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

December 19, 2008

A Break from the Atlanta Airport

As we wind down 2008 (this is our last new episode of Site of the Week until the new year, when we'll launch into a multi-part look at some of the analog TV sites soon to undergo big changes), we hope you'll take a moment to get your order in for the all-new Tower Site Calendar 2009, or better yet, show your support for Site of the Week and NorthEast Radio Watch with a subscription!

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

We had a hard time finding a good schedule for our return flight, and ended up booking something on AirTran that included a five-plus hour layover in that most unfortunate spot, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

As almost anyone who flies regularly knows all too well, Hartsfield-Jackson has only two things going for it: the weather tends to be much more decent, on a more regular basis, than other major hubs such as O'Hare or Detroit, and it has very easy access to mass transit. Beyond that, though, it's the poster airport for all that was wrong about 1970s airport design - long, low-ceilinged, narrow concourses devoid of the amenities most newer terminals offer; long subway transfers from concourse to concourse; uncomfortable seating; bad lighting; expensive Wi-Fi...and you can't find a Pepsi in the place to save your life. (OK, I'm kidding about that last one.)

So the original plan for that long layover was a fairly simple one: get the heck out of the terminal, get on a MARTA train, get downtown to The Varsity, and fill up on chili dogs and frozen orange drinks until it's time to go back to the airport.

Then we called our good friend, and regular Atlanta tour guide, Roddy Freeman...who promptly offered to pick us up at the airport and show us some sights we'd missed on our previous Atlanta visits in 2002 (chronicled here and here) and in 2004 (here, here, here and here), and how could we say no to that?

"You want to see some tall FM towers?," Roddy asks as we climb into his car - and since we always want to see some tall FM towers, we head south on I-85 some 20 miles through the exurban sprawl to Newnan, Georgia, once a small city well outside the orbit of Atlanta, but now very much part of the metropolitan area.

And just as Newnan eventually became part of the Atlanta megalopolis, so did the radio stations out here. Atlanta was historically rather under-radioed for a big market, which made it a magnet for the move-in specialists of the eighties and nineties.

Two of those move-ins landed here, on tall towers in a field off Witcher Road on the northwest side of Newnan. First came 104.1, the former WJYF from La Grange, another 30 miles out of Atlanta down I-85. In the mid-80s, WJYF built the 1152' tower seen at left in the photo above - then sold the station a few years later to Katz Communications (later NewCity), which flipped it to WYAI, half of an innovative double-rimshot country simulcast known as "Y104 and Y106." (The other half of the simulcast, WYAY Gainesville on 106.7 from the northeast side of the market, lives on today under different ownership, playing oldies.)

Today, 104.1 is owned by Cox, using the WALR-FM calls that had started on yet another rimshot, the 104.7 out of Athens, and playing adult R&B as "Kiss 104.1," with a respectable signal over most of Atlanta from this 100 kW/1216' C0 facility. (Apologies for being on the wrong side of the tower to get a clear shot of the four-bay antenna, which is aimed northeast at Atlanta!)

Just beyond it is a newer tower, a 1200-footer built by Clear Channel in 2002 when it moved 105.3 in from Carrollton, on the Alabama border. (Ironically, that class A signal in Carrollton had signed on as...WYAI, taking the calls abandoned by 104.1 when it went to smooth jazz as WJZF.) 105.3 changed city of license to Bowdon when it upgraded to a 61 kW/1203' C1 here. It's been through a whirlwind of calls and formats since then - WMAX-FM (a call that had been here in Rochester), WWVA-FM ("Viva," borrowing the calls from the AM in Wheeling), WLCL ("Cool," another call that had been in Rochester), and most recently WBZY, which is currently playing regional Mexican as "La Patron."

After our suburban excursion, we head back into Atlanta proper, where Roddy has another site to show off that we'd missed on the previous trips.

Just off Fair Street on the city's southwest side, a short tower sits next to the tennis courts adjacent to Clark Atlanta University - and no fewer than three Atlanta stations have called this little stick home.

WALR (1340 Atlanta) uses the whole tower for its 1000-watt signal, which was better known under its old calls, WIGO, and which today is a sister sports station to WCNN (680 North Atlanta), owned by the Dickey family of Cumulus fame.

That two-bay antenna near the top of the tower belonged to Clark Atlanta's station, jazz outlet WCLK (91.9 Atlanta), while the four-bay antenna below it belonged to freeform community station WRFG (89.3 Atlanta) - but not for very long after our visit.

WRFG, which had been running 100 kW/278' from this tower, had already vacated the premises when we stopped by in late September 2007, moving to a temporary facility at the community tower at 1800 Briarcliff Road NE; a month later, it signed on its permanent 65 kW/485' C1 facility at the Briarcliff tower, leaving this stick behind for good.

There's one more item on our agenda before heading back to the airport - the little matter of chili dogs and an icy "FO" at the Varsity - but before we belly up to the counter to be asked "Whad'ya have? Whad'ya have?," we capture a few more Atlanta broadcast transitions in the setting sun.

To the south of the Varsity, we notice some changes atop the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel, one of Atlanta's tallest buildings: formerly home to the antennas of WUPA-TV (Channel 69) and WZGC (92.9). Both of those stations have now relocated to towers east of the city. (WZGC, in fact, is now on the same Briarcliff tower as WRFG.)

What's left at the Westin is the College Park-licensed 100.5 signal, which had arrived here in 2001 as a C3 move-in from way over in Anniston, Alabama (it had been full C WHMA-FM there). In Atlanta - er, "College Park" - 100.5 became top-40 WWWQ, "Q100," and in 2005 it had upgraded to a C2 from that new four-bay antenna you see there, mounted to the old Channel 69 antenna at the top of the Westin mast. (Look carefully on the right side of the mast below the old 69 antenna and you can still see the original single-bay 100.5 antenna there.)

A couple of months after our visit, Cumulus swapped calls and formats among its Atlanta FMs, shifting WWWQ to the much more powerful 99.7 signal and moving the WNNX calls and a rock format from 99.7 to 100.5.

The history of that 99.7 facility was also visible from the Varsity parking lot - a few blocks to the north, that tall self-supporter still has the old 99.7 antenna hanging off the side, licensed as an auxiliary since 99.7 moved out to, you guessed it, the Briarcliff tower in 2003.

But that self-supporter has a much more famous occupant up top, and you see it here at a turning point in its history. This photo was taken on September 28, 2007, just three days before that signal - channel 17 - dropped the WTBS callsign it had borne since 1979. On October 1, owner Time Warner split the local Atlanta signal away from what had become a national cable feed (known today simply as "TBS"), relaunching channel 17 as indie WPCH-TV, "Peachtree TV."

In a few weeks, this landmark tower at 1018 West Peachtree Street NW will cease to have any broadcast occupants, since WPCH-DT (Channel 20) operates from (all together now) that Briarcliff tower. And thus will end a most remarkable broadcast history that started when a nearly-broke billboard owner named Ted bought a failing UHF station with a tall tower and a ramshackle little studio building on Peachtree Street back in 1970.

(The WTBS calls, incidentally, were quickly snapped up by a low-power TV station operating on channel 26 from the roof of the Westin.)

And thus (give or take a few chili dogs...mmmmm....) ended our last big tower trip of 2007 - and Tower Site of the Week for 2008. We'll be back in January to write the technical obituaries of some notable analog TV facilities, as we get ready for Transition Day. In the meantime, happy holidays and a very happy New Year!

(One final note - in lieu of a Big Trip this year, we're coordinating this series of Tower Site of the Week presentations with weekly audio updates over at our sister site, Tophour.com, so be sure to head over there each Wednesday to hear the IDs we gathered as we made this trip last year, including a bunch of IDs from the ever-changing Atlanta market.)

Huge thanks to Roddy Freeman for tour-guide services and Varsity chili dogs, and to message-board poster "littlejohn" for some technical corrections, too!