June 24, 2011

Harrisburg, PA, 2009 (part II)

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. Last week, we showed you the first half of a rainy Saturday afternoon visiting studio and tower sites (mostly Cumulus-owned) in Harrisburg, and this week we finish up the tours.

The center of gravity of Harrisburg radio, at least where studios are concerned, has shifted north in recent years: two of the biggest commercial clusters in town, Clear Channel's 2 AM/2 FM group and Cumulus' 1 AM/3 FM group, both operate from buildings in suburban office parks near the Progress Avenue/I-81 interchange.

We didn't get inside the Clear Channel facility, but we did get to see Cumulus, where there's a nice pod of studios providing space for the three big FMs here (hot AC WNNK 104.1, classic rock WTPA 93.5 and rhythmic top-40 WWKL 92.1) and another studio that can be used by sports WHGB (1400) or the "Touch" R&B signal that airs on WNNK's HD2 and translator W237DE (95.3).

(There's change coming to this facility, what with Cumulus' acquisition of Citadel, which operates its own cluster from studios across town in Camp Hill, overlooking the I-581/US 11 junction; Cumulus is expected to shed the 92.1 signal and Citadel's Carlisle-licensed WCAT-FM 102.3 as it merges the rest of the cluster in with the Cumulus stations here.)

Before Progress Avenue became the site of so many stations's studios, there was plenty of radio emanating from Hoffman Street/North 6th Street on the north side of Harrisburg. That was where two Harrisburg TV stations established their studios early on: WHP-TV (Channel 55, later channel 21) on the west side of the street and WTPA-TV (channel 71, later channel 27, now WHTM) on the east side of the street. WHP (580) and WHP-FM (97.3, now WRVV) were co-located with WHP-TV, while WTPA-FM (104.1) was co-located with WTPA-TV; in later years, 104.1, now WNNK, operated from another studio facility nearby before moving up to the current Vartan Way cluster studios. Today, it's all TV here - CBS affiliate WHP-TV and its sister station, CW affiliate WLYH (Channel 15) on the west side, ABC affiliate WHTM on the east side.

Even with the rain getting heavier, we were determined to see two more of Sam's sites before heading out of Harrisburg (our final destination on this long Saturday was three hours away in Binghamton at the biennial Binghamton Radio Reunion, which will be held again in just a few months' time.)

First up is Cumulus' lone AM in the market, a truly funky site indeed.

WHGB (1400) started out as a downtown rooftop station, running 250 watts from the roof of the Blackstone Building on Market Street. Its initial callsign quickly gave way to a more famous one - WFEC - and it was that callsign that all but defined top-40 radio in Pennsylvania's capital city in the sixties and seventies.

By the late 1970s, 1400 was on the move: in 1978, it relocated to a site next to a residential neighborhood on the east bank of the Susquehanna River, just south of the bridge where I-83 now crosses the river.

The important thing to know about 1400's new site is this: it floods. The homes that once lined the approach to the transmitter site here are gone now, leaving behind a floodplain and a lonely AM tower and transmitter building...elevated high above the ground on concrete piers to keep them safe when the water starts rising.

What's up the stairs and in the building? An ITA 1000A that moved over from the old rooftop site, a big beast of a vintage Gates that came out of former sister station WPAZ down in Pottstown to replace a McMartin here, and a newer Continental that's now the main. (Oh, and a few words about more recent history: WFEC ended up as a sister station to the former WTPA-FM, and for a time in the 1980s the two stations were simulcasting as WNNK-AM/FM. The AM later went R&B as WTCY, "The Touch" - and found a place in history when it became one of the the first AM station to use an FM translator, W237DE on 95.3. And then Cumulus was the very first to figure out that the translator could get the "Touch" format from an HD2 subchannel, freeing up 1400 to go back to its original WHGB calls, now as an ESPN Radio affiliate after a brief "Touch" trimulcast on 1400, 95.3 and 104.1-HD2.)

There used to be another AM site in the path of the mighty Susquehanna's floodwaters, but WKBO (1230) didn't stay long on City Island, in the middle of the river, where it relocated in 1973 from its original home atop the Penn Harris Hotel downtown. In 1996, WKBO left its elevated site on City Island in favor of a new spot on higher ground on the east side of town; we didn't see it this trip but will have to catch up with it one day soon.

The rain also kept us from getting a decent picture of one of Harrisburg's newer FM sites. Clear Channel's WHKF (99.3) started out as WCMB-FM, and for most of its existence it transmitted from one tower of the WCMB (1460) array in Wormleysburg, on the west side of the Susquehanna. Those towers came down in 2001, when the site was redeveloped, and now 99.3 transmits from a tower in the Frogtown area, just southwest of the I-83/Pennsylvania Turnpike juncture. (1460, now WTKT, ended up at a temporary site for a few years before building a new site of its own near the big array of sister station WHP 580; you can see that site in this Tower Site installment from 2010, and you can see oodles of WCMB history, including copious documentation of the Wormleysburg site, at Tim Portzline's excellent Harrisburg Radio/TV site, soon to spawn a book of its own!)

That site is less than a mile from the last site on our Cumulus Harrisburg travel agenda: WTPA (93.5 Mechanicsburg), the classic rocker that inherited the old calls from 104.1 and channel 27, transmits from a guyed tower off Fishing Creek Road, and it's up on the hill there that we end our day, in the tidy hilltop structure that houses Harris HD and analog transmitters.

And that does it, for now, for our pictures of Harrisburg (though there's much to get back here to see in sunnier weather, including the new studios of public broadcaster WITF-TV/FM). But there's audio, too: don't miss the chance to hear the legal IDs Bill Harms and I were collecting in and around Harrisburg over at our sister site, TopHour.com!

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

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