Edited by Tower Site's own Scott Fybush - and available now in print or as an e-book!

October 3, 2008

WSEN and WFBL, Syracuse, NY

So we're all done with our recap of Big Trip 2007 - and just a few weeks ago, a big pile of boxes of Tower Site Calendar 2009 came back from the printer, all ready for sale and for your office or transmitter shack wall. We hope you'll take a moment to get your order in for the calendar, or better yet, show your support for Site of the Week and NorthEast Radio Watch with a subscription!

This week, we move on to some sites that aren't in the calendar, but are well worth a feature here on Site of the Week.

We've been looking at some sites in our neighbor city to the east, Syracuse, and that's not completely coincidental: we'll be headed through that way next week for the annual SBE 22 Broadcast and Technology Expo, taking place October 7 and 8 at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, just east of Syracuse.

We enjoy the annual opportunity to get together with engineering colleagues from TV and radio stations across New York state and beyond - and once again this year, we'll be presenting our "Tower Sites I've Known and Photographed" slide show - so do stop by and check it out if you're able!

And on the way over, we might stop and get some newer pictures of the lone commercial radio station in Baldwinsville, just north of Syracuse. This is Buckley Radio's upstate outpost, and this building on Smokey Hollow Road houses the studios of oldies WFBL (1390 Syracuse), classic hits WSEN-FM (92.1 Baldwinsville) and its simulcast, WSEN (1050 Baldwinsville), as well as the transmitters for both WSEN outlets.

We'd driven by the place many times, but it was a visit last year from our tower-hunting colleague Mike Fitzpatrick of NECRAT.com that finally prompted us to make a long-overdue visit inside.

This building dates back to the early days of WSEN, which signed on in 1959 as a 250-watt, non-directional daytimer, soon flipping from its original top-40 format to country music, which would be a staple here for almost three decades. WSEN-FM came along in 1967, initially a class A signal from the top of the AM tower.

Both stations kept growing over the years - the mid-eighties brought a second tower for WSEN(AM), which boosted power to 2500 watts by day, with a low-power (19 watt) night authorization as well. In 1989, WSEN-FM upgraded to class B1, running 25 kilowatts from the top of one of the AM towers. By then, country had given way to oldies, a format that would become even more of a staple here in the years to come.

In 1993, WSEN(AM) dropped the simulcast, changing calls to WFBL and flipping to standards. The WFBL calls came from Syracuse's oldest radio station, which had signed on in 1922 as WLAH. It became WFBL in 1924, and for 69 years those calls stayed in place on the station, which evolved into a 5 kW DA-N fulltimer on 1390.

By 1993, though, there wasn't much real history left at 1390 on the dial. The top-40 format that had made WFBL a major player in the market (as "Fire 14") was gone, the modern Art Deco studio building on Warren Street downtown was long since abandoned, and the once-booming signal from two towers (a 500+ footer for day use, and a shorter tower to form the nighttime DA) just off the Carrier Circle exit of the New York Thruway had been silenced.

Today, a cluster of motels sits where the old WFBL transmitter site used to be - and a somewhat less-potent AM 1390 signal serves Syracuse and vicinity from a few miles to the northwest, a three-tower site in the town of Clay, New York.

The old WFBL on 1390 became religious WDCW under new owner Crawford Broadcasting, but those calls would last there for only a decade. In 2003, Crawford exited the Syracuse market - and it did so by selling WDCW to Buckley, which had owned WSEN since 1989. Buckley quickly restored the WFBL calls to their rightful home on 1390, where they've been ever since - and the WSEN calls returned to their original home on 1050.

The WFBL that returned to 1390 was a talk station, carrying a heavy diet of Buckley's WOR Radio Network and an odd assortment of other shows. At one point, WFBL was tape-delaying Michael Savage into morning drive; later, it was carrying the Bob & Sheri show, a staple of adult-contemporary FM radio.

That's where things stood when we came to visit in the fall of 2007: an oldies simulcast on WSEN and WSEN-FM, talk on WFBL.

The little WSEN building on Smokey Hollow Road had grown substantially over the years, expanding into a split-level T-shaped building with newer sales and administration offices added on to the original studio/transmitter core. That area now formed the lower level of the building, where a corridor was lined on one side by transmitters - a backup CCA and a main Harris SX-2.5 for the AM side, a backup CCA for WSEN-FM - and on the other side by studios. WFBL's talk studio doubled as a production room outside of drive time; WSEN's air studio was something of a throwback to earlier days, complete with carpeted walls and racks of carts behind the jock position.

WSEN-FM's main Harris transmitter was down the hall, in yet another addition tacked on when the FM signal boosted power in 1989, and a Gates phasor sat out in the doghouse of the tall FM tower to create the directional pattern for the AM.

A few miles away in Clay, the WFBL directional array was pretty much what you'd expect for a modern site: a relatively small transmitter building, just large enough to hold the Nautel main and Harris backup transmitters, a few racks of gear and a big phasor - and three towers of varying heights, still somewhat unusual for 1987, when this site was built.

A few months after our visit, things changed pretty dramatically here: in April 2008, the talk format on WFBL was jettisoned, replaced by 50s and 60s oldies, complete with local talent (a live morning show and tracked jocks from WSEN the rest of the day). That allowed WSEN to move from oldies to classic hits. And we hear they've done some renovations in the studio building, too...so stay tuned for an eventual update!

Thanks to Bryan Richards of WFBL/WSEN for the tours!