July 31, 2009

WHJJ and its sisters, Providence, RI

Back in January, we did something we rarely do in the depths of winter - we headed for the heart of New England, an area we usually try to visit in pretty much any other season but winter.

In this case, though, we were racing against time: with the Providence TV market sticking to the original February 17, 2009 deadline to shut down their analog signals, we wanted to capture as much as we could of the market's TV infrastructure while the analog stations were still there.

You saw those photos here on Site of the Week a few months ago - but they were just part of a busy, slushy, frigid day for us in Providence that also included plenty of the city's radio sites.

In particular, we finally got the chance to do something that had eluded us on previous visits to Rhode Island: we got together with the chief engineers of the two big radio clusters in town, Clear Channel and Citadel, to get inside their transmitter sites for visits and pictures.

Right up at the top of the list was a site we'd featured from the outside back in the earliest days of Site of the Week, WHJJ (920). It was so gray and foggy when we got there that I have no photos this time of the two massive square cross-section Blaw-Knox towers that rise 407' each from the swamps off Wampanoag Trail in East Providence. (You can see some over at NECRAT, at its new www.NECRAT.us address, though.)

Instead of outdoor photos, though, we found engineers Steve LaRiviere and Steve Conti waiting for us inside to show off what's become of this fine old building. It was built in 1940 for what was then WJAR, the radio voice of the Outlet department store - and I'm pretty sure the WJAR transmitter had been downtown atop the Outlet building until moving out here to East Providence. What was once a wall full of big iron (RCA, if memory serves) is now occupied by three smaller transmitters - from left to right, a Harris Gates 5 that serves as the primary aux, a Harris DAX that is the current WHJJ main, and an older Harris MW5 that serves as a secondary aux.

There are some other goodies in here, including some very old transmitter tubes in wooden crates, just visible on the left side of the photo above, and some vintage transmitter logs as well.

WHJJ is Clear Channel's only AM signal in Providence, but the cluster also includes three FMs, and those are next on our agenda this snowy morning. First up is the site at 115 Eastern Avenue in East Providence, just a mile or so northwest of the WHJJ transmitter. The studio buildings here used to be home to WHJJ and its sister station WHJY (94.1), which started here as WHIM-FM, sister to the AM 1110 station (now WPMZ) that still transmits from the two towers on site. The taller of those two towers (seen in an earlier Site of the Week) is also home to two FMs - WHJY itself and Brown Broadcasting's WBRU (95.5 Providence) - which share a concrete-block transmitter building near the base of that tower.

WHJY's room is home to three transmitters, an old Gates FM20H3, a newer BE FM30 and a BE FMi703 for HD Radio, with a combiner tucked into the back corner to combine the 94.1 signal with 95.5, which comes from another BE in the next room. (Sadly, WBRU's old home-built transmitter, crafted and maintained by engineer Craig Healy, was disposed of a few years back.)

Continuing north with Steve and Steve, we come to the TV tower farm in Rehoboth, Mass., just over the Rhode Island state line, where we find the last of Clear Channel's Providence-market FMs.

WSNE (93.3 Taunton) occupies a room in the transmitter building of former sister station WJAR-TV, which we showed you in a Site of the Week earlier this year.

And we finish our Clear Channel Providence site tour just up Pine Street at the transmitter (and former studio building) of WNAC (Channel 64), where WWBB (101.5 Providence) occupies a ground-floor room next to what used to be the Fox 64 sales office. This one's another all-BE room - a main and aux analog transmitter and another FMi 703 for HD.

There's an interesting history here: while 101.5 has been at this site since 1984, it began at the other end of Rhode Island, at Jerimoth Hill near the Connecticut state line. That's the state's highest point (such as it is), and it's where T. Mitchell Hastings, founder of Boston's WBCN, put WTMH-FM on the air in the fifties. WTMH became WXCN, part of the "Concert Network" that also included WHCN in Hartford and WNCN in New York, and eventually shifted to beautiful music as WLKW-FM, sister station to WLKW (990 Providence). It became WWBB in 1989, and has been doing some flavor of oldies or classic hits every since.

Studios? We didn't get to Clear Channel's Oxford Street studio this time - but we did see Citadel's studios, and that's where we'll go in next week's Site of the Week.

Thanks to Steve LaRiviere and Steve Conti from Clear Channel, and NECRAT's Mike Fitzpatrick!

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