May 14, 2010

WNNX and WWWQ, Atlanta, 2009

There are some cities where it's our habit to visit in a leisurely fashion; later this summer, for instance, we'll be spending the better part of a week in Boston, mixing radio fun with some of our other hobby interests. Then there are cities that, for whatever reason, seem to prompt a rush of activity. Later this year here on Site of the Week, you'll see the results of a whirlwind two-day train trip from Rochester to Chicago last June to see that market's analog TV just days before it went away.

Another market that always seems to get jam-packed with activity for us is Atlanta. Maybe it has something to do with the often dirt-cheap plane tickets that make it easy for a quick getaway, or maybe it's something about the friendly radio folks who go out of their way to show off the market - but in any event, our February 2009 trip to Atlanta was another nonstop whirl of studios and transmitter sites, much like our last two-day visit back in 2004 (chronicled here and in three previous 2005 installments.)

Roddy Freeman, our indefatigable Atlanta tour guide (and proprietor of the Atlanta Airwave Action blog, which is well worth a read), helped to hook us up with lots of Atlanta engineers this trip, and that opened some doors we'd long hoped to peek through. Among Roddy's contacts in town was Tim Stephens, engineer for Cumulus' pair of FM stations in Atlanta - and he was kind enough to take us to all three of his sites.

We met up with Tim at what was then his backup site, the tall self-supporting tower at 1018 West Peachtree Street, just north of downtown Atlanta, that's best known for its analog TV occupant, the former WTBS-TV (Channel 17). We'll see much more of this site in next week's TV-focused Site of the Week installment, but for now we'll focus on the squat concrete-block bunker under the tower, where Tim had auxiliary transmitters for both his FM stations. WWWQ and WNNX had swapped callsigns and formats not long before our visit, with top-40 "Q100" WWWQ moving from the lower-powered 100.5 facility (licensed to suburban College Park) to the higher-powered Atlanta-licensed 99.7 signal. The WNNX calls moved from 99.7 to 100.5, with a format flip that replaced modern rock "99X" with active rock "Rock 100.5." In any event, the 99.7 transmitter here at the channel 17 site was half of the Continental 816 that used to be 99.7's main; 100.5 also had a low-powered aux. (This site has since been vacated with the impending removal of the tower; both stations have construction permits for new auxes at a TV tower off I-20 on the east side of Atlanta.)

But the auxiliary site was just an appetizer for our main course on this windy Atlanta morning: a trip all the way up to the roof of one of Atlanta's tallest buildings. The Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel rises 723 feet above ground, with the antenna mast on the roof adding another 113 feet for a total of 840 feet to the top. When it was completed in 1976, it was briefly the world's tallest hotel; it remained Atlanta's tallest building until 1987, and that made it a prime location for broadcasters.

At various times in its history, the mast on the Westin was used by FM stations WZGC (92.9) and WSTR (94.1) and by a UHF station, WVEU (Channel 69, now WUPA), which signed on from the Westin in 1981 as a subscription-TV operation.

With the coming of digital TV and the construction of taller buildings near the Westin, those stations moved away in later years. (We saw WSTR's current facility in last week's installment and we'll see WZGC's later in this week's; WUPA, unable to locate its DTV antenna on this tower, ended up moving to the same tower off I-20 where the new Cumulus aux transmitters are also located.)

With the big signals gone, the Westin became home to some smaller ones. The former WHMA-FM (100.5) in Anniston, Alabama, 90 miles west of Atlanta, had long been trying to move into the big city, and after several thwarted attempts it eventually ended up here, eventually upgrading to its present C2 facility. After WUPA's analog signal departed, 100.5 (now WNNX) installed a new four-bay ERI antenna on the former TV antenna at the top of the mast; the old 92.9/94.1 FM bays that were side-mounted on the mast are gone now, but you can see them in the photo from 2004 above left, and you can see the current look of the rooftop in the 2007 photo above right.

(We don't have any pretty pictures of the Westin from ground level from our 2009 trip; the hotel was - and is, even now - undergoing exterior renovations after a 2008 tornado damaged many of its windows, and the upper floors of the hotel were a patchwork of plywood and glass.)

Even if the fancy glass elevator up the side of the building were functioning, we wouldn't be riding it; instead, it's the service elevator for us, up past the hotel's 72 floors to the lower level of the roof, where we get a peek at the rail-mounted window-washing rig before heading inside the little warren of transmitter rooms. The old channel 69 space is empty now, as is the old 92.9 room, but the next room over is tightly packed with the 100.5 transmitters.

I believe that shiny new BE rig shown above left is the WNNX main transmitter, a combined analog-digital unit; facing it in the small Cumulus room up here is an older Harris that's now an aux transmitter for 100.5, sitting next to the rack of STL and processing gear.

And having seen the lower roof, we get to climb up the ladder to the small upper roof level where the mast sits. (There's plenty of other non-broadcast RF up here, too, plus two low-power TV stations; if I saw their antennas, I didn't make special note of them.)

It's too bad we're up here on a windy, hazy day with rain in the forecast; Tim says the view from up here is much more impressive when it's clear, but even in the haze it's still easy to pick out a whole bunch of Atlanta landmarks, broadcast and otherwise.

To the west, the Westin looks down on the Georgia state capital and the state government complex, with Turner Field just beyond. (Someday we'll make it to Atlanta during baseball season and finally take in a game there!)

Looking straight down from the north side, we can see the CNN Center complex - but the more interesting vista is out I-75/85 to the north. On the west side of the highway (on the left, as we look north), the Turner Broadcasting complex on Techwood Drive is clearly visible beyond the Georgia Tech campus; across the highway to the east, we can make out the famous Varsity Drive-In, and beyond that, in the haze, the Channel 17 tower still rises majestically.

Not shown here is the hazy view to the east, which takes in many of Atlanta's tall TV/FM towers, including our next destination, one of the market's newer tall towers and the current transmitter site of WWWQ (99.7) and several of its competitors, Richland Towers' "Atlanta Broadcast Facility."

This 1182-foot tower at 1800 Briarcliff Road NE, in the Druid Hills neighborhood northeast of downtown, went up in 2002 to help meet the growing need for space for digital TV and high-powered FMs.

It's in a neighborhood that already has several tall towers: another candelabra, home to the analog signals of WATL (Channel 36) and WGCL (Channel 46) and to Clear Channel's WUBL (94.9) and WKLS (96.1), sits just a few hundred feet away, and if you look carefully above the transmitter building in the photo above, you can see the tower of Fox's WAGA-TV (Channel 5) poking up as well.

This is a good example of what a modern, well-designed, multi-tenant broadcast site looks like. The building is enormous, with big suites for its TV tenants (at last count, those included My affiliate WATL's DTV signal on RF 25, WGCL's DTV on RF 19, and WPCH-DT on 20, the digital version of what used to be WTBS 17; we'll see that in more detail next week) as well as its radio tenants.

Those suites, nicely arranged in a row along one of the double-height hallways here, include CBS Radio's WZGC (92.9), shown above, with a backup transmitter as well for WVEE (103.3), whose main site is the New Street tower we showed you last week; Citadel's WKHX (101.5); and Cumulus, which has a nice room that's home to analog and digital transmitters for 99.7. That Continental 816 analog transmitter is half of the former main transmitter from the old channel 17 tower; the BE HD transmitter that sits across the room is, of course, somewhat newer.

The FMs all feed upstairs into the combiner room, where their analog and HD signals are combined and fed into the antenna high up on one of the tines of the candelabra more than a thousand feet in the air.

(Since our visit, another FM has been added to this site: W250BC, a translator licensed to suburban Riverdale, ended up in Cumulus' hands as part of a trade for a full-power signal elsewhere in Georgia; it's now running 250 watts from this tower as "99X," reviving the old modern-rock format that used to be on 99.7 and is now heard via WWWQ's HD2 and via the translator at 97.9.)

There's some low-power TV in the building here, too - but we'll check that out in next week's installment, when we dig deeper into Atlanta's TV landscape...

Thanks to Tim Stephens of Cumulus, Robert LaFore of CBS Radio and Roddy Freeman for the tours!

This Tower Site of the Week installment comes with audio over at, where you can hear a whole bunch of 2009 IDs from Atlanta - and in the meantime, we urge you not to 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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