to the north, over pretty much the entire city. That was as true in the early 50s, when TV arrived up here, as it is today.

Until a few years ago, you could look up to the south as you drove through Syracuse and see two 500-foot self-supporters up in the distance, looking kind of like a big directional array. These were the sticks of WSTM (Channel 3, originally WSYR-TV) and WTVH (Channel 5, originally WHEN-TV), both at the same sites they'd occupied almost since the dawn of TV in Syracuse.

As best I can reconstruct the history, the present WSTM site came first, having been occupied since 1946 by the FM station on 94.5 that's now WYYY. It began as WSYR-FM, part of the Newhouse empire that also included WSYR (570) and the Syracuse Post Standard and Herald-Journal newspapers, and I'd bet that the quonset-hut structure at the left of the old building here goes all the way back to '46.

WSYR-TV signed on in 1950 on channel 5, and by 1953 it was running 100 kW on channel 3 from one of those 500' self-supporters up here on Sentinel Heights. (It's not clear to me whether the original channel 5 site was up here or at the studio site at the Kemper Building in downtown Syracuse.)

With the impending arrival of DTV, WSTM decided not to try to hang a new antenna on the 1953 tower. Instead, the station embarked on an ambitious $3 million project to completely rebuild its Sentinel Heights facility. During the course of 2002-2003, a new 1200-foot, three-tined tower rose just south of the old tower, with a huge new transmitter building at its base designed to accomodate the needs of the entire Syracuse TV market. Once it was done, in the fall of 2003, the old tower was dismantled, piece by piece (you can see the beginning of the dismantling at the top of the page, in a picture from September 2003.)

The first broadcaster to sign on to the new community tower project was public broadcaster WCNY, which was about to lose the space on the Channel 9 tower in Pompey where its analog signal had been located since its 1965 sign-on. It quickly committed to locating both its analog channel 24 and its digital channel 25 on the new tower. Sinclair planned to move its WSYT (Channel 68) and WNYS (Channel 43) up here from their site to the southwest, in Otisco, but Canadian coordination problems delayed that move indefinitely. And despite overtures to WTVH (Channel 5), it ended up building its DTV facility at its existing analog plant across Sentinel Heights Road. (We'll see it in a moment.)

So when the old analog tower came down in the fall of 2003, what was left was a big building and a massive tower with lots of room for future expansion. A front room of the building houses WSTM's transmitters, the analog on channel 3 and the DTV on channel 54, along with locked racks of gear for DirecTV and Dish Network's local-into-local feeds, while another big room in back is home to WCNY-TV/WCNY-DT. There's plenty of power handling and a big generator up here, too - and did we mention lots of room for future expansion? (Even more room, actually, after 2009 - WCNY will combine its two transmitters for higher power on 25, while WSTM-DT will move to WCNY's present analog channel, 24. It's not clear what will happen with the antennas at the top of the tower. Right now, one arm carries the channel 3 antenna, another carries UHF antennas for 24/25 and 54, and the third has only a big weight for balance.)

The old building's still standing as well, since it's still home to WYYY, now owned by Clear Channel. As a grandfathered superpower class B signal (100 kW/649'), WYYY couldn't move up to the new tower without taking a big hit in power, so it's staying put right where it is, in a corner of the otherwise-vacant old channel 3 building, filled with ghosts and the carcass of the old GE transmitter, made right here in Syracuse. As for WYYY, there's a Harris FM40K for analog, which is really two more common FM20Ks combined together to feed the six-bay primary antenna at the top of the WYYY tower, and a Harris FMi402 HD transmitter that feeds the four-bay aux antenna lower down on the tower. (The HD had just been turned on when we visited, and several engineers in town were trying to figure out what the eclectic HD2 format was; we'd learn later that it could best be described as "whatever the engineering staff felt like listening to while testing the transmitter.")

From the WSTM site, it's only a mile or so up Sentinel Heights Road to the other big site here, home to Syracuse's first TV station. The Meredith Corporation put WHEN-TV (Channel 8) on the air in 1948, and I'm pretty sure they did so from this very site. In later years, WHEN-TV acquired an AM station, WAGE (620, later renamed WHEN), and eventually moved to channel 5 in 1962, trading channels with Rochester's WROC-TV and opening the way for channel 9 to come to Syracuse that fall.

When WTVH decided to remain here for the long haul, rather than moving down the road to the WSTM site, it embarked on a massive reconstruction of the old tower, so comprehensive that the FCC's antenna structure registration data gives it a "2004" construction date. Inside the building, all the old transmitters (there was a GE here, too) and some of the walls have been ripped out, yielding a big tiled transmitter room that houses a Harris analog transmitter on one side and a Harris DTV transmitter for WTVH-DT 47 on the other side (at left in the photo above).

Atop the old tower, there's a new stacked antenna system, with the DTV antenna at the top and a channel 5 batwing below it.

There's one more station up here, adjacent to WTVH, and it has an interesting almost-connection to the TV station. WONO signed on in 1958 at 100.9 (soon moved to 107.9) as a classical station (the calls come from "Onondaga County," where Syracuse is located), and it held on to the format for two decades, ending up in the hands of Roy Park, the upstate New York media magnate. In 1976, Park bought WHEN(AM) from Meredith, which then changed the TV calls to WTVH, and two years later the classical format and WONO calls were history. 107.9 went through a series of incarnations - country WRRB, easy listening WRHP, country WHEN-FM - before landing in Clear Channel's hands as a sister to WYYY.

We're told that WONO actually began from a site across Sentinel Heights Road, north of the WSYR/WSTM site, and that it moved over here in the late seventies as part of a deal between Park and Meredith in which Meredith had agreed to lease space on the WTVH tower to Park if he ever acquired an FM station. It turned out that the WTVH tower couldn't handle the load of an FM antenna, so Meredith instead built this site on a corner of the WTVH property for Park's new FM.

Today, the station top 40 WWHT, "Hot 107.9," still operating from the old WONO site next door to its never-quite-sister station, WTVH. Tucked into this small building are three Harris transmitters - a main and an aux for analog use, plus an HD main next to the racks. In addition to the STL gear here, there's also a Crown translator tucked in near the bottom - it's W278AH (103.5), the Syracuse-area translator for religious WZXV (99.7 Palmyra) from the Rochester area.

Next week, we'll head down the hill and get a close look at Syracuse's biggest AM station, plus its former studios and a few more interesting sites...

Thanks to WCNY's Terry Long, John Duffy and Pete McElvein, WSTM's Sean McNamara and Jim Marco, WTVH's John Lee and Clear Channel's Todd Troubetaris for the tours!

The Tower Site Calendar 2007 is sold out! But we still have other back issues and more goodies availale at the Fybush.com Store - and check back soon for your first chance to order Tower Site Calendar 2008!