Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
For the last few months here on NERW, we’ve been showing you a whole bunch of sites that are a long way from our home base in the northeast. While it’s fun to do things like a cross-country drive and a deep dive into the sites of southern Indiana, our heart is still back in “NERW-land,” and especially in the town where the column was born way back in the early 1990s.
In last week’s installment, we showed you some AM sites around Boston that we’d never visited before a trip in 2011 – and in this week’s Site of the Week, we’re showing off some FM visits from the same trip. The FM side of the visit included a jaunt westward to Worcester, where we’ve done some previous segments on the historic sites atop Mount Asnebumskit in Paxton, but had never been inside any of the buildings before.
This time around, a missed communication meant we didn’t get the tour we were hoping to get of the WTAG (580)/WSRS (96.1) studio on “Little Asnebumskit” (though we did get to see the WTAG AM site in Holden, featured here and in the 2014 Tower Site Calendar) – but we did get inside the metal sheds under the historic Armstrong/Yankee tower to see the little rack that’s home to WBPR (91.9), the Worcester relay of Boston’s WUMB-FM (also 91.9). WBPR had just recently moved up here to Asnebumskit from a previous lower site in Spencer, where it operated until 2009. (Worcester public broadcaster WICN 90.5 had also recently relocated up here, and you can see closeups of all the antennas over at Mike Fitzpatrick’s NECRAT.)
From Worcester, we doubled back to Boston, and specifically to what’s now “Radio Row” in Allston, where the Mass Turnpike crosses Market Street. Two of the market’s big commercial radio clusters flank Market Street here: Entercom’s WRKO, WEEI and WAAF are on Guest Street, south of the Pike, east of Market and just down the street from the spiffy new WGBH studios right at the corner of Guest and Market. And just west of Market and north of the Pike is the famed broadcast address of 83 Leo M. Birmingham Parkway, our destination today.
This building went up in the late 1960s as the home of Storer Broadcasting’s legendary independent station, WSBK (Channel 38), which beamed its programming (including plenty of Sox and Bruins games, “The Movie Loft” and “Ask the Manager”) first eastward to a transmitter site on the Pru and later westward to the new candelabra tower in Needham, using a tall self-supporting STL tower with a big “TV 38” sign that became a Pike traffic landmark. (When you hear “backed up to the TV tower,” that’s what they’re talking about.)
WSBK’s independent days waned by the late 1990s; after changing hands from Storer to SCI/Gillett to New World to Viacom, the merger of Viacom with CBS made channel 38 a sister station to WBZ-TV (Channel 4), moving the TV station a mile or so down Soldiers Field Road into the expanded WBZ building.
Meanwhile, CBS had been busy expanding its radio footprint in town. In addition to WBZ (1030) and WODS (103.3), its purchase of American Radio Systems brought WBMX (98.5) into the fold, followed quickly by the acquisition of Infinity Broadcasting’s WZLX (100.7) and WBCN (104.1).
Under Infinity, Mel Karmazin’s policy had been to keep co-owned stations on their toes as competitors, which is why WZLX stayed put at the Pru even after becoming a sister station to WBCN, long housed around the corner from Fenway Park at 1265 Boylston Street.
Under CBS, however, the philosophy was to put multiple stations under one roof whenever possible – and the attraction of the big empty WSBK building was obvious. If all you’ve ever seen of this building was the one-story facade facing Birmingham Parkway and the Pike, you should know that like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, “it’s bigger on the inside.” The property slopes down dramatically to the north, and the TV studio sat two floors below the lobby, creating a three-story structure as viewed from the rear.
CBS kept the Storer-era Colonial-style lobby (that company was very big on wood paneling and columns at all its stations), but it gutted most of the rest of the building, filling in the former studio space to create a middle floor full of office and conference space. (That big conference room shown below, at the center of the building, takes up a chunk of the space that used to be the studio.)
With three stories of space to play with, the stations were able to maintain some separation from each other. WBCN took up residence on the ground floor and WZLX at one end of the top floor.
The demise of WBCN in 2009 shuffled things a little: its old ground-floor studios became home to the new “Sports Hub” WBZ-FM (98.5), which was undergoing some pretty significant renovation when we stopped by two years later. Up a floor, WBMX moved from “Mix 98.5” to “Mix 104.1,” not long after moving down the street from its former rented space at 1200 Soldiers Field Road, the last of the CBS FMs to operate from another location. (That building at 1200, right next to WBZ’s parking lot, has a fascinating broadcast history, too: it was home to Granum’s WBOS 92.9 and WSSH/WOAZ 99.5 before those stations went to Greater Media; CBS then rented the studio space and housed WBMX there beginning in 1999.)
The second floor is also home to most of the engineering core of the building, of which just a small piece is shown above.
As for WODS, it moved over here from an interim studio location just off the lobby at WBZ’s 1170 Soldiers Field Road building, a compact space that was built out to replace the studios CBS had built for WODS on Winter Street in Downtown Crossing in the early 1990s. When WODS took up residence on the middle floor here at 83 Leo Birmingham, down the hall from WBMX, it was a much more spacious home for the station’s then-oldies format; now, these rooms are home to 103.3’s new incarnation as top-40 “AMP.”
Our final studio visit of this trip was a fairly quick one: a brief stop to say hello to public radio colleagues at WBUR-FM (90.9), which occupies a relatively compact space upstairs at 890 Commonwealth Avenue amidst the campus of parent Boston University.
This space was a huge improvement over WBUR’s prior home in rather run-down quarters at the BU College of Communications building at 630 Commonwealth Avenue; that space had been in use for decades by the time WBUR moved out in 1996.
From its new home, built around a row of nearly-identical studio spaces boasting floor-to-ceiling glass walls looking out on a long wall of engineering racks, WBUR continued to be the production home for “Car Talk,” as well as going into daily national distribution of programming such as “The Connection” and, today, “Here and Now.”
Each pair of studios features a control room fully equipped for live talk production, adjacent to a studio space with room for multiple hosts and guests. It’s still a showplace, nearly two decades since WBUR moved in.
Thanks to CBS Radio’s Paul Donovan and WBUR’s Steve Brown for the tours!
Did you catch our Tower Site of the Week Bonus on Wednesday? The image we featured earlier this week of WJJD in Chicago is one of the featured images in Tower Site Calendar 2014, now shipping from the Fybush.com Store.
This year’s gorgeous electronic pinups includes not only the iconic towers of Catalina Island but also a combiner system in St. Louis, the twin towers of KNRS in Salt Lake City, a historic rooftop site in Jamestown, New York and many more!
If you want a tower calendar on your wall NOW, you can pick up the current edition for just $5 with your 2014 order!
Click here to order your new calendar!
Then check out our store page for our other great merchandise, including the last-ever FM Atlas, the new NRC AM Log and a model of the KSAN tower.
Next Friday: New York City, 2011