August 29 - September 5, 2002
A Trip Back in Time to Plattsburgh
Admit it: if I didn't tell you the picture above was taken in 1995, you'd have dated it at least twenty years earlier, if not more, right? (Extra credit if you noticed those two Tascam tape decks just to the right of the jock's shoulder as being about the only things here that date this picture much later.)
This was WIRY (1340 Plattsburgh) as it appeared in August 1995, during the weekend of the Worldwide TV-FM DX Association's annual gathering not far away in Lake Placid, when your editor and some radio buddies packed into a car to check out the sites (and sights) of Plattsburgh and vicinity.
You won't see many stations like this these days, from the old Tapecaster cart decks to the turntables (yes, that's a 45 being played on the air!) to - look carefully now - the RCA 77-series ribbon mic that was (and, as far as I know still is) the air mic. (There's a 44 in the production room, too!)
Oh, but it gets better: behind that beautiful glass wall, under all that pegboard, sat some of the oldest transmitters I've seen in regular operation. The auxiliary transmitter (an old Gates, if memory serves) still had a Level Devil and a CBS Volumax connected as the audio processors - and if you remember those, you go back in this business a lot longer than most readers of this column.
That's the studio building and the transmitter tower behind it at 301 Cornelia Street in the picture to the left; just out of frame to the left is the auto dealership owned by Bill Santa, who had just bought WIRY when these pictures were taken. (And yes, the neon sign on the front of the building lights up.)
On the air, WIRY's just as much of a throwback as its studios might suggest: it runs a music mix that ranges from fifties doo-wop right up to the very latest CHR tracks, interspersed with old jingles, extensive local newscasts (some of them played on those very Tascam cassette decks shown above), lost-dog reports, and all the other hallmarks of a long-gone era of full-service radio - and all in AM stereo, no less!
This little building was also the birthplace of television on the western shores of Lake Champlain; in 1955, WIRI-TV signed on from here on Channel 5, licensed to nearby North Pole and bringing NBC programming to Burlington, Plattsburgh and Montreal. The station picked up the WPTZ calls a few years later, after they were dropped by Philco's pioneering Philadelphia station, which then became WRCV-TV and would eventually become today's KYW-TV (Channel 3). WPTZ would later build its own studios alongside I-87 (the Adirondack Northway) and in Burlington, and we'd bet there's almost nobody there who remembers the connection to WIRY these days.
The rest of Plattsburgh's AM dial can be found to the south of town, in neighboring Peru, N.Y.
Along Route 9 there sit the towers of WEAV (960), which was simulcasting the automated soft AC sounds of WGFB-FM (99.9) when we visited seven summers ago. A knock on the door that Saturday afternoon was answered by an older gentleman, who was happy to show us around the offices (in the brick building in the foreground) and the studios and AM transmitter (in the older gray house at the rear).
It wasn't until we were getting ready to leave, after a lengthy discussion of the economic struggles in the market, that our host introduced himself - as George F. Bissell, the station's owner and the FM's namesake!
And it wasn't too much longer after that that we heard the stations had been sold. The FM side was leased out to (and eventually purchased by) Burlington Broadcasters, which turned it into modern rock WBTZ, "the Buzz." The AM side ended up simulcasting the 96.7 from across the lake; today it's doing talk as "the Zone," still using the WEAV calls, though its FM sister is now WXZO.
Mr. Bissell gave us directions to the FM transmitter up north of town, telling us we should pay particular attention to the complex directional antenna he'd installed for WGFB (eight three-element bays, for a total of 24 elements!) and to the new addition to the side of the tower. That eight-bay antenna belonged to what was then Plattsburgh's new public radio station, WCFE-FM (91.9), the recently-debuted sister to established public TV outlet WCFE (Channel 57).
A couple of years after the visit, both FMs on this tower were history: not only had 99.9 flipped to WBTZ, 91.9 had been sold to Albany's WAMC public radio to become its new signal for the northern part of Lake Champlain. Under the new calls WCEL, it was mainly a simulcast of the Albany signal, with a bit of local news. Both stations still use this tower on Old Number Nine Road to this day.
There's one more AM in Plattsburgh, and it's had a rough seven years.
The daytime signal on AM 1070 from Lathrops Mill Road in Peru had been most successful as talker WKDR, but that era had come to an end the summer before our visit, when Burlington's WDOT (1390) folded and WKDR's owners bought that full-time facility and moved their calls and format across the lake and up the dial.
When we visited, 1070 was WZBZ and was doing CNN Headline News from that little green trailer in front of the tower. Since then, it's gone through several calls, as many formats and a couple of periods of silence. Today it's back to doing talk, under the calls WTWK, again aiming across the lake at a Burlington audience (and using a simulcast with St. Albans' WRSA 1420 to help get the programming out to more of Vermont.)
Not far from here, we saw (but didn't photograph, for some reason) the towers for oldies WKOL (105.1), licensed to Plattsburgh but programmed from across the lake in Burlington, and public radio WXLU (88.3 Peru), the Plattsburgh-area outlet of the St. Lawrence University "North Country Public Radio" system.
And up along I-87 en route to the 99.9/91.9 tower, we passed the studios for WCFE and WPTZ. We didn't see their towers, and still haven't to this day, as they're both atop relatively inaccessible Adirondack mountaintops. Someday!