June 17, 2011

Harrisburg, PA, 2009 (part I)

On the way home from the NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia in September 2009, we had the chance to spend some time catching up on some sites in central Pennsylvania that we'd long hoped to visit. Two weeks ago, we showed you some exterior shots from the Lancaster market - but that was just the start of a long Saturday of station visits in the region.

From Lancaster, we (your editor and fellow TopHour.com contributor Bill Harms) made our way north and west to Harrisburg, where we met up with a longtime friend of the column, Sam Michaels. Sam's an engineer at the Cumulus cluster in Harrisburg, and for the next few hours - and the next two installments of Site of the Week - we were in his company as we traveled around the market to see his widespread collection of AM and FM sites.

One of the sites we most wanted to see is one of the market's less accessible locations. It's easy to get to Tower Road on the west side of the Susquehanna River - it's easily reached by way of two exits off I-81 - and easy to see the six big WHP (580) towers on the east side of the road just south of the I-81 overpass. But the road keeps going north of the highway, too, and to get there requires a hilly drive past locked gates up the side of the Blue Mountain ridge.

Despite deteriorating weather, we were eager to see the ridge...and we got to see all of it, and so will you.

There are actually two ridgetop sites on opposite sides of the Susquehanna, and we started on the west side. Seen below left in a view from the WHP (580) site, it's evident that there are really three separate sites up here. On the left is the tower of one of Sam's stations, WNNK (104.1 Harrisburg); at center is ABC affiliate WHTM (Channel 27) and on the right is what's now a non-broadcast site - but one with a long and fascinating early UHF history.

That quonset hut at that third site is the original home of WCMB-TV, which operated on channel 27 from 1954 until 1957 as the television sister of WCMB (1460). WCMB-TV was a DuMont affiliate, and the end of that network pretty much spelled the end of the station, too: unable to survive as an independent station, WCMB went dark - but channel 27 lived on, and that brings us to the middle tower here.

That site, with its big brick transmitter building, was the first one up here on this side of the ridge. It signed on in 1953 as WTPA-TV on channel 71, using the short tower that still stands here. Unsurprisingly, channel 71 was a lousy spot for a TV station, and WCMB-TV's struggles gave WTPA a chance to improve its lot in life: it bought channel 27 from WCMB, took down the tower next to the quonset hut, moved the channel 27 antenna and transmitter up the hill to its own site, and shut down channel 71 for good.

Not long after making the move, WTPA put up a new tower (originally 400', now 613') and new antenna here, and settled into a long life as the market's ABC affiliate. (Since the start of DTV, it's now on RF channel 10.)

WTPA also launched an FM outlet on 104.1, now WNNK - and the space that WNNK used to occupy in the WTPA/WHTM building is now occupied by Clear Channel's WRBT (94.9), operating from a four-bay antenna fairly low down on the main WHTM tower.

As for WTPA-FM/WNNK, it split off from the TV station to go its own way in the eighties. It's now just up the hill from the WHTM site, with its own small building and tower constructed in 1987. This site is also home to a second FM facility: translator W237DE (95.3) was the very first signal we know of to use an HD2 subchannel as its program feed, carrying a syndicated R&B format ("The Touch") that's also heard on WNNK's 104.1-HD2 channel.

After seeing the sites west of the river, we crossed to the east and once again headed uphill, where a different "Tower Road" leads up to another venerable TV/FM site. WHP-TV signed on from here in 1953 on channel 55, moving down the dial to channel 21 in 1957. That's where it remains today as the market's CBS affiliate, but it's far from alone now up here. The former WHP-FM (97.3) is now Clear Channel's WRVV, "the River," and the site is also home to two public broadcasters, PBS outlet WITF-TV (Channel 33/RF 36) and its sister radio outlet, WITF (89.5).

We didn't get any tours up here in the rain (we'll have to come back another time and connect with some of the Clear Channel and WITF engineering folks), but back in Sam's capable hands and four-wheel-drive vehicle, we continued east to another interesting hilltop site.

If you could drive straight east along the Blue Mountain ridge, it would be about a dozen miles from the WHP-TV/WRVV/WITF site to the WWKL (92.1 Palmyra) facility. In real life, it's closer to a half-hour trip back down into the valley, up I-81 and off a series of ever-narrower roads to the spot on the ridge where WWKL has been located since 2006.

Moving up here transformed what's now "Hot 92.1" from a rimshot into a fairly credible Harrisburg-market signal, running 1.5 kW/600' with nice line-of-sight from this spot more than a thousand feet above sea level. It;s a great little site, with analog and HD transmitters and a clean new transmitter building and tower.

And we're still not done visiting Sam's sites: in next week's installment, there's one more hilltop FM on the south side of Harrisburg, as well as a most unusual AM and a bunch of studios.

Join us again next week to see those - and in the meantime, don't miss the chance to hear the legal IDs Bill and I were collecting in and around Harrisburg. They're over at our sister site, TopHour.com, with more to come over the next couple of weeks!

Thanks to Cumulus' Sam Michaels for the tours and Dave Supplee for historical information!

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