March 5, 2010

State College, PA, 2001 and 2008

There aren't many big college towns as far off the beaten path as State College, Pennsylvania. Until I-99 was completed a few years back, any approach to State College required a lot of two-lane driving, either north from Altoona or south from what's already a pretty remote part of I-80. (Ironic, too, since the site of State College was supposedly chosen in part because it's near the geographic center of the state; too bad most of the population of Pennsylvania is clustered at the corners!)

As it happened, our last pass through "Happy Valley" came in the fall of 2008, just as the last stretch of I-99 between I-80 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike was being opened to traffic. We were on the way to the National Radio Club convention in Pittsburgh, and State College was an interesting place to stop on the way down from Rochester...or at least it would have been if the weather hadn't been gray and rainy, soaking the minor-league baseball game (State College Spikes) we'd set out to see and dampening the pictures the next morning, too.

But at least for now, these studio pictures - along with some tower photos from another rainy-day pass through the area back in 2001 - are all we've got, so let's head out and see what State College broadcasting has to offer, shall we?

While Penn State's history goes all the way back to the 1850s, there's only been radio here since 1945, when WMAJ signed on at 1450. While surrounding towns got AM stations in the fifties (WBLF in nearby Bellefonte in 1958, as a daytimer on 1330; WPHB in Phillipsburg in 1956, as a daytimer on 1260), the little graveyarder had State College pretty much to itself until 1961, when a second AM came to town. WRSC was a 500-watt daytimer at 1390 back then, transmitting from a site on Clearview Avenue, and it remained a daytimer into the late 1980s, when it built a new three-tower array on the southwestern edge of town and powered up to 2000 watts days, 1000 watts at night.

FM was relatively late coming to town: Penn State signed on a 10-watt station, WDFM (91.1) in 1953, but the first commercial FMs didn't arrive until the 1960s. WMAJ-FM signed on in 1965 at 103.1, eventually changing calls to WXLR and then WBHV ("Beaver 103," inheriting the top-40 mantle from its AM sister), while WRSC-FM came along in 1969 at 96.7, soon taking new calls WQWK.

The explosion of the FM dial in the eighties and into the nineties brought many more signals to town. WGMR (101.1), while licensed to nearby Tyrone, served State College and vicinity from a nearby mountain ridge. WZWW (95.3) signed on in the mid-eighties, licensed to Bellefonte, and more drop-in FMs followed over the next decade or so on 93.7 in Boalsburg, 94.5 in State College, 98.7 in Pleasant Gap (moved in from Mill Hall, near Lock Haven to the north), 99.5 in Centre Hall (moved north from Mount Union), 105.9 in Phillipsburg (initially WPHB-FM, a sister to 1260) and 107.9 in Port Matilda. On the low end of the FM dial, WDFM became public radio WPSU on 91.5, upgrading to a full class B signal; it was later joined by several religious stations and a new Penn State student station, WKPS (90.7).

By the time we came back to town in 2008, nearly all of those commercial signals had settled out under just a handful of owners, with a slew of call and format changes along the way.

Forever Broadcasting was (and is) the biggest operator in town, with a fairly new studio complex in an office park on the south side of town housing a cluster that by then included both State College AMs and three FMs.

In 2008, the roster included news-talk WRSC (1390), sports WMAJ (1450), classic rock "Bus" WBUS (93.7 Boalsburg), adult hits "Majic" WMAJ-FM (99.5 Centre Hall), country "Froggy" WFGE (101.1 Tyrone, the longtime WGMR) and rocker "Qwik Rock" WQWK (103.1 State College), the WQWK calls and format having been kicked up the dial in 2006 from their longtime home on the old WRSC-FM.

Another call/format shuffle in 2009 moved WRSC's news-talk to 103.1 (which, ironically, thus became WRSC-FM), while 1390 adopted a progressive/advice talk format and the WQWK calls were parked on the sports station at 1450, changing that station's calls for the first time in more than half a century on the air.

In the process of assembling its cluster, Forever ended up spinning off several stations to a new company, 2510 Licenses, which took up residence in the former WRSC studio building (and former WRSC transmitter site) on West Clearview Avenue. That 2510 cluster includes three FMs: WBHV (94.5 State College), which inherited the old 103.1 calls and top-40 format as "B94.5"; oldies WOWY (97.1 University Park), the longtime WQWK and original WRSC-FM; and a new acquisition in the summer of 2008, soft AC "Wish" WWSH (98.7 Pleasant Gap), which had been "Froggy" WSGY until Forever spun it off to acquire the bigger 101.1 signal.

WZWW ("3WZ") is the biggest of the remaining independent stations, operating from studios north of State College near the mall.

Magnum Broadcasting has three signals in the market: Phillipsburg's WPHB (1260), Bellefonte's WBLF (which long ago moved from 1330 to 970) and the Phillipsburg FM on 105.9, which was country/rock hybrid "Joe FM" WJOW in 2008, but has since picked up the venerable "Qwik Rock" nickname and format and changed calls to WQCK.

There's also now a K-Love presence in the market; in 2006, EMF bought the Port Matilda 107.9 from 2510 Licenses (it had been top-40 WJHT, "Hot 107.9") and flipped it to WKVB.

The market's FM signals mostly emanate from the ridges on either side of State College. WPSU-FM (91.5), WFGE (101.1) and WKVB (107.9) are up on Bald Eagle Mountain, above I-99 to the northwest of State College. Family Stations' WXFR (88.3) and religious WTLR (89.9) are on a ridge west of Bellefonte, near WZWW (95.3) and WBHV (94.5). Forever's signals on 93.7, 99.5 and 103.1 all come from a tower east of State College, near Boalsburg. And as befits the erstwhile WRSC-FM, WOWY (97.1) still calls one of the three WRSC (1390) towers home.

We still haven't made it to those FM sites - but on our 2001 visit, we shot pictures of all three of the State College-area AM sites. Back then, 103.1 was still transmitting from the WMAJ (1450) tower that overlooks Route 26 near the Penn State campus, on the north side of State College. You can just see the 97.1 antenna bay on the most distant of those three AM towers. And back then, if memory serves, WBLF on 970 was simulcasting WRSC.

We'll have to get back through State College at some point in the next year or two to chronicle the more recent changes here, and maybe get some better pictures, too; in the meantime, you can hear a pile of 2008 State College IDs starting March 10 on our sister website,

We're also looking for a new scanner to replace our aging HP, which is no longer doing justice to our pre-2004 film images; if you've got one you're not using and would like to see it go to a good cause, drop us a line, won't you?

One more note: 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!)

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