August 21, 2009

WRNI, WSTL and WBRU, 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 this week's installment, we show you the last visits of that long day, which continued for several hours after the sun went down (not that that's hard to do in Rhode Island in January, when the sun seems to set a little after 3.)

Our first post-sunset stop took us out Route 7 (Douglas Avenue) to the northwestern corner of Providence, where the transmitter site of WRNI (1290) sits right on the city line separating North Providence from Providence. It had been many years since we'd seen this site - about 15 years, in fact. Back then, 1290 was Portuguese-language WRCP, and the first floor of this building was a dark warren of little rooms that included a little studio and a hallway lined by vintage transmitters and phasors.

But back in 1998, Boston University's WBUR bought WRCP, transforming it into public radio WRNI - and over the next few years, the Douglas Avenue site was completely rebuilt, including four new towers (you can see 'em over at NECRAT, since we couldn't see them in the dark!) and a total gutting of the transmitter building, now home to a new phasor and two new transmitters for 1290's upgrade from 5 kW to 10 kW back in 2003.

WRNI built new studios, too, in the "One Union Station" building downtown, where there's a nice high-ceilinged office area and an even higher-ceilinged newsroom, separated by a core of two studios, one for talk shows and one to serve as a control room. (Check out the floor-length windows, a trademark of acoustic designer Russ Berger, who works with many public radio stations.)


When we visited, WRNI was just in the process of assuming total independence from WBUR, giving Rhode Island a hometown public radio voice for the first time in its history.

Our next stop was another facility we'd seen before in daylight; indeed, Providence's AM 1220 was even featured in a Tower Site Calendar a few years ago.

Back then, it was Carter Broadcasting's WRIB, and the little building on a dead-end stub called Water Street across the water from downtown Providence was home to studios and offices for the leased-time ethnic station.

Since then, Carter has sold the station to an East Providence church, which kicked out the leased-time programmers, changed the calls to WSTL and moved the studios down I-195 to East Providence.

But the transmitter stayed out here, and WSTL recently added an AM-on-FM translator, W229AN (93.7), broadcasting from a single bay mounted on a short pole just to the left of the front door.

The old WRIB studios are still in place inside, though they don't see much use these days - and the little alcove across the hallway where the original Nautel transmitter sat a few years back is now home to a newer Nautel J1000 AM transmitter, with the W229AN Crown transmitter mounted just below. (There's also a lower-power transmitter to the left that is, or was, used for WSTL's minimal nighttime operation.)

And in the adjacent rooms that once held the WRIB offices, it's just empty space now...except for the little metal boat that the engineers use to get out to the transmitter, which sits on a tiny island in the middle of the river!

One more visit remains in this long day (and night) of Providence station-hunting: engineer Dave Doherty, who takes care of WSTL, has promised pizza for friends of NERW and Tower Site of the Week, over at the other station he maintains - WBRU (95.5), the commercial modern rocker that's operated by Brown University students through the Brown Broadcasting Company.

We'd been here before, too, during a college-radio convention two decades ago and again during a NERW get-together a decade or so later, and the basic layout of the studios in an old firehouse on Benevolent Street was unchanged: offices and a conference room downstairs, studios upstairs.

But there were some new developments here as well: updated processing and logging and automation in the rack room and new Radio Systems consoles in the newsroom and adjoining main studio.

It's still an awfully nice facility for a college station (a big-signalled commercial class B college station, mind you!), and it's nice to see independent radio alive and well at WBRU.

Thanks to Dave Doherty and Steve Callahan for the tours!

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