Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
After a long series of columns focusing on the West Coast, it’s always nice to come back closer to home – and for the next two weeks, we’ll share with you some pictures taken on one busy day in June 2012, visiting stations in and around Danbury, Connecticut, a nifty small market perched just past the northern edge of the massive New York City market and just a few miles down I-84 and US 6 from the New York state line.
Coming over the state line from New York, the first transmitter facility we’d have encountered, had we been looking in that direction, would have been at the “Westside Campus” of Western Connecticut State University, home to the tower of WXCI (91.7 Danbury). We weren’t looking in that direction, as it happened, because we were instead on a tight schedule to make an appointment a few miles to the east, at the university’s main campus on the edge of downtown. That’s where a group of students started a closed-circuit radio station, “WSCT,” in the late 1960s – and where they transitioned that inaugural operation into an over-the-air signal beginning in February 1973.
(The “WXCI” calls, which of course indicate the station’s 91 MHz frequency, were the second choice; 91.7 would have been WSCT-FM but for an objection filed shortly before sign-on by WSTC 1400 in Stamford, 20-some miles to the south with a signal that barely touched that of the new Danbury college FM.)
One of the students who flipped the switch to put WXCI on the air four decades ago is now an instructor here, as well as the faculty advisor to the station, and he’s our tour guide for this visit because the students are off on summer break. In addition to his work here at WXCI, Tom Zarecki is of course very well known in the radio community for his many years on the air in Connecticut (at WRKI here in the Danbury market, about which more in a moment, as well as at Hartford’s WDRC and WJMJ) and especially for his long run in sales and marketing at RCS/Media Monitors.
Tom’s delighted to show off this compact but efficient studio facility in White Hall, a replacement for the original studios in the old Memorial Hall (now extensively renovated as the campus student center). There’s a big open office/meeting area on one side, looking into three studio rooms. One functions more as a record library than as an actual studio, but through its windows we can see straight through the next two studios, a main air studio and a production/DJ booth. It’s a nice facility, and we’ll have to stop by again sometime when students are actually on the air live!
Later in the day, we found ourselves heading northward up US 7 to Brookfield, a few miles north of Danbury.
Brookfield came on the air in 1957 when William G.H. Finch moved up here from New York City. Finch was an early FM pioneer in the big city, having started with experimental license W2XWF, later known as W55NY and then WGHF. Settling in at 101.9 on the dial, WGHF sold to Muzak in 1955, becoming WBFM (and later WPIX-FM, WQCD, WRXP, WEMP and today’s WFAN-FM); Finch took his sale proceeds to Brookfield and soon started a new WGHF at 95.1 on the dial.
Operating from a studio and tower site on Carmen Hill Road, tucked between Candlewood Lake and Route 7, that second version of WGHF spawned a daytime-only AM sister, WINE (940 Brookfield), fairly late in the game in 1963.
Within a few years, Finch was out of the picture and 95.1 had taken on the identity of its new AM sister, becoming WINE-FM; another decade later, in 1976, the FM once again took on a separate identity as “I-95,” WRKI, tying itself to the major interstate that passes through southern Fairfield County, 25 miles or so to the south. (In later years, “I-95” would add on-channel boosters to try to put a little more signal over its namesake highway.)
After a series of ownership changes in recent decades, WINE and WRKI are today part of Cumulus Media, operating from a 1980s-vintage studio building on Federal Road, less than a mile to the east across US 7.
Over at the old Carmen Hill Road site, the facility’s been through some substantial changes in recent years. The original WGHF tower was replaced in 1995 by a heftier new 500-foot tower, and after many years of transmitter operation from the decaying old studio building, Cumulus moved the transmitters to a new building just up the hill at the tower base in 2011. (Engineer Paul Thurst, who did the move, chronicles all his activity on his wonderful Engineering Radio blog, and you can read about the WRKI/WINE move here and here.)
The current transmitter setup (current, at least, as of our 2012 visit) is quite simple: a smallish room with one long row of Harris transmitters, a FM3.5K backup and FM25K main for WRKI and the MW-1A that WINE has used since 1981 for daytime power. The MW-1A also now runs WINE’s post-sunset authority for two hours, using a dissipation network on the wall behind the transmitters to get down to 189 watts for the second hour before switching to a little Radio Systems unit for 4 big watts of night power.
We also got a quick peek inside the studio complex before saying our farewells to Danbury and vicinity: the lobby looks into the studio for the second FM that’s part of the cluster here, WDBY (105.5 Patterson NY). It does country as “Kicks 105.5,” and for a time it simulcast down in northern Westchester on WFAF (106.3 Mount Kisco), though that station ended up being traded to Family Radio to become the new home of WFME when Cumulus got the old WFME, now WNSH (94.7) in the New York market.
WRKI gets the big studio here, and if the jock on the air at “I-95” turns around, he or she can look at a few low racks full of much of the gear, including processing and STLs, that would normally sit in a separate rack room these days.
And WINE? It was a satellite-fed ESPN outlet when we visited, simulcasting with a second small AM to the west across the state line, WPUT (1510 Brewster NY); a few months later, when Cumulus partnered to launch the CBS Sports Radio network, WINE and WPUT became charter affiliates.
So what’s left to see here? The big commercial stations in Danbury proper, which were in the midst of a very big move when we stopped by on this 2012 visit. We’ll show you what was happening at WLAD and WDAQ in our next installment, next Friday…
Thanks to WXCI’s Tom Zarecki, Cumulus’ Peter Partenio and Paul Thurst for the tours!
And if you’re going to be in Las Vegas for NAB, watch this space for an announcement – very soon – of a Tuesday-night get-together to be hosted by Fybush.com, RadioInsight and the wildly popular I Take Pictures of Radio Towers Facebook group. Hope to see you there!
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Next week: WLAD/WDAQ, Danbury, 2012