December 18, 2009

WRCE 1490, Watkins Glen, NY, 1968-2009

(Originally published Sept. 19, 2008)

Welcome to our new season of Tower Site of the Week - and the latest in a series of TSoTW installments showcasing the images you'll find in the brand-new Tower Site Calendar 2010, arriving any day now in a mailbox near you.

(It's more than just pretty pictures and dates - the modest sum we raise from each year's calendar helps make possible the travel needed to make this feature happen every week on the website...and we're grateful for all your support! And on a scheduling note, we'll be off for the next couple of weeks here as we deal with some family issues and take some much needed time-off, but we'll return with a new Site of the Week January 8, 2010.)

This week, we actually take an unexpected turn back in time to Tower Site Calendar 2009, and an unfortunate one at that.

On Monday afternoon, Dec. 14, a crew was replacing the guy wires on the tower of WRCE, Watkins Glen, NY when the tower gave way. One worker, 46-year-old Dirk Remington of Clyde, NY, was about 50 feet up on the tower at the time, and he was killed as the tower came down.

We send our condolences to his family as we note the odd coincidence that the WRCE tower happened to be featured on the December 2009 calendar page - and we reprise the Tower Site installment in which we presented some history of the station last year:

This little station in the southern Finger Lakes marks its 40th anniversary this year, though not under its present calls or even frequency. It signed on in 1968 as WGMF, a 250-watt daytimer on 1500, and for its first quarter-century or so it was a fine little full-service voice for Schuyler County. (The calls stood for the county's two largest communities, Watkins Glen and Montour Falls.)

Your editor vividly recalls the WGMF of the late seventies and early eighties as the flagship station of a small network carrying racing from the Watkins Glen race track, just up County Road 16 from this site.

WGMF moved to 1490 in the late eighties, becoming a full-time operation with 400 watts, and it wasn't long after that when it (and its FM sister station, WNGZ 104.9 down the road in Montour Falls) became part of a larger cluster of stations based in Elmira, 25 miles away.

WGMF ended up simulcasting another station from that cluster, country WPGI (100.9 Horseheads), and changing calls to WTYX and then to WRCE. Today, it simulcasts WPGI during the week, then spends weekends carrying a mixture of NASCAR racing, simulcasts from yet another sister station, sports/talk WWLZ (820 Horseheads), and, yes, racing from the Glen.

So what was the rest of the Watkins Glen network back in the day? That would be the stations just up the road in Dundee - WFLR (1570) and WFLR-FM (95.9), broadcasting from a little house right in the center of the village of Dundee.

As we headed down to the Glen for some vintage racing action a couple of weekends ago, we captured WFLR in a moment of big transition. After 40 years as a class A FM signal in Dundee, WFLR-FM packed its bags just this past week and moved south, east and two channels down the dial, becoming WFIZ (95.5 Odessa) - but it's not interested as much in that very small Schuyler County village as in the much larger Ithaca market just to the east. As of Wednesday, WFIZ is now operating from Ithaca studios as "Z-95.5," the market's first top-40 station in many years.

What, then, of the sign on the WFLR lawn proclaiming, "WFLR is moving to 96.9?" That would be translator W245BL, which signed on a couple of months ago to relay WFLR(AM). The AM station, in turn, flipped from its news-talk format, picking up the country music that had been on the FM, thus turning "Country 95.9" into "Country 96.9 and 1570."

Yes, we're already contemplating a drive down to Ithaca to check out the new WFIZ facilities...stay tuned! (2009 update: We'll showcase those pictures in the new year...)

If you're driving from Rochester down to Dundee and Watkins Glen, you're probably going to pass through Geneva - and that city, 40 miles north of the Glen, has some deep connections to Dundee radio these days. In 2004, the Finger Lakes Radio Group bought WFLR and WFLR-FM, adding those stations to its cluster based at Geneva's oldest station, WGVA (1240). By then, the group also included a string of AMs across the northern Finger Lakes - WCGR (1550 Canandaigua), WSFW (1110 Seneca Falls) and WAUB (1590 Auburn) - and two FMs, AC WNYR (98.5 Waterloo) and classic rock "Wall" WLLW (99.3 Seneca Falls).

At various times, all of those AMs have been part of the "Finger Lakes News Network," simulcasting a roster of syndicated and local talk, with local news inserts for Dundee and Auburn. A few years ago, WSFW flipped to "The Finger Lakes Visitors Channel," with travel information for the region, and just a few months ago WCGR (now also heard on an FM translator, W283BF on 104.5) flipped to oldies, leaving only WGVA and WAUB (also heard on FM translator W251AJ at 98.1) as part of the network.

We still remember the WGVA building on Lenox Road as it appeared in the eighties, when it was home to just WGVA itself, with a big old-fashioned studio on the right side of the building. Today, that side of the building houses a hallway lined by studios - a little production room in the back for WSFW(AM), a larger studio next to it for the News Network, a newsroom next to that, and the WNYR studio at the end. Across the hall, a transmitter room houses WGVA's Energy-Onix transmitter and automation and STL gear for all the stations (they're using FMeXtra on the WNYR signal to feed several of the outlying AM stations from Geneva), and there's a studio for WLLW next to that.

Out back, that WGVA tower has been there since the station signed on in 1947; these days, it has an FM antenna on it, too, carrying Calvary Satellite Network translator W214BR (90.7). (2009 update: CSN is trading this translator to WGVA in exchange for WSFW, down the road in Seneca Falls, and we expect it to become a WGVA relay sometime in 2010.)

We'll come back to Geneva in a future installment to look at its other commercial FM, WFLK (101.7), whose tower is just down the road from WGVA - but we'll close out this installment with a visit to the city's noncommercial station.

WEOS (89.7) is the radio voice of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and it's grown considerably from its 1971 debut as a 10-watt class D signal broadcasting from the roof of a dorm building on campus. Today, it's a directional 4 kW signal from a tower in Stanley, N.Y., west of Geneva, and it holds a CP for a move to 89.5 and another power increase.

Back on campus, the transmitter site WEOS used before the move to Stanley is still in place at Winn-Stanley Gymnasium, with the four-bay WEOS antenna now being used by 88-watt translator W212BA (90.3), which fills in some coverage holes on campus. More recently, a two-bay antenna was added to the tower for LPFM WHWS-LP (105.7 Geneva), which is operated by the college as a student station (and, at least for now, as a Radio Bilingue outlet for Geneva's Latino community when the students aren't on the air.)

A short walk from Winn-Seeley brings us to the WEOS studios, which moved to this house on the edge of campus (facing Routes 5 & 20) in 1998. The main WEOS studio, Logitek console and all, is at the back of the building, facing another room that's used for talk programming and the occasional live performance. The WHWS-LP studio is in the front, behind that neon sign in the window, and there are offices upstairs.

As WEOS continues to grow - it has a CP for another signal down in Ithaca, WITH (90.1), and a pending application for a new signal on 90.3 in Auburn - it may eventually move to larger quarters; for now, though, this little house does a fine job of providing public radio and community programming to the Finger Lakes.

Thanks to Greg Cotterill, Mike Smith and Alan Bishop at Finger Lakes Radio Group and Mike Black and Aaron Read of WEOS for the tours!

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