July 3 & 10, 2009

More TV in Erie, Pennsylvania

(Tower Site of the Week will return July 17.)

For a small market - #142 in the most recent rankings by Nielsen - Erie, Pennsylvania has always been an interesting place for television.

It was one of the first small markets to get a TV station, way back in 1949, and for many decades thereafter it was the scene of spirited competition among three scrappy local operations, launching many careers and sending many talented broadcasters on to bigger stations in bigger markets.

As the economics of local TV have changed in recent years, though, so has Erie - and it's becoming a laboratory of sorts for the ways in which small-market stations are transforming themselves to survive in the 21st century.

We made the three-hour drive from Rochester one sunny day late in May, just as a few big changes were about to hit - and so what we wrap up this week is a snapshot of a market deep in transition.

In last week's installment, we began our station visits within city limits at the market's first two stations, NBC affiliate WICU (Channel 12) and CBS affiliate WSEE (Channel 35), which have now merged their operations in a move that continues to stir up controversy and criticism.

But there's still competition in the Erie commercial TV world, and it comes from another pair of stations that share a facility south of town, where Peach Street (US 19) crosses I-90 and makes the transition from commercial strip (and frequent stopping-point on our journeys west from Rochester to Indiana) to rural highway.

WSEE's old analog tower is down here - and just north of that site, at 8455 Peach Street, we find the facility that Myron Jones built back in 1966 when he put WJET-TV (Channel 24) on the air as Erie's ABC affiliate. Jones, who's still living in Erie, has a long and storied career in the region: he put WJET radio on the air in 1951 as a daytimer on 1570, moved it to 1400 as a fulltimer a few years later, then lit up 1570 again down in Youngstown, Ohio as WHOT - which later moved to 1330, but that's another story entirely.

In any event, the debut of WJET-TV in 1966 came with new studios here for both radio and TV. Two decades later, Jones traded the AM 1400 facility for an FM on 102.3, which became the core of a radio cluster that remained here until just a few years ago, when the building became TV-only.

By that point, a second TV station had joined WJET-TV here. Erie's channel 66 started out in the early sixties as WEPA-TV, owned by Al Anscombe, the former WKBW Buffalo station manager who eventually moved into TV ownership here and in Binghamton (WBJA-TV 34, named for his wife's initials). Unlike the Binghamton station, though, WEPA-TV didn't survive, and the channel went dark again until the eighties, when it was reactivated by Gannon University as Fox affiliate WETG. Gannon LMA'd the station to WICU at first, and later to WJET. "Fox 66" changed calls to WFXP along the way, and today it's owned by Mission Broadcasting and operated under a shared-services agreement by WJET-TV owner Nexstar Broadcasting.

The compact WJET/WFXP building is laid out quite efficiently: the TV studio sits to the right of the lobby, with the control room right next door and the weather center in a former garage area adjoining the news set.

Right across from the control room is a tape room, and next to that is a modern master control for both stations, adjacent to the spacious newsroom on the north side of the building. Management offices are in the front of the building, to the left of the lobby, bringing us full circle on the first floor.

Upstairs is where the radio stations were, and the cozy wood-paneled studios for WJET and its sister stations have now been transformed into production and sales offices, though windows and soundproofed doors still bear traces of the radio heritage here.

Back downstairs, the transmitters for WJET and WFXP share a room at the back of the station, behind the tape area.

By the time we visited in May 2009, both stations had signed off their analog signals, and the transition was just about finished here. WFXP-DT operates on channel 22, and its Acrodyne transmitter occupied half of the transmitter room, across from a pair of transmitters for WJET - the channel 24 Acrodyne that had recently been converted from analog to digital, and the channel 58 Rohde and Schwartz that had been used for WJET-DT's interim operation before the transition.

WFXP's directional antenna is side-mounted on the 816' tower, just below WJET's top-mounted channel 24 antenna - and that's a brand-new channel 24 antenna, installed there in April to replace the old analog 24 antenna at the end of its life cycle.

(Need a channel 24 antenna? When we visited, the huge antenna was still lying on the station's back lawn, where the tower crew had placed it after removal.)

There's another shorter tower at the back of the WJET property: this one went up in 1997 for the FM stations that had been sisters to WJET. Connoisseur Media now owns WXBB (94.7) and WQHZ (102.3), which share this 459' tower, seen at far left in the photo above at left.

Standing in the yard by the old WJET antenna, there's quite a panorama visible: in addition to WJET's own tower and the Connoisseur FM tower at the back of the property, there's the old WSEE analog tower just to the south (WSEE-DT now uses the WICU tower a few miles to the east) - and just to the east, reached by a narrow driveway that runs alongside the north side of WJET's property, there are two more tall towers and a studio.

This site belongs to Erie's public TV and radio station, WQLN, which has been back here since the 1967 debut of WQLN-TV (Channel 54).

A lot has changed here since then: in 1973, WQLN-FM (91.3) joined the family, and in 1996, the original studio building was substantially expanded to include a new lobby and offices as well as a large "learning center" that's leased out for classroom training and such.

As with so many public stations these days, though, WQLN is having a rough time of things; shortly after our visit, the station cut several staff positions, and the uncertainty of state funding means there could be still more cuts yet to come. When we stopped by, the master-control area (just out of frame to the left of the lobby, below) had been gutted in preparation for installing a new automated master-control system that will result in still more jobs being eliminated; the temporary master control was in a small office area adjacent to the empty room where the new MCR will be located.

WQLN's administrative staff are mostly off to the right of the front desk; directly ahead as you enter, through those doors at the center of the lobby photo above, are the studios of WQLN-FM. There are a couple of small production rooms, a compact main air studio, and a larger room (below at right) that's used for pledge drives and occasional live performances (some of which also use the lobby piano!)

WQLN-TV's studio and production facilities are off to the left of the lobby. The studio was all set for the upcoming WQLN auction when we visited, and I think that's what the production crew was preparing for in the control room as well.

WQLN's transmitters sit behind the studio in a room that's now partially empty. Channel 54 was the first of Erie's analog stations to leave the air, thanks to Mother Nature: storm damage to the station's transmission line in the fall of 2008 led to the decision to take the analog dark, leaving only WQLN-DT on channel 50 running at full power from the repaired transmission line and antenna. Its transmitter shares the room with the original WQLN-FM RCA transmitter and a 1992-vintage Harris that's now the main FM transmitter.

There are a few tenants on this site now, too, but we didn't get to see those transmitters: WFXP's analog channel 66 facility, now mothballed, is in a building out back, where it fed an antenna atop one of the twin towers out back. And in addition to WQLN-FM, there's now a second FM here as well: Gannon University's WERG (90.5) uses a two-bay antenna low on the same tower as WFXP's old analog antenna.

(At some point, we'll return to Erie to see more of the market's radio - Citadel's cluster, including WRIE 1260 and WXKC 99.9, is just down Robison Road to the east of WJET/WFXP and WQLN; Connoisseur's cluster operates from studios in the old Boston Store downtown, and a handful of independent and noncommercial stations round out the dial.)

Thanks to Tim Dunst of WJET/WFXP and Aaron Coseo and Tom Lavery of WQLN for the tours!

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