July 22, 2011

Provin Mountain (WWLP), Springfield, MA

One of the fun parts of traveling the world to visit transmitter sites hither and yon is the chance to travel with other tower buffs - and there are few as dedicated to the task as my friend Mike Fitzpatrick, proprietor of the fine collection of tower and antenna photos over at NECRAT.us.

Over the last few years, I've had the pleasure of traveling with Mike on several excursions that you'll soon see documented here on Tower Site of the Week - but before we launch into those later this summer, we'll spend a couple of weeks rectifying a big omission on the site.

This week's installment rectifies a particularly big omission: the very site where Mike got his start in big-time broadcast engineering. We're up on Provin Mountain, west of Springfield and about a dozen or so miles south of our previous visit, Mount Tom, along the same hilly ridge that rises up to the west of the Connecticut River.

Like Mount Tom, Provin has a long and distinguished broadcast history in the Springfield market: it was from this site that television came to the market on March 17, 1953, when William L. Putnam put WWLP-TV on the air on channel 61. The station started out as an NBC affiliate and has remained one to this day, though it soon moved down the dial to the rather better-received channel 22. And there it remained, with studios and transmitter site atop Provin Mountain and a solid #1 position in the ratings, for almost half a century.

Putnam sold the station in 1984, and it went through a series of owners before ending up in the hands of current owner LIN Television in 2001. And by then, its studios were no longer on Provin Mountain, having moved the year before to a new (and much more easily accessible) building just off I-391 in Chicopee.

But the WWLP transmitter stayed put at Provin, and we've had the opportunity to go beyond the well-secured gates at the base of the mountain and visit the site on several occasions during the DTV transition - and now to share it with you.

The old WWLP building was a classic example of "keep tacking it on" broadcast facility design: over the decades, it kept growing out and up as more space was needed, resulting in a charmingly tangled warren of half-stairways and small spaces that made it a unique place to work. At the front of the building was the newsroom, just beyond the main entrance, and just beyond it (behind the map wall that still survives a decade after the move-out) was the large main TV studio.

The control rooms were off to the side, a flight up, and they'd been renovated (apparently in the 1980s) into a fairly modern suite that included a master-control facility, a big rack of microwave links (including a microwave connection to Boston to share video with sister NBC outlets WBZ and later WHDH-TV there) and, off to the side, enclosed audio and video control rooms for WWLP's newscasts.

When DTV came to the mountain, the WWLP-DT transmitter (on VHF channel 11) also took up residence in the control-room area, since there wasn't really room in the main WWLP transmitter room, located behind the master control area and through a small engineering shop.

That analog transmitter was, of course, a Comark - as noted, that's the local brand in these parts, and in fact WWLP's site is the closest of all to the factory in Southwick that made transmitters under the Comark, Thomcast and Thales brand names over the years.

With the analog transmitter now silent and gone (and the DTV transmitter having moved into its old space), you'd think this would be a pretty big empty building, and you'd be partially right - except for some storage, there's been no real use made of most of the old office or control-room space here in over a decade. But even before WWLP's studios and offices moved away, there were other tenants here as well: yet another room added on to the building upstairs houses a variety of transmitters for various two-way radio operators and a handful of other broadcasters.

Saga's WAQY (102.1) was one of the first tenants up here, and its transmitters have long occupied the upstairs room. For a time, it was home to some lower-powered TV as well: W69AQ (Channel 69) operated here in the 1970s and 1980s to bring some additional sports programming (Red Sox and Bruins) into the market as a translator first of WRLP (Channel 32 in Greenfield, a former semi-satellite of WWLP) and then of Boston's WSBK after the demise of WRLP. Later on, WHTX-LP (Channel 43) broadcast from here as a Univision relay of Hartford's WUVN (Channel 18); it's now silent as well.

One more FM came along later: WPKX (97.9), licensed to Enfield, Connecticut and serving the Springfield market, eventually as part of Clear Channel's FM cluster here.

"Kix 97.9" started out from a transmitter in a corner of the upstairs room (you can see the equipment rack at the right side of the photo of the room above), but in recent years has moved into a new space of its own downstairs, just off the old newsroom. It won't be there long, though, since Clear Channel is working to move the 97.9 facility south into the Hartford market.

And that's pretty much it for the Provin Mountain facility these days - but before we leave the building to the many ghosts who prowl its stairwells and halls, we'll offer one more teaser: shown at right is the much more spacious new facility that WWLP occupied in 2000. This facility is especially notable for what LIN did here not long after taking over the station: in addition to housing WWLP itself, a big portion of the second floor is home to one of LIN's two regional operations hubs, where master-control operators run the programming for not only WWLP but its sister stations in Providence, New Haven/Hartford and Norfolk/Newport News, Virginia.

Thanks to Mike Fitzpatrick and WWLP CE Dave Cote for the tours!

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