October 26, 2007


This week, we'll wrap up (for now) our look at the broadcast facilities of our native Rochester, New York with a visit to what is, remarkably, the tallest tower to be found in the market - at all of 600 feet from ground level to top beacon.

Yes, it's a long way from little old Rochester to the 2,000-foot towers of Sacramento, Sioux Falls or Fargo, but we take what we've got, especially when it comes to a tower that apparently wasn't even supposed to be as tall as it is.

Welcome to the west side of Rochester, where Colfax Street dead ends a block south of Emerson Street, just east of Route 390 and not far north of I-490. If you were paying attention a few weeks ago when we recounted the long, tangled history of the station that's now WLGZ 990, you know we're talking about the very spot where WRNY began broadcasting on 680 as a 250-watt daytimer way back in 1947.

That 1947-era tower was the original transmitter site of WNYR-FM 101.3, when it signed on in 1966, but at only 300 feet or so, it was inadequate to cover the growing metro area on FM in the mid-seventies. That's why Malrite, which owned what were by then WNYR 680 and WEZO 101.3, began construction of this 600-foot tower right next to the existing stick.

According to newspaper clippings and recollections from those who were around in that era, there was a glitch pretty early in the construction: that 600-foot tower was a bit too close to the Rochester airport, just a few miles to the south, for anyone's comfort.

Exactly what happened next remains a bit unclear, but the tower was allowed to rise with a condition: it was one of the first towers to be required to use strobe lighting, day and night, and to this day its strobes are something of a landmark for drivers on 390 and 490.

(A quick bit of history: the new tall tower is easily seen from Mount Read Boulevard, the major north-south road just east of Colfax Street - and from there, it shows up prominently in photographs of the building at 979 Mount Read Boulevard, which was built in 1937 as a transmitter site for WHEC radio. WHEC moved away in 1947 - you can follow that history here - but the 1937 building still stands as the front office of a machining company.)

By 1977, WEZO was on the air from the new tower, running 27 kW/640' as a full class B signal. Two years later, WNYR built a three-tower directional array at the Colfax Street site for its move from 680 to 990, and by 1983, WNYR was gone from Colfax Street completely, having moved to a new directional array out west in Clarkson. (Your editor has no recollection, sadly, of ever having seen the Colfax Street directional array, but he does recall seeing the old 680 tower still standing next to the tall tower as recently as the late eighties.)

The next big changes at this site came a decade later: WEZO became WRMM, "Warm 101.3," and in 1988 a second FM station arrived at Colfax Street. WKLX (98.9) was the former WHFM, the erstwhile sister station to WHAM (1180), and after more than 40 years of operation from the top of the 413-foot WHAM tower in Chili, the stations were no longer under common ownership, the tower lease was up, and the new owners of 98.9 wanted a better signal than the low-lying Chili site offered. The move to Colfax Street, with 37 kW/563', did the trick and then some; 98.9 is now the Rochester FM signal most often heard in Buffalo.

(More recollections from the era: WKLX spent a day or two playing construction sounds as it made the move to Colfax Street, interrupting periodically to list the new equipment that was being installed at the site, including an ERI antenna, the first time your editor, then in high school, ever heard that brand name.)

WKLX eventually became oldies WBBF under Entercom's ownership, then classic hits "Buzz" WBZA - and that Rockwell Collins transmitter that was installed at Colfax Street two decades ago is still in the crowded building at the base of the tower, now being used as an aux, backing up the Harris that's now the station's main analog transmitter and the Nautel V10 that handles the digital side of the Buzz signal.

As for that ERI antenna they were talking about in 1988, it's still up there, its four bays mounted on the side of the tower just under the pole on which WRMM's primary four-bay antenna is mounted.

A third FM station arrived at the site in 1996, when Crawford Broadcasting moved its three-year-old WDCZ (102.7 Webster) over here from the WBEE-FM tower in Penfield, on the east side of town, to remedy serious adjacent-channel interference that 102.7 was receiving from WMJQ (102.5 Buffalo). There wasn't room in the original building for the new station, so WDCZ (now WRCI) ended up in a small concrete-block building of its own, right next door, where its Continental analog transmitter and BE HD transmitter are still housed. (WRCI uses a panel antenna, visible under the third guy level in the photo at the top of the page, for its directional signal; the two-bay ERI below that is an aux for WRCI, while the two-bay ERI above is an aux for WRMM.)

One more bit of WRCI trivia: when Crawford picked up what's now WLGZ 990 in 1997, from what was then American Radio Systems (which then owned WRMM), it kept feeding programming out to the Clarkson 990 transmitter site the same way ARS had been doing all those years: hopping the audio through Colfax Street on the way out west. To this day, the 990 audio passes through this site on its way to Clarkson, continuing a historic link between the station and the site where it went on the air, as WRNY 680, sixty years ago.

There's one more station here, too: Rochester's low-power MyNetworkTV affiliate, WBGT-CA (Channel 40), broadcasts from the original building on the site, using what appears to be a former TV translator transmitter that once relayed something or other on channel 61 (and which must have come from some other market, there being no channel 61 here.) Why does WBGT call itself "My 18"? That's where it's seen on cable by most of its viewers...

What about WRMM itself? It hums along at the top of the ratings from one corner of the original building here, with a Harris HT 20FM as its main transmitter and an Armstrong for auxiliary use. It's the last of Rochester's class B FMs still running analog-only, perhaps because it's for sale by CBS Radio. (That explains the current ownership of this site, too: when CBS bought the ARS stations, the tower sites stayed with the old owners under the American Tower banner; under American Tower, the site added a third building, seen at right in the photo of the tower base above. It's full of wireless and cellular transmitters.)

Next week, we move on from Rochester and head for the hills of Iowa, for the start of our recap of "Medium Trip 2007."

Thanks to Brian Cunningham of WRCI, Jon Owen and Joe Fleming of WBZA and Mike Raide, formerly of WRMM, for the tours!

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