June 12-19, 2002

An Afternoon in Huntsville, Alabama

If you're looking to see an entire radio market in just a couple of hours, you could come visit my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. - or you could do what we did one Sunday in early March, and check out the sites in Alabama's Space City, Huntsville.

In the space of less than two hours, we saw most of what this interesting little city has to offer - and now we're sharing it with you!

We approached Huntsville from the south (coming up I-65 from Birmingham, then turning east on I-565 at Decatur, whose three little AMs we didn't bother with this trip), and after passing the big rocket that announces Huntsville from the highway, we immediately shot through downtown and up the twisty US 431 highway to Monte Sano, the big hill that sits east of Huntsville and is home to most of the city's TV.

Before we even made the turn to Monte Sano Boulevard, we saw the immensely tall stick of Huntsville's NBC station, WAFF (Channel 48), behind a big gate and down a little driveway along the southern slope of the mountain. The FCC actually lacks a record showing how high above ground this tower stands, but extrapolating from the WAFF-DT (Channel 49) records shows that we're dealing with more than 450 meters of steel here.

Turning left on Monte Sano Boulevard, we're soon greeted by a hilltop crowned with several tall towers and a bunch of shorter ones, not all of them for broadcast.

Shown at right is the easternmost of the big ones, down a short side road from the boulevard. This stick is home to Alabama Public Television's WHIQ (Channel 25) and WHIQ-DT (Channel 24), as well as some Huntsville public school microwave facilities, it seems.

Back on Monte Sano Boulevard, the studios of ABC affiliate WAAY-TV (Channel 31 - and yes, this is an all-UHF market, in the distinguished company of the South Bends and Fresnos and Lexingtons and Yakimas of the world!) occupy an undistinguished concrete-block bunker at the base of the tall Channel 31 tower and a shorter tower that's crowned by 31's weather radar.

The WAAY calls have a distinguished history in the market; they were on radio for decades at the 1550 spot on the dial, as Huntsville's big AM top-40 voice well into the early eighties.

WAAY radio eventually went dark and lost its daytime transmitter (and studio) site on Memorial Parkway in the heart of town, and 1550 later returned with a less-stellar signal from a site far to the north of town that was originally used only for a very directional night signal on 1550. It's now WLOR, doing R&B - and has no relation at all to WAAY-TV. The TV station does operate an Internet service provider, which explains why many Huntsvillians have addresses that end in "hiWaay.net."

WAAY's tower also has the only full-power FM facility on the mountain, oldies WXQW (94.1). There are also seven FM translators either licensed or with CP status for the various towers in and around the WAAY property. (The rest of Huntsville's FM is up on Drake Mountain northwest of town - or licensed to other communities in the Huntsville-Decatur-Athens market triangle that stretches east and south for some 25 miles.)

Next door to WAAY is the transmitter of Huntsville's CBS affiliate, WHNT-TV (Channel 19), owned by the New York Times. This is another tall tower with a shorter radar tower next door - and you've got to love the very old lettering on those satellite dishes in front of the transmitter shack!

But let's head back down the mountain for now and see what downtown Huntsville has to offer on this late Sunday afternoon, shall we?

Memorial Parkway is a divided highway that runs north and south through town, carrying plenty of broadcast properties even in the absence of the WAAY radio facility that used to sit here. We get there by way of Governors Drive, one of the east-west arterials - and just a block or so from the Memorial Parkway overpass, we find the single tower of Clear Channel talker WBHP (1230) and the former studio building for it and country WDRM (102.1), which now make their studio homes over in Decatur, where WBHP simulcasts with WHOS (800).

Just north of I-565 is a former bank building (complete with a drive-thru window!) that now houses studios for WAHR (99.1), WRTT (95.1) and WLOR (1550). Keep going north on Memorial and you're into TV territory. On one side of the street, in a landscape filled with shopping malls and retail sprawl, is the WAFF studio; on the other is the studio of Fox affiliate WZDX (Channel 54, with a tower south of Monte Sano that we never did get to.)

WAAY radio was just north of here, but we turn east instead, on Holmes Avenue toward downtown. A few blocks away sits what's probably the nicest TV studio facility in town, that of CBS affiliate WHNT.

Downtown itself is nothing much to write home about, and we don't even bother with the other station on Holmes, classic country WTKI (1450), which later changed to advice-talk WHOH ("Heart of Huntsville" or something like that.)

Instead, we head for the northwest corner of the city, looking for the last two AM stations in town. WEUP (1600) was already familiar to us through airchecks of its urban format, complete (back in the day, anyway) with shouts of "we-UP!"

Today, WEUP has sprouted a mini-media empire, with the AM side simulcast on expanded-band WEUV (1600) and outlying WHIY (1190 Moulton) and a harder-edged urban format now playing on two rimshot FMs, WEUP-FM (103.1 Moulton) and WEUZ (92.1 Minor Hill TN) - and it comes out of a distinctly funky 50s-style building up on Jordan Lane, aka Alabama 53.

Yes, that's seven towers for the 5000 watts, day and night, of WEUP's gospel 1600 signal! Only one of them is needed for WEUV's 10 kilowatts by day, 1 kilowatt at night. Perhaps you've heard it?

Keep going on Jordan Lane, as we did, and turn east on Stringfield Road and you'll come to three towers of daytimer WDJL (1000), which now does gospel but once challenged WAAY for the top-40 crown under the calls WTAK. (The calls live on at Clear Channel classic rocker WTAK-FM, 106.1 in nearby Hartselle...)

Continue down Stringfield, turn left on Pulaski Pike and then left again on Drake Mountain road and you'll end up on a plateau overlooking town, amidst farmland and dirt roads and several FM towers. One carries country giant WDRM (102.1), another is home to AC "Star 99" WAHR (99.1) and Bible Broadcasting's WYFD (91.7, licensed to Decatur).

(Also in town, though we didn't get to its studios and transmitter at Alabama A&M University, is a well-known set of New England calls. WJAB, late of Portland, Maine, is now on 90.9 in Huntsville doing jazz and blues for the public radio crowd, which it shares with Alabama Public Broadcasting's WLRH, 89.3 from the University of Alabama-Huntsville.)

Just 90 minutes or so after we started the tour, we were done - and off to meet fellow DXer Tim Hendel for dinner!

We spent the night in Athens, about 20 miles west of Huntsville (far out of range of most of the Huntsville AMs, thanks to the hideously poor ground conductivity hereabouts, and even a tough listen for the Decatur AMs a few miles closer in to the south), watching the local news on 19, 31 and 48 and checking out the rest of the market's TV dial, which consists of Florence-licensed WHDQ (Channel 15), now doing UPN but formerly an NBC affiliate as WOWL-TV (and doing no local news, save for a morning talk show) and LPTVs WTZT (Channel 11) and WYAM (Channel 56).

Both LPs do a fair amount of local programming; WYAM is co-owned with WYAM (890) down in Hartselle, south of Decatur, and simulcasts a morning talk show in addition to some very low-budget local infomercials, while WTZT is part of the radio family that includes talk WVNN (770 Athens), sports WUMP (730 Madison, on the original WVNN facility), country WUSX (93.3 Tullahoma TN) and top-40 giant WZYP (104.3 Athens).

WZYP's morning show gets a simulcast for several hours on WTZT-LP, from a dank gray-walled studio somewhere in that brick building across from our hotel on US 72 near the I-65 interchange.

On our way back up to Nashville Monday morning, we made one stop, right on the Alabama-Tennesee line. WSLV (1110) is licensed to Ardmore, Tennessee - but we took this picture from Ardmore, Alabama! The classic country daytimer parks its studio, its old blue pickup truck and its single tower right on State Line Road, you see...

From here, it was back over to I-65 and 90 minutes or so north to Nashville...and if you come back next Wednesday, you can see what else (in addition to WSM) the Music City has to offer the discerning tower hunter!