March 19, 2010

A Smattering of Steel City Sites

When we left off at the end of last week's installment of images from our trip to Pittsburgh for the 2008 National Radio Club convention, we were in the Fineview neighborhood north of downtown, visiting the brand-new studios of WPXI-TV (Channel 11). They don't call the place "Fineview" for nothing - from the front lawn at WPXI, there's a fantastic view of two of the city's most prominent TV towers, straddling I-279 (the "Parkway North") to the east and west.

To the west is the tower of CBS' KDKA-TV (Channel 2/RF 25), which is also home to WDVE (102.5) and more recently to WXDX (105.9), occupying the space near the top of the tower (that four-bay antenna) that used to belong to the old KDKA-FM (92.9, now WLTJ and operating from a different site). With the end of analog TV a few months after our 2008 visit, KDKA's CW sister station WPCW (Channel 19/RF 11) finally completed its long migration from Johnstown west to Pittsburgh, taking its place on this tower - and on WPXI's old analog RF channel, too!

The current KDKA-TV tower dates from the mid-fifties, following a 1955 windstorm that severely damaged the original 500-foot self-supporter at this site. That tower has been cut down to just a stub, and can be seen at left, where it now supports auxiliary FM antennas and KDKA-TV's weather radar.

The 1955 storm also ended the brief run of one of Pittsburgh's early UHF stations. WENS-TV (Channel 16) operated from Ivory Avenue, just east of the KDKA-TV site and just down the road from WPXI's new Fineview location, and it never recovered from the loss of its tower. The channel - and the transmitter, if I'm not mistaken - ended up in the hands of Pittsburgh's new educational TV station, WQED-TV (Channel 13), which reactivated it as WQEX in 1959, operating from the WQED site in the Oakland neighborhood east of downtown Pittsburgh. WENS moved to channel 22, at least on paper, but never saw air again. Neither did another short-lived Pittsburgh UHF station, WKJF-TV (Channel 53), which operated from 1953-55 from Grandview Heights, just south of downtown.

In 1969, all those threads pulled together when a new independent station arrived on the airwaves. WPGH operated on WKJF's old channel 53, transmitting from the old WENS building (and a new 730-foot tower) at the Ivory Avenue site. It eventually ended up as a Fox affiliate, part of a Sinclair duopoly with Pittsburgh's other ex-indie, WPTT (Channel 22). When WPTT came on the air in the late 1970s, spacing issues with adjacent-channel WFMJ-TV (Channel 21) in Youngstown, Ohio forced the use of a tower far to the east of Pittsburgh in Monroeville, but the move to DTV (with WPGH on RF 43 and WPTT, now My affiliate WPMY, on RF 42) allowed both stations to co-locate on the Ivory Avenue tower, newly topped with a "goalpost" to hold both antennas.

This is also where 92.9 ended up; now WLTJ, it transmits from a panel antenna just below the "goalpost."

As for WPXI, it came on the air in 1957 (as WIIC-TV) from "Television Hill," a couple of miles south of the KDKA-TV site. Its 847-foot tower was still standing when we drove up there just over half a century later - but the building next to it was in the process of being demolished, removing several studio and office additions and leaving behind only the original transmitter structure.

There were two more radio-related stops on the itinerary before we got to our final tour on this trip, the KDKA 1020 site that we featured on Site of the Week last fall.

One was a quick visit to the site then under construction for WJAS (1320 Pittsburgh), which was in the process of being moved from its longtime site near the Squirrel Hill tunnel to a new three-tower site near Highland Park, on the south shore of the Allegheny River northeast of downtown. Two towers and the transmitter shed were up when we pulled up at the location in an industrial area near the VA hospital; a year and a half later, WJAS has still yet to be licensed at the new site.

And for our final bit of Pittsburgh history this time around, we go all the way back to the very, very beginning. Thanks to the nice folks at the Heinz History Center, we were able to get a look at one of the items they had in storage: the "original" KDKA transmitter from that fateful night back in November 1920 when "America's first radio station" went on the air.

Those quotation marks are both very deliberate: this transmitter is actually a replica assembled in the early thirties once Westinghouse realized that they probably shouldn't have cannibalized the original KDKA transmitter for parts; it's said to include many of those original parts, gathered back up once their historical value became clearer. And of course there are plenty of other claimants to that "first radio station" title, many with excellent pedigrees that clearly demonstrate they were doing everything KDKA did, long before November 2, 1920. What KDKA did do - as we'll all learn again when the 90th anniversary rolls around this fall - was to pull the publicity together to begin transforming radio from a hobby to a business, and it deserves plenty of credit for that accomplishment.

We'll get back to Pittsburgh again sometime soon (maybe even this spring) to see more of the Steel City's sights - and in the meantime, we invite you to stop by beginning Wednesday, March 24 to hear more of the station IDs we collected as we spun around the Pittsburgh radio dial in 2008...and 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!)

- Find out when the new Tower Site is posted, and much more! Follow us on Twitter @NERadioWatch -