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July 3-10, 2003
Quick: where can you find a major mountaintop communications
site complete with a 200,000 watt FM signal, a swoopy-looking
"Star Tower," an AM array with a shopping mall right
in the middle of it, and a whole batch of brand-new studios?
If you wouldn't have guessed "Roanoke, Virginia,"
join the club. To be honest, it was one of those out of the way
markets that we'd never given any thought to - until our
good friend Mike Ward (who moved there from Sacramento and KFBK
a few years back to be news director at WFIR 960) began peppering
the in-box with exciting pictures of something called the "Towers
So we made it a part
of our agenda when we toured the Carolinas back in March, and
are we ever glad we did!
We pulled into Roanoke at the tail end of a heavy shower that
tailed us all the way north up US 52, I-77 and I-81 from the
North Carolina line, clearing just long enough for us to make
a quick stop alongside I-81 in Blacksburg to see the WFNR (710)
three-tower array. From there, it was in to Roanoke in the late
afternoon, setting up the VCRs to capture a strange multi-city
TV market - Roanoke, although it is a separate radio market,
shares a TV market with Lynchburg, 50 miles away on the other
side of a range of hills that keeps most of each city's radio
signals from penetrating the opposite market.
On the TV dial, CBS and NBC come from Roanoke, via WDBJ (Channel
7) and WSLS (Channel 10) respectively. ABC is Lynchburg's, from
WSET (Channel 13), while Fox service is simulcast on transmitters
in both cities (WFXR Channel 27 from Roanoke, WJPR Channel 21
All those Roanoke TV signals (and two more: PBS WBRA Channel
15 and Pax WPXR Channel 38) come from the same spot: Poor Mountain,
about eight miles southeast of downtown Roanoke and nearly 4000
feet above sea level.
You can get to Poor Mountain in two ways: heading south from
US11 up Poor Mountain Road, or north from US211. The route from
US11 becomes a bumpy, treacherous rocky dirt road before finally
opening up to pavement again at the top of the mountain; we found
that out by making the mistake of going up that way! (We went
down via the US211 route, which is an easy paved road the whole
way. We'll know better next time...or at least pay more attention
to the tower-hunters who'd advised us to use the 211 route.)
The most prominent
site on the mountain belongs to WDBJ, the dominant CBS affiliate.
In addition to a massive brick building (we've seen many stations
whose studio buildings are smaller than this), this site is home
to the former WDBJ-FM, now WSLQ on 99.1 and cranking out a grandfathered
200 kilowatts from the tower seen at the left in the photo above.
Next in line is WDBJ's channel 7 antenna, followed by WDBJ-DT
(Channel 18) and the STLs. What a site!
Just east of WDBJ and WSLQ is a rarity in the tower-hunting
game: a beautiful swoopy Star tower, a little baby sister to
the big Star towers in Washington (WBDC) and Cincinnati (WSTR)
that we've seen on previous trips. This tower is home to WPXR,
but its new digital service (WPXR-DT 36) needed its own antenna,
which ended up on a nondescript self-supporter next door.
Head north and west from WDBJ and you pass public TV WBRA
(seen at the left in the photo above, with a panel antenna below
for WBRA-DT on channel 3 and a truck outside full of engineers
getting ready to put the DTV on the air) and Fox WFXR, followed
by WSLC (94.9). Off in the distance at center right on the photo
above are the FM towers of WXLK (92.3) and public radio WVTF
(89.1), and just to their left, neatly perched on a cliff with
its own gated road, NBC affiliate WSLS (Channel 10).
At least, that's how it all looked to us on this gorgeous
early spring day - and as beautiful as Poor Mountain was, it
was just an appetizer for some of the other goodies awaiting
us back down the hill in Roanoke itself (and neighboring Salem).
Our first stop was in Salem, home to the big five-tower array
of WVBE (610), the signal long known as WSLC (until handing those
calls and the country format off to its sister FM on 94.9). Today,
WVBE and WSLC are part of the Mel Wheeler broadcast cluster,
the largest in town, and 610 is simulcasting the urban format
of WVBE-FM (100.1) over in Lynchburg. (We'd hear it again a few
months later in Richmond, Indiana, of all places, where it was
a distinctive late-night DX catch a few weeks ago...)
The Wheeler cluster had half its studios here, in a concrete
building at the base of the towers (WSLC and rocker WSLQ), and
the other half (WVBE, news-talk WFIR and rock WXLK) over on Electric
Road, the commercial strip south of Roanoke, but during our visit
they were in the process of consolidating all the studios into
an expanded facility on Electric Road. (Thanks to Mike for an
unusual tour - by the time he showed us around, he was actually
an ex-employee, having just finished his last day as WFIR's news
director before returning home to some new challenges in Ohio...)
WSLS has its studios downtown, right across the street from
a courthouse, which makes for easy access to news conferences
(one of which had just wrapped up on the sidewalk next to us!)
WDBJ had just recently made a move of its own, building a
snazzy new studio facility just off I-581 near the airport north
of downtown. Big signs outside proclaimed it the "WDBJ Digital
Broadcast Center" - so of course by the time we pulled up
to the old studios, on Colonial Drive off I-581 just
south of downtown, we had already dubbed that building the "Analog
Broadcast Center." Now sitting vacant, this oh-so-1955 building
will soon be demolished in favor of a new Walgreens, or so we're
you'd be distracted, too, if you were there on Colonial Drive
looking at the old WDBJ studios - for right across the street
sits a most unusual AM tower site.
WFIR (960) boasts the best AM signal in the market, 5000 watts
day and night from two towers in, of all places, the "Towers
Shopping Center" (and don't you just love the sign?)
One of WFIR's towers is adjacent to the parking lot, rising
from a pit between the parking lot and the access road to the
shopping center from Colonial Drive; the other tower actually
rises from the middle of the shopping center's two-level building!
The transmitter, we're told, is in a room below the upper
level of the shopping center; we can only imagine what the ground
system must look like.
(We found this site very reminiscent of KTAR in Phoenix, another
two-tower site straddling a shopping center, although if memory
serves, one KTAR tower is in the front parking lot and the other
sits behind the shopping strip.)
Just down Colonial Drive from this wonderful combination of
RF and commerce sits the utterly nondescript little brick building
that's home to WFXR/WJPR and its sister WB affiliate, cable-only
"WBVA" (now also seen on WJPR-DT.) WFXR/WJPR's 10 PM
newscast is produced at WSLS, which also rebroadcasts its own
newscasts on Pax WPXR.
(In the midst of driving around Roanoke, we'd also seen the
tall tower of religious WRIS 1410, whose stick still holds the
antenna of its former sister FM on 93.5, now Clear Channel soft
AC WSNV 93.5 Salem; the little stick of WGMN 1240, which has
a long top-40 legacy as WROV, calls now heard on FM at 96.3;
and, from a distance, the towers of WTOY 1480 Salem, doing black
gospel without many legal IDs for the incomparable Bishop Willis.)
One more stop takes us out of Roanoke: WWWR (910) does its
religious programming from a tall tower in a valley on the east
side of town; it's one of several Roanoke AMs with simulcasts
(in "3WR"'s case, WNRV 990 Narrows; WGMN simulcasts
"Game" sports on WVGM 1320 in Lynchburg; WKBA 1550
in Vinton simulcasts its religious programming on WKPA 1170 in
From Roanoke, it's off to Lynchburg for lunch and a quick
stop at the studios of WSET (Channel 13); WSET is the old WLVA-TV,
and there's still a WLVA radio at 590, but it's lost its tower
site and is running at very low power, simulcasting AP news with
WOWZ (1280) over in Appomattox. And from there, it's off
to a little town called Brookneal and one of the nation's most
unusual radio stations...but we'll save that for another week!
Want to see more neat sticks all year
round? Nashville's WSM (at right) is one of the more than
a dozen Tower Site images featured in the 2003 Tower Site Calendar,
still available from Tower Site of the Week and fybush.com.
If you liked last year's edition, you'll love this one: higher-quality
images (in addition to WSM, this year's edition includes Providence's
WHJJ; Mount Mansfield, Vermont; Buffalo's WBEN; KOMA in Oklahoma
City; WTIC, Hartford; Brookmans Park, England; WPAT, Paterson;
Four Times Square, New York; WIBC in Indianapolis; WWVA in Wheeling,
W.V.; WGN Chicago and more), more dates in radio history, a convenient
hole for hanging - and we'll even make sure all the dates fall
on the right days!
This year's edition is still available in limited quantities!
And this year, you can order with your Visa, MasterCard,
Discover or American Express by using the handy link below!
Better yet, here's an incentive to make your 2003 NERW/Site
of the Week subscription pledge right now: support NERW/fybush.com
at the $60 level or higher, and you'll get this lovely calendar
for free! How can you go wrong? (Click here
to visit our Support page, where you can make your NERW contribution
with a major credit card...)
You can also order by mail; just send a check for $16
per calendar (NYS residents add 8% sales tax), shipping included,
to Scott Fybush, 92 Bonnie Brae Ave., Rochester
Thanks for your support!