October 12, 2007

Pinnacle Hill, Rochester, NY (Part I)

Welcome back to another exciting season of Tower Site of the Week - and thanks for your patience during our busy summer and fall travel schedule! We have one more trip still upcoming (the SBE 22 Broadcast & Technology Expo next week, at which we'll be showing some of our tower pictures), but we're excited about all the great tours we'll be sharing with you in the months to come.

We'll take you to some big AM signals (WBBM, WSCR, KSL), some unusual arrays (how about an AM directional array with I-90 running right through the middle?), some prominent FM/TV mountaintops (Boise's Deer Point, Las Vegas' Mount Arden), not to mention the fields of Iowa, the FMs of Utica, and many more.

This week, though, we continue our look at some sites that are much closer to home - and this week and next, we come as close to home as we've ever been: 4300 feet northwest of our front door, at Rochester's foremost TV/FM tower farm, Pinnacle Hill.

Pinnacle was the birthplace of television in Rochester, way back in 1949, and the tower that was built for WHAM-TV (Channel 6) still stands, today as one of four prominent sticks on this site near the center of town.

Being such a prominent site so close to home, we've had numerous opportunities to visit the buildings and to watch these facilities change over the years - and we're finally getting around to sharing them with you.

Some history, then, first: this 748-foot hill just a few miles southeast of downtown Rochester was used for a cemetery and a quarry, then later for an orphanage. In the mid-forties, Stromberg-Carlson bought a parcel of land at the peak in preparation for adding television service to its WHAM radio.

The word "NIMBY" hadn't been invented yet in 1947, but the concept was well established, and the neighbors weren't happy about the idea of a television station right in their midst. Newspaper clippings from the era recount the assurances that had to be given, including the explanation that the studio would be elsewhere, and that only a few vehicles a day would be going up and down the hill to the transmitter building (which was initially conceived as a ranch-style house, later reworked into a two-story brick building, which became the model for the other transmitter buildings on the hill.)

WHAM-TV signed on June 11, 1949 from the hill, and the building it used then is still the first thing visitors who head up the hill encounter. It now belongs to successor station WROC-TV (Channel 8), which has renovated it heavily over the years. The former garage on the first floor now houses a modern Larcan transmitter for the analog channel 8 signal, and the former transmitter room on the second floor is now mostly empty, except for one corner where an Acrodyne transmitter for WROC-DT (Channel 45) sits, taking up a fraction of the space of the old RCA analog transmitter that once resided there.

The erstwhile WROC-FM (97.9) once operated from here as well, and for some years its automated beautiful-music format originated right here, with the transmitter engineers swapping out reels as part of their duties. In its later incarnation as WPXY, it continued to lease space here for its transmitter, and even more recently it was joined by an FM sister station, WCMF (96.5), which was moved over from the Channel 10 transmitter building next door.

When we stopped by in September 2006, this room was about to be relegated to backup duty, with WCMF and WPXY moving to a newer tower up the hill, which we'll see in the second installment of our Pinnacle Hill visit. Eventually, this room will be completely vacated, as the WCMF 4-bay antenna and the big WPXY 10-bay ERI, both now auxiliaries, will likely come down off the tower that's now shared with WROC-TV and WHEC-TV (Channel 10).

That brings us to the next chapter in Pinnacle Hill's history: the arrival in 1953 of a second TV station here.

When WHEC-TV and WVET-TV began sharing time on channel 10 in November of 1953, they did so from separate studios, but from a common transmitter plant, built on the opposite side of the tower from the WHAM-TV building. That two-story brick building still stands as well, and is still home to channel 10, which ended shared-time operation in 1962 and has been simply WHEC-TV ever since.

Channel 10 initially had its own antenna on the WHAM-TV/WROC-TV tower, but that lasted less than a decade. In September 1962, WROC-TV moved from channel 5 to channel 8, and the two stations installed a combiner near the base of the tower, feeding both the channels 8 and 10 signals to a shared Channel 9 batwing antenna at the top of the tower, an arrangement that has lasted ever since, though it will change when WROC-TV vacates channel 8 with the sunset of analog TV in 2009.

(I'd love to know just how the antenna transition was handled on this tower; I've never seen any detailed photos showing what it looked like when it was home to channels 5 and 10, or any explanation of how the move to a combined 8/10 antenna in 1962 was handled, but it must have been quite a project!)

The coming of digital TV early this decade brought big changes to this venerable tower: after starting out at low power, with small antennas, both WROC-DT (Channel 45) and WHEC-DT (Channel 58) installed more hefty DTV signals on their old tower. WHEC-DT installed an inconspicuous antenna next to the WCMF antenna bays, just below the top of the tower (look for the skinny vertical silver antenna just to the left of those four 96.5 bays), while WROC-DT put its antenna right next to WPXY, with a smaller antenna on the back side of the tower to fill in the pattern in that direction. Those configurations will change as well come 2009, when WHEC-DT moves to channel 10 and WROC-DT remains on 45.

Lower down on the tower is an old standby antenna for either WCMF or WPXY (there were two of them here once, though one has now migrated to the roof of the HSBC Tower downtown, for backup use when Pinnacle is off the air), as well as standby antennas for channels 8 and 10.

Inside the WHEC building, a room on the first floor housed the WCMF transmitter from the early 1980s, when it moved off the old Lincoln Alliance Building downtown, until it was displaced by DTV gear in 2005. WHEC's analog Harris transmitter sits next to the top of the stairs on the second floor, ready for a fairly easy conversion to digital service in 2009, at which point the current Channel 58 Harris transmitter, right at the top of the stairs, will likely find a new home.

A third TV station came to the channel 8/10 tower in September 1966, when Rochester's educational station, WXXI-TV, signed on at channel 21. Its transmitter building was yet another two-story brick affair, this one located on the north slope of the hill, to the right of the WROC building from the point of view of anyone coming up the access road from Highland Avenue. Its antenna remained side-mounted on the WROC/WHEC tower until 1980, when WXXI built a tower of its own right next to the venerable WROC/WHEC tower.

By then, WXXI had added another service on Pinnacle Hill: a Gates FM 20 H3 transmitter (later supplanted by a Harris HT20-FM) fed an antenna on the WROC/WHEC tower for the new WXXI-FM (91.5), the city's public radio station that debuted in December 1974. It, too, moved to the new WXXI candelabra tower in 1980, and we were on hand in 2006 when that antenna came down and was replaced by a new Dielectric interleaved analog/HD antenna.

(There are two more WXXI services on Pinnacle now: WXXI-DT 16, using an antenna mounted next to the WXXI-FM antenna, and the University of Rochester's WRUR-FM 88.5, which moved its three-bay antenna from the Hyatt Hotel downtown to the side of the WXXI tower just a week or so ago.)

Back to the 2006 WXXI-FM antenna replacement: those are the new Dielectric bays on the ground, and part of the old antenna being carefully lifted down from the tower. In the background is the base of the WROC/WHEC tower, complete with the combiner in the center, and in the center of the photo is the WHEC building. The WROC building is just visible behind the tower base, and the WXXI building is back there to the left of the tower, behind the channel 10 building.

And at the very left of the picture is the next site we'll visit - the Channel 13 building that brought a second tower to Pinnacle Hill in 1962.

We'll show you that - as well as Pinnacle's fourth TV facility, its newest tower, and much more, when we continue our look at Pinnacle Hill in next week's Site of the Week.

Thanks to Eric Melenbacker of WROC, Nolan Stephany and Kent Hatfield of WXXI, John Walsh and Jon Sheehan of WHEC and Mike Raide, formerly of WCMF/WPXY, for the tours!

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