January 8, 2010

Baltimore, Maryland, summer 2008 (part I)

Welcome to the first Tower Site of the Week of the new year - and the start of a multi-segment recap of a fun trip we took in the summer of 2008. The ostensible purpose of this particular week on the road was to take Ari, then not-quite-five, on a "daddy-daughter trip" to Washington to celebrate her brand-new status as a big sister, but in amidst the tourism we found time to squeeze in some radio as well, including several stops in a market that's never gotten its fair share of attention here: Charm City, Baltimore, Maryland.

My last radio visit to Baltimore was a decade ago, and it came in the form of just a brief swing through the cluster of AM sites that line I-795 in the Owings Mills area northwest of the city, followed by an even briefer jaunt up to TV Hill, the cluster of TV/FM towers just north of downtown Baltimore. That left another big chunk of the Baltimore broadcast landscape unvisited, and with the help of fellow tower hunter/DXer Bill Harms, we fixed that gap during a quick late-afternoon drive through Baltimore's east side.

Our trip began in a rundown neighborhood just north of downtown Baltimore, where we find a rooftop tower that's been in place for almost 70 years. WITH (1230) signed on from 1230 Curtain Avenue, just off Harford Road, back in 1941, and kept its original calls for most of its history, including a run as a top-40 powerhouse (to the extent a 250-watt station on a graveyard station can be a "powerhouse") in the fifties and sixties. In the nineties, WITH ended up as part of the Salem Broadcasting family, simulcasting talk and religion with Washington's WAVA, and more recently it was sold to another religious broadcaster, Peter and John Fellowship, which changed the calls to WRBS, making it a sister station to long-running Christian FM outlet WRBS-FM (95.1).

(Those FM bays on the AM tower date back to WITH's original FM sister on 104.3, now Clear Channel's WZFT, and are no longer in use.)

There was another distinctive AM about half a mile away from here for many years, but WWIN (1400) lost its longtime site in the parking lot of a shopping mall on Greenmount Avenue a few years back, and current owner Radio One moved it to a new site about a mile east of the 1230 tower, off East Monument Street in an industrial part of town near the tangle of highways that lead to the Fort McHenry and Baltimore Harbor tunnels. The new tower is also home to Radio One sister station WOLB (1010), which used to be at a different site east of downtown.

Our next stop moves us about a mile north and east to 5200 Moravia Road, home to a venerable daytimer - WBMD (750) - and to its own erstwhile FM sister station.

WBMD came on the air in 1947, joined in 1961 by what eventually became WBMD-FM (105.7 Catonsville), and by the seventies both stations were cooking, the FM with country music and the FM as progressive rocker WKTK. The FM station later went oldies as WQSR, and by the time we stopped by in 2008 it had become a CBS Radio-owned FM talker, using the WHFS calls made famous in Washington and Annapolis. (Just a few months later, 105.7 went all-sports as WJZ-FM, sharing those historic calls with CBS' Baltimore TV station, WJZ-TV 13; another CBS-owned AM station, the former WJFK 1300, became WJZ(AM) at the same time.) The AM station, meanwhile, ended up as a religious outlet, eventually being sold to Family Stations out of California.

The current tower at the Moravia Road site went up in the late eighties, dropping the AM station's power from 1000 to 730 watts and giving 105.7 some extra height in its co-channel battle with WQXA-FM in York, Pennsylvania, another class B signal on 105.7 just 47 miles to the north. (Talk about your short-spacings!)

The building at the Moravia Road site was the longtime studio home of WBMD and WKTK/WQSR, but CBS eventually consolidated the studios elsewhere, and by the time we visited the building appeared to be vacant.

It's only about a mile and a half east as the crow (or, this being Baltimore, the raven) flies to our next stop, the three-tower array of WBMD's sister station WBGR (860 Baltimore), but getting there by road is a bit more complicated, involving a twisted path under I-895, I-95 and I-695 (the Baltimore beltway) before arriving in an isolated little neighborhood called Chesaco Park, tucked in between the beltway and Back River.

At the end of Edgewater Avenue, the WBGR transmitter building sits next to a little cul-de-sac, and the three WBGR towers, putting out 2500 watts by day and 65 watts at night, stretch out in a line through the trees and into the swamps to the north. I'd show you the whole three-tower array, but I don't have a good picture of the entire site, and here's why: in the midst of taking these pictures, we were accosted (to put it politely) by one of the Chesaco Park neighbors, who was not at all happy to have an outsider in the neighborhood. She was convinced, for some reason, that I was taking pictures of her house (one hopes she's never heard of Google Street View), and she was determined to call the cops on us. Some things aren't worth arguing about, and daylight was running short anyway, so off we went to our next stop instead, way on the other side of Baltimore Harbor down in the southern suburb of Glen Burnie.

(Really need to see all three WBGR towers? No problem: Bill has a bunch of pictures over at his radiotowers.info site, taken on other visits to the site when the neighbors apparently weren't quite as vigilant...)

Our last stop on this excursion is a relative latecomer to the Baltimore AM dial. WISZ (1590 Glen Burnie) signed on in 1961, and was known for many years as WJRO before picking up a famous set of Charm City calls in 2004. The WFBR calls that now call 1590 home were in use for many decades on Baltimore's oldest AM station, the signal on 1300 that's now WJZ. This WFBR now belongs to Multicultural Broadcasting, which programs R&B oldies on the 1000-watt signal.

There are seven towers (and a small studio building) on this site, five of them used by day in a pattern with a big lobe aimed north at Baltimore, another aimed east across Chesapeake Bay and a smaller lobe aimed west toward BWI airport. At night, it's a four-tower array, aimed mostly north/south.

So what do all these stations sound like? Glad you asked - because this series of Site of the Week installments is once again accompanied by weekly ID updates over at our sister site, TopHour.com. Stop by on Wednesday, Jan. 13 for the first of two big batches of Bawlmer IDs...and in the meantime, don't miss your chance to grab one of the dwindling remaining stash of the all-new Tower Site Calendar 2010, just in time to fill that space on the wall where your 2009 edition once hung.

(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!)

Thanks to Bill Harms for the tours!

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