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

October 31, 2008

Poor Mountain, Roanoke, VA

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 continue a multiple-installment "Little Trip," recapping our travels as we made our way to Charlotte, North Carolina for last year's NAB Radio Show.

During our last pass through Roanoke, as part of our Carolinas/Virginia trip in 2003, we drove up to see the tower farm where all of Roanoke's TV stations and many of its FMs are located, nearly 4000 feet above sea level atop Poor Mountain, the tallest peak in the Roanoke area.

But we made a few mistakes that time around - for one, we didn't realize that the access road to the mountaintop from the north side, off US 11, is all but impassable, while there's a nice easy paved road up the south side, from US 211. For another, we didn't make contact with any of Roanoke's engineers, so we missed out on the chance to see all the neat stuff inside these buildings.

This time around, we did it the right way, heading up the mountain just before sunset on the good road, in the company of engineer Josh Arritt, who's worked for each and every one of the FMs up here.

Fittingly, our tour begins in the middle of the tower farm, at what I'm pretty sure was the first broadcast facility up here, the building that was originally home to Roanoke's first TV station, WSLS-TV (Channel 10) and its sister FM station, WSLS-FM (99.1).

For reasons I'm still not clear about, WSLS-TV moved out of this building around 1980, into a newer building and taller tower up at the northernmost end of the tower farm - and somewhere along the way, apparently around 1976, there was a swap of FM stations from building to building, with the former WSLS-FM, now WSLQ, moving down the ridge to the transmitter building of former rival WDBJ-TV, while the former WDBJ-FM (94.9), later WPVR (the "Lite 95" shown below), took up residence in the old WSLS-TV building here.

That whole move came full circle in 2000, when WPVR and its sister AM station, WFIR (960), came under common ownership with WSLQ and its sister AM station, WSLC (610), the former WSLS/WSLS-FM. The WSLC calls and country format promptly moved from 610 up here to 94.9, becoming "Star Country 94.9," and thus was a bit of the WSLS heritage restored to the old WSLS building up here on the hill.

And check out some of the history in this building - the RCA BTF-10D transmitter that's now the backup for WSLC-FM is one of the oldest active FM transmitters I've seen in use, while the main transmitter here is another rarity - an RCA BTF-40E, which is actually two BTF-20s running through a combiner to create 33 kW TPO, which becomes 98 kW ERP when it heads out the back to the six-bay main antenna mounted on what I believe is the 1952-vintage WSLS-TV tower.

Behind the old WSLS building, a gated road leads north to the new WSLS site at the northern end of the farm (seen behind the trees in the center photo above, and up close at right) - but because we're not with anyone who has the keys to that site, we'll have to settle for visits to the two metal buildings between the old and new WSLS sites: "K-92," WXLK (92.3 Roanoke) and public radio WVTF (89.1 Roanoke), which share a little compound tucked in between the old and new WSLS sites.

Just outside the fence that surrounds the compound shared by WXLK and WVTF, we encounter a bit of a mystery: an old UHF TV antenna sitting abandoned in the leaves.

Who was this? Apparently Roanoke's erstwhile ABC affiliate, WRFT (Channel 27), which was on the air from 1966 until about 1974 before succumbing to the more powerful signal of rival ABC station WLVA-TV (Channel 13, now WSET) in nearby Lynchburg.

(Two bits of trivia here: the WRFT/WLVA battle included a court case, which began when WRFT challenged WLVA's application to move its tower to Flat Top Mountain, which would provide a better signal over Roanoke; in response, WLVA challenged WRFT's application to move here to Poor Mountain, arguing that the two applications should be considered mutually-exclusive; a Federal appeals court eventually rejected that claim. And who was WRFT's program director in its later years? None other than Adrian Cronauer, who'd become famous years later thanks to Robin Williams' portrayal of him in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam! Cronauer also worked in Roanoke radio in the early seventies, at WPVR.)

Inside the fence, two metal buildings house WXLK and WVTF, each next to their respective towers - WXLK's sporting a five-bay antenna, WVTF's with a four-bay, plus a two-bay aux on an adjacent tower that also handles its HD Radio signal.

WXLK traces its heritage back to an early stand-alone Roanoke FM, WLRJ (92.3), which would become easy listening WLRG, "Large FM," before going adult contemporary in 1979 as "K-92."

WVTF grew out of Virginia Western Community College's WVWR, which signed on in 1973 with 4100 watts from the college campus. By 1980, the station had moved up here to Poor Mountain under the ownership of the Virginia Tech Foundation, and today WVTF (89.1) is the hub of a network of signals stretching northeast to Charlottesville and southwest down to the extreme western corner of Virginia.

(Note the HD exciter in the corner of the photo above; there's a second service WVTF offers, "Radio IQ," that provides a wide variety of news and talk programming over HD2 signals on the main WVTF network, plus a low-power FM in Ferrum, WFFC, and an AM, WWVT 1260, in Christiansburg.)

So that's the north end of the farm - and as the sun begins to set, we head back to the other end of the road to see the most imposing building on Poor Mountain, the big site that's home to WDBJ (Channel 7) and WSLQ (99.1).

As we explored in last week's installment, WDBJ-TV traces its heritage back to Roanoke's pioneering radio station, WDBJ (960), today's WFIR. But WDBJ didn't make it on the air first in Roanoke - in fact, it was the city's third TV station, after WSLS-TV (in 1952) and the short-lived WROV-TV (Channel 27, in 1953).

And once WDBJ-TV did get on the air in 1955, it wasn't from Poor Mountain - the station used a temporary site on Mill Mountain for two years before moving up here in 1957.

Once WDBJ-TV made it up here, though, it built for the ages. Its L-shaped building includes a full apartment on the second floor of the two-story portion, designed to house on-site engineers. Downstairs, the other side of the "L" was and still is home to the TV transmitters, though the old tube rigs have long since been replaced by solid-state Harris units for analog channel 7 and digital channel 18.

I'm guessing that the original WDBJ-FM, on 94.9, would have been in that area, too. But after the 1984 moves, the current FM tenant here, WSLQ (99.1), operates from the lower level of the two-story portion - and what an operation it is!

This is one of those grandfathered superpower FMs, cranking out 200 kW ERP in class C territory where the limit these days is 100 kW, and it achieves that by combining two Continental 816R 35 kW transmitters. That's some power, right there!

(Interestingly, WSLQ applied a few years back to move back up the hill to its old site in the former WSLS-TV building, where it would have shared a master antenna with WSLC-FM; for whatever reason, that application was dismissed and so "Q99" remains here at the WDBJ site.)

This is the last of the sites we got to see from the inside, but a few more towers up here are worthy of mention before we head back down the hill into the city.

From the gate at WDBJ-TV, we can look north down the ridge (above, left) to see a nice line of towers: in the foreground, at left, is the public TV station, WBRA (Channel 15), along with WBRA-DT (Channel 3) on that panel antenna below.

Next in line is Roanoke's Fox affiliate, WFXR (Channel 27). The third time must have been the charm for this troubled UHF channel - after the early failure of WROV-TV and the 1974 shutdown of WRFT, channel 27 came back to life once more in 1986 as religious WVFT; within a year, it had become an independent commercial station, and soon took the Fox affiliation and found success. WFXR-DT operates from here, too, on channel 17; it simulcasts up in Lynchburg on WWCW (Channel 21), and the market's CW affiliate, "CW5," is seen on both stations' DTV subchannels.

Beyond WFXR is the old WSLS-TV tower, now home to WSLC-FM, and beyond that, in the distance, are the WSLS-TV, WXLK and WVTF towers.

There's one more tower to note here before we move on for good: on the other side of WDBJ, silhouetted against the setting sun, we find the market's Ion station, WPXR (Channel 38), side-mounted on this lovely little "Star tower." WPXR-DT (Channel 36) is on the conventional self-supporter next to it.

Thanks to Josh Arritt for the tours!