October 22, 2010

Allentown, PA, 2009

Spend enough time chasing tower sites around the country, and eventually even the weirdest of coincidences will catch up with you.

Case in point: the image to the right, showing the five-tower site of WAEB (790) in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the morning after vandals reduced it, temporarily, to a four-tower site.

What are the odds that such an incident would happen on the very night dozens of DXers were converging on the Lehigh Valley for the annual National Radio Club/Worldwide TV-DX Association convention?

Pretty slim, I suppose...but there we all were, and there it was, and so it was that we ended up with an unusual horizontal-tower image, one that you'll find in Tower Site Calendar 2011, as a matter of fact. (Did we mention you can buy copies at the Fybush.com store?)

A year later, the downing of the WAEB tower remains an unsolved mystery (as does the more malicious destruction of the KRKO 1380 site out in Everett, Washington that very same night). Within a few months, Clear Channel's engineers had restored the WAEB site there in Whitehall Township, just north of Allentown off PA 145, is all back to normal - but it makes for a good excuse to take a little tour of most of the tower sites in the Lehigh Valley, as they appeared over Labor Day weekend last year.

A few more WAEB pictures, first: whoever it was that took the northernmost tower down must have been pretty lucky: unlike most guyed towers, this one came down in a straight line pointing west, and there's no evidence to suggest anyone was hurt or killed when the tower came down and all those guy wires that were sliced starting flailing around.

The WAEB site has been here in Whitehall Township since the late 1940s, originally serving as the night half of a two-site transmission system. Around 1990, WAEB shut down its old daytime array, located between Allentown and Bethlehem, moving the daytime signal up here, where it's now licensed with 3600 watts, dropping down to 1500 watts at night.

WAEB's Whitehall site was once the northern anchor of a whole string of AM sites stretching out along Route 145 just north of the US 22 expressway.

On the west side of the highway sat the directional array of Allentown's AM 1320, long known as WKAP - at least until the early nineties, when the land was sold off to become a Best Buy store, the towers came down and 1320 had to move elsewhere. (We'll see its destination in a moment!)

Across the road, three more towers still stand proudly on the east side of 145. Right in the parking lot of the Lehigh Valley Mall, next to the Kohl's store, we find WSAN (1470), part of the Clear Channel cluster that has its studios in the area as well, backing up to one of the 145/22 ramps almost within sight of the old 1320 location.

Our next stop turned out to be a stroke of luck: a group of conventioneers pulled up to the WHOL (1600) studio and transmitter site just south of downtown Allentown just as station owner Matt Braccili was also stopping by to take care of some weekend payroll work. That gave us a chance to peek inside Allentown's Spanish-language radio voice, whose "Hola" slogan came from the calls that have graced this facility since it signed on back in 1948.

Upstairs, there's a nicely-renovated new main air studio for "Hola," which is now also heard to the east on simulcaster WEST (1400 Easton), as well as a nicely-vintage production studio boasting a fine old Gates Stereo Statesman console. Downstairs, there's a venerable Gates phasor and a (somewhat) newer Harris SX-1A transmitter for WHOL.

But WHOL isn't the only station here these days: out at the two-tower array just north of the studio building, there's a newish building that's home to...AM 1320, which moved down here at reduced power (750 watts day, 195 watts nights) from one of these towers after losing its north-side site. 1320 is now WTKZ, part of a Nassau-owned ESPN simulcast with WEEX (1230) over in Easton, about which more in a moment. (And no, there's no truth to the rumor that Billy Joel is making an updated version of his hit song with new lyrics that start, "Well we're living here in Allentown/Where they tore the 1320 site down...")

From WHOL, we too head east, up into the hills south of Allentown and Bethlehem where we find most of the market's FM and TV signals. This is an unusual TV locale: the Lehigh Valley, briefly its own full-fledged all-UHF market in the fifties, became firmly embedded within the larger Philadelphia market as the Philly stations boosted their own VHF signals later in that decade. Only one of those early Us survived, sort of: WFMZ-TV was on channel 67 in the early years, went dark for two decades and later re-emerged with the same calls in 1976 as an independent station on channel 69.

Today, WFMZ programs a heavy diet of local news and sports for the Lehigh Valley and nearby Berks County, all emanating from studio and transmitter (RF channel 46) up on East Rock Road. This tower is also home to the rest of the Lehigh Valley's local TV service: PBS outlet WLVT (Channel 39) and religious WBPH (Channel 60/RF 9), both licensed to Bethlehem. And it holds antennas for several FM stations: Citadel's WLEV (100.7 Allentown, the former WFMZ-FM), public radio WDIY (88.1 Allentown) and religious WJCS (89.3 Bethlehem).

WLVT's studios are about two miles east of here at "123 Sesame Street," off Mountain Drive, at least for now; the station has plans to relocate to new studios in the redeveloped former Bethlehem Steel plant on that city's south side, sooner or later.

We didn't get to several other FM sites in the vicinity on our 2009 trip: WCTO (96.1 Bethlehem) is the former WLEV(FM), and it sits not far from WLVT at a site that was home to the old WLEV-TV (Channel 51), which struggled along from 1953 until 1957; east of WLVT's studios is the tower of Bethlehem-licensed WZZO (95.1), while up north in Bethlehem proper is WZZO's former AM sister station, nifty little daytimer WGPA (1100).

WCTO and WLEV have their studios in a nondescript office building off US 22 between Allentown and Bethlehem, around the corner from the Lehigh Valley International Airport.

We wrap up our jaunt around the Lehigh Valley with the stations of Easton, the last stop along I-78 and US 22 before they cross the Delaware River into New Jersey.

Up the hill north of quaint downtown Easton, around the bend on PA 115 past Lafayette College and its class D signal, WJRH (104.9), we come to a most historic site: the hilltop studio and transmitter site of Nassau's WEEX (1230) and WODE (99.9).

WEEX was the radio station of the Easton Express-Times, and it began on FM (initially at 98.3) in the forties while the newspaper fought to secure an AM channel. It eventually won that court battle, grabbing the 1230 frequency from nearby Allentown and forcing WHOL to slide from 1230 up to 1600.

Today, WEEX is half of an ESPN Radio simulcast with WTKZ (1320) over in Allentown, and it's a rare directional graveyarder, running 840 watts into two towers during the day before going up to the full 1000 non-directional watts at night.

As for WODE-FM, it's now classic rock "99.9 the Hawk," but once upon a time it was top-40 WQQQ, "Q100," and later WHXT, "Hot 99.9," where longtime friend-of-the-column Clarke Ingram hung his hat for a time, circa 1990.

And we wrap it up south of downtown Easton, where we find the vintage tower (a Lehigh tower, one suspects?) of WEST (1400), now the eastern Lehigh Valley simulcast of Allentown's WHOL (1600), backing right up to I-78 less than a mile before the highway plunges across the Delaware into New Jersey.

Want to puzzle visitors to the office with the only calendar page (so far) ever to feature a downed tower? Tower Site Calendar 2011 is now shipping, complete with the WAEB tower at the top of the page, ready for your home or office (or for a wonderful holiday gift for your colleagues or clients!)

Special thanks to Matt Braccili of WHOL/WEST for the tour!

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