July 24 - August 14, 2002
Booth Hill, Trumbull, Connecticut
What's the most historic FM site in the state of Connecticut? No question about it, that would be West Peak in Meriden, one of the sites where FM radio in the U.S. began more than sixty years ago.
But what's the second most historic FM and TVsite in the state? An excellent case can be made for the site shown at right, the "Hi-Ho Tower" on Booth Hill Road in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Booth Hill went on the air in 1953, carrying one of the first commercial UHF stations in the country: WICC-TV, channel 43, licensed to nearby Bridgeport. In an era when the TV signals from New York, New Haven and Hartford weren't as strong as they are now (and receivers far less sensitive), broadcasters hoped that UHF might allow for the creation of new TV markets in places like Bridgeport.
So it was that WICC-TV first took to the airwaves in March 1953. It was the second UHF station in the state, just behind WKNB-TV (Channel 30) up in New Britain. WICC-TV affiliated with ABC and DuMont, and took advantage of the programming already running on WICC (600), its sister radio station, including popular variety show host Bob Crane. (Yep - the same Bob Crane who would later star in Hogan's Heroes...)
WICC-TV spared little expense getting on the air from Booth Hill; in addition to ordering a nice tall tower from Blaw-Knox in Pittsburgh, the station built a new studio facility for both TV and radio at the base of the tower. Surviving blueprints show that the TV transmitter and master control took up about a third of the building, filling the northwest corner, closest to the tower. A studio to be shared by radio and TV, as well as a smaller radio booth, lined the east side of the building (facing the parking lot), with sales and general offices at the south end of the building near the entrance.
WICC-TV was listed in the New York TV Guide, and it tried hard to promote itself, even sending one announcer to the streets of Manhattan with a robot (the robot was arrested, according to the WICC-TV history at Peter George's excellent UHF Morgue site); alas, in those early days of UHF, almost nobody knew the station existed, even if they had a UHF antenna and converter for their TV sets.
How few people were watching? In 1960, the station announced, on the air, that it would pay $100 to the first person who called to say they were watching. The phone rather conspicuously failed to ring, and by December 1960, WICC-TV was history. A fire a few months later severely damaged the building, and WICC radio moved its studios elsewhere.
(An interesting bit of trivia, though: while WICC's studios were still up on the hill, a young would-be DJ named Dan Ingram came here for a job interview and, soon, his first big radio gig. The rest was history.)
Booth Hill didn't go silent after the end of Channel 43, though, for in October 1960 the owners of WICC put a new FM facility on the air from this tower. WJZZ, at 99.9, played nothing but jazz, under the more than able guidance of music director Dave Brubeck and his staff. WJZZ kept playing jazz until 1969, when new owners Nassau Broadcasting flipped it to an adult contemporary format as WPSB; a decade later, 99.9 would become WEZN, the same calls it uses today (albeit with a "-FM" suffix since the late nineties.) Today, WEZN-FM is better known to southern Connecticut and Long Island listeners as "Star 99.9," a hot AC station that's perenially a market leader.
99.9 soon had company up on Booth Hill, too; in 1963, the University of Bridgeport put WPKN on the air at 89.5, and today the station survives as an independent community radio station, having outlasted its parent institution. Sacred Heart University in Fairfield put its WSHU on the air at 91.1, licensed to Fairfield, in 1964.
And UHF television returned to Booth Hill in 1967, with the debut of Connecticut Public Television's WEDW (Channel 49), licensed to Bridgeport and transmitting from the same spot on the "Hi-Ho" tower (named for the local construction company that ended up owning it) that WICC-TV had used a decade earlier.
Those same four stations are still to be found here at Booth Hill, albeit with a very different building configuration from the WICC days. All three FM stations share a common transmitter room at the back of the building - in space that, the original blueprints show, was once the men's room! WSHU and WEZN-FM both use modern Continental transmitters (with a Harris auxiliary for 99.9); WPKN chugs along on the old Gates shown at right in the photo above. That transmitter, it turns out, used to belong to WTFM (103.5 Lake Success NY, now WKTU), back in the days when it transmitted from the Horace Harding Expressway in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
WEDW-TV has its transmitter in a separate room at the front of the building, in roughly the spot where the WICC-TV studios were once found. And like any good tall tower these days, the venerable old Blaw-Knox is now festooned with dozens of two-way antennas serving everyone from the FBI to several cellular carriers.
So what ever happened to channel 43? The allocation remained in Bridgeport, and in 1987 it returned to the air under local ownership as WBCT, transmitting from a cable tower in nearby Shelton. Several callsigns later, it's known as WSAH and is the New York market flagship for the Shop at Home television network.
Special thanks to WEZN morning man John Harper, PD Steve Marcus and CE Dom Bordonaro for arranging this look inside this historic site!
And before we go, we're happy to pass along a special offer from our friends at M Street. They've just released the 11th edition of the M Street Radio Directory, the most comprehensive guide to radio in the U.S. and Canada today. Calls, frequency, power, address, key personnel, ownership, ratings - it's all in the nearly 900 pages of the latest edition, and Tower Site of the Week/NorthEast Radio Watch readers can get it at a special discount. If you're traveling this summer, you want this book!
List price on the M Street directory is $79 - but we're pleased to offer it to you for $69, a $10 savings. (You'll also pay $7 for shipping and handling via UPS.) You can order in two ways: by credit card at 1-800-248-4242. Ask for Irene, and tell her you want the "NorthEast Radio Watch" discount. Or, send a check/money order for $76 (payable to Scott Fybush) to 92 Bonnie Brae Avenue, Rochester NY 14618. It's a great resource, and something that should be in the library of anyone who needs to keep track of the radio industry today!