Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
For more than two decades now, your editor has been plowing back and forth on I-90 several times a year between home base in upstate New York and the in-laws in Indiana. All those hours of driving often make us reluctant to add to the trip by stopping along the way to take in some of the sights (or sites, as the case may be!)
So it was a delight, back in September 2012, to plan an overnight trip that didn’t go all that way down I-90 – just the three hours or so it takes to get from Rochester to the fine small market of Erie, Pennsylvania.
This is a city whose radio legacy is way out of proportion to its size. A lot of great radio people got their start in Erie, and a surprising number made entire careers here. And whether they stayed or left, Erie radio folk are passionate about their city’s radio history, which made it especially nice to be able to spend some time checking out the latest incarnation of some of those historic stations.
We started late in the evening, out in an industrial area along East 12th Street southeast of downtown, at what’s actually the newest AM site in town, though it belongs to the market’s oldest station. WLEU started out on 1420 back in 1935, moving to 1450 in the NARBA shuffle of 1941. And there it remained for decades, with studios and offices in the Commerce Building downtown and a tower up on the roof of the ten-story building. It spawned an FM sister, WWGO, on 103.7, then shuffled the WWGO calls to the AM signal when the FM became top-40 WCCK, “K104.”
With the Commerce Building targeted for demolition in the 1980s, the AM station picked up its tower off the roof and moved it right out here to 12th Street, and here it has remained even as 1450 has gone through lots of changes. It was standards as WEYZ for most of the 1980s, until then-owner Burbach Broadcasting saw a chance to upgrade. The WEYZ calls and format slid down the dial to the 5,000-watt signal on 1330 (we’ll see more on it in a moment), and 1450 was donated to the Penn State University Behrend campus in Erie, which has operated it ever since with commercial business talk as WPSE.
WPSE’s studios are in a small prefab building on the Behrend campus, where they occupy a simple two-studio suite with a few rooms for offices across the hall. The transmitter shed on 12th Street is pretty simple, too: relatively new Nautel transmitters power both the AM signal and its FM translator on 107.1.
WPSE isn’t the only radio operation on the Behrend campus: over in the student center building, that slick studio above is the home of “BVZ,” the streaming operation that students here launched in 2011 (on 11/11/11, in fact!). There’s a student TV studio down the hall, too, and that set shown above had been a recent donation from one of the commercial TV stations in town when we visited.
While the Behrend students on the east side of town don’t get to go on the airwaves of Erie, there’s a long history of over-the-air student broadcasts downtown at Gannon University. WERG started out as a 10-watter on 89.1 back in 1972, moved to 89.9 in the early 1980s, and in 2005 relocated to its current dial position at 90.5 from a new tower site up at the WQLN public radio/TV facility south of town. (We’ll see more of that next week.)
WERG has produced plenty of professional broadcasters over its history (documented in great detail on the station’s website), and it’s nicely visible downtown at 7th and Peach, where it has storefront studios in the Walker Building, with production and office space stretching off behind it.
The WERG building backs up to the historic Boston Store department store building, which has been home for the last decade or so to the cluster of stations that now belongs to Connoisseur. Before Jeff Warshaw’s group had these stations, they belonged to local radio entrepreneur Rick Rambaldo, and it was after he’d put the cluster together under the NextMedia banner that they all moved into this nifty storefront setup that takes up most of the north side of the building along its State Street frontage and bends around to line one side of the corridor that cuts through the building (now “Boston Store Place”) to Peach Street.
The two most established FMs in the cluster get pride of place out front along State Street: WRTS (“Star 104”) is the latest incarnation of what used to be WCCK, the FM sister of 1450. After the Commerce Building was vacated, K104 moved to a studio along 26th Street in Erie, then relocated under Rambaldo to a studio in the town of North East, about 20 miles east of Erie. That’s where Rambaldo’s original station in the market was licensed: he bought the quirky WHYP (1530)/WHYP-FM (100.9) from the even quirkier James Brownyard, who’d run the stations as a one-man operation, and relaunched the FM as WRKT, “Rocket 101,” now a rock institution in the market.
The WRKT and WRTS studios look out to State Street, and look inward to an open area with bleachers that can be used for live musical performances.
The third station with a State Street window is the news-talker in the cluster, WJET (1400), once the big top-40 in town under the ownership of legendary manager Myron Jones and engineer John Kanzius. Jones and Kanzius eventually moved WJET from its longtime home at 1635 Ash Street into the WJET-TV (Channel 24) studios on Peach Street south of I-90, and by the late 1980s they’d transitioned the WJET calls and format from the AM signal over to 102.3 FM. The AM spent some time as WLKK before returning to the WJET calls in 2001.
Three more stations lining the inside corridor of the Boston Store building round out this cluster: WXBB (94.7) started out as “Froggy” WFGO, a 1990s drop-in sister to WJET-FM (102.3), before joining the NextMedia/Connoisseur family as “Bob FM.” (102.3 ended up in the hands of the competition, as we’ll see next week.) WTWF (93.9 Fairview) was another late drop-in addition to the market, signing on in 2001 as “Planet” WRPL.
And a small studio, not shown here, is home to WFNN (1330), the sports “Fan” that is the descendant of the old WIKK/WICU/WRIE radio that signed on back in 1947. (It was WRIE 1330 that fell into Burbach’s hands in 1989, becoming the new home of WEYZ for a few years before ending up as WFNN. The WEYZ calls went out to North East on 1530 for a while, and we’ll pick up that thread in next week’s installment, as well as seeing where the WRIE calls went.)
We didn’t make it all the way south down US 19 to the AM 1330 array, the southernmost in the market, but we did get to that famous address of 1635 Ash Street to see what’s become of WJET’s longtime home. The AM 1400 transmitter is still here, atop a warehouse building behind the little brick building that was the WJET radio studios and offices and is now a small church. It’s come a long way from 1951, when Myron Jones put WJET on from here as a little daytimer on 1570.
(Jones, incidentally, is still alive and now in his late 80s; one day soon, we hope to get together with him and hear more about his story, which includes not only WJET but sister station WHOT in Youngstown, Ohio. And did we mention he was also instrumental in Behrend’s acquisition of 1450 and the launch of WPSE?)
Want to see some TV, the other big commercial cluster in town, and another neat college station? Of course you do – and we’ll show them to you in next week’s Erie installment!
Thanks to Mike Kobylka for the tours!
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Season two of “Top of the Tower” offered you several preview editions during the NAB Show last month in Las Vegas – and now we’re (finally!) back to regular weekly editions. Join host Scott Fybush and a wide variety of industry insiders every Wednesday for interesting conversation about what’s happening in the business of radio and TV, not to mention programming, engineering and the newsroom.
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Next week: More Erie!