Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Erie, Pennsylvania is, as we noted in last week’s installments, one of those places where we’d spent many years hearing the stations and even seeing the towers, but we hadn’t made the time to stop and smell the RF close up, as it were.
In September 2012, we took a two-day stab at fixing that with visits to many of the city’s broadcast facilities (in the company of media friends from Ohio and New England, no less!), including the cluster that leads off this week’s installment.
We’re on Robison Road in Summit Township, which runs parallel to and just south of I-90. If you’ve ever driven this stretch of 90, you’ve probably seen the forest of towers that lines the ridge south of the highway. From east to west, attentive drivers on 90 can see the FM sites of WRTS (103.7) and WXKC (99.9), the tall tower of WICU-TV (Channel 12, now shared by sister station WSEE), and the tall towers along Peach Street that are home to WJET-TV (Channel 24)/WFXP (Channel 66), public broadcaster WQLN (Channel 54)/WQLN-FM (91.3), and the old WSEE analog tower.
And between the WICU tower and the Peach Street towers, about halfway between exits 27 and 24, there’s the four-tower directional array of WRIE (1260) at 471 Robison Road West, now home as well to the studios of all of the Cumulus stations here.
These towers date to the late 1940s, when Erie’s WERC radio moved up the dial from 1230 to 1260, swapping a 250-watt facility at 121 W. 10th Street downtown for a new four-tower array in what was then fairly remote rural territory far south of the city. The move to 1260 capped a long FCC fight that was touched off when another Erie station, WLEU (1450), had applied for 1260. WLEU’s application came with a request for an FCC “show cause” order that would have moved WERC from 1230 to 1450, but WERC pushed back, filing first for 1330 (granted to the new WIKK, later WICU and still later WRIE, WEYZ and WFNN) and then making its own bid for 1260.
The competition between WLEU and WERC dragged out for nearly two years, and it didn’t end well for WLEU. In an era of much more aggressive FCC regulation, the Commission decided that WLEU’s ownership wasn’t sufficiently engaged in the day-to-day operation of the station, relying instead on a general manager who didn’t own any stock in the station, and so it left WLEU on 1450 and granted WERC 5,000 watts by day and 1,000 watts at night on 1260, using a fairly constricted directional pattern designed to protect another newly-granted 1260 in Cleveland, two hours to the west. (The Cleveland station signed on in 1950 as WDOK, and was of course best known for its top-40 days as WIXY in the 1960s and 1970s.)
WERC soon boosted its night power to 5,000 watts, and it added WERC-FM on 99.9, operating from one of the four towers down here on Robison Road behind what was then just a small transmitter building. Over the decades that followed, 1260 and 99.9 morphed into WWYN/WWYN-FM (with the FM then becoming WWFM, briefly), and then WLKK on the AM side and WLVU on the FM side. Around 1980, then-owner Si Goldman relocated the stations’ studios and offices here to Robison Road, adding a new two-story wing on the east side of the building and carving studio space out of what had once been a larger transmitter room.
A shuffle of callsigns in the late 1980s landed the WRIE calls, formerly on 1330, over here on the 1260 side of things; 99.9, meanwhile, had become “Classy 99.9,” WXKC. In more recent years, the original stations here have picked up company: under Regent Communications, country WXTA (97.9 Edinboro) joined the cluster in 1999, followed two years later by rocker “Z102.3,” WQHZ (102.3), the former WJET-FM, which had been split off from its erstwhile sister station at 94.7 when the 94.7 signal was sold to NextMedia/Connoisseur.
Those four full-power stations, plus a recent HD2/translator addition, top-40 “i104.3” (heard on WXKC’s 99.9-HD2 and on translator W282BR at 104.3), all occupy a most interesting studio cluster on the west side of the building in what was originally the 1260/99.9 transmitter space.
Where did the transmitters go? Eventually, 99.9 moved away; it still has a backup here, but the main transmitter is a few miles to the southeast, up on a higher ridge near the WRTS (103.7) site. The 1260 transmitter room, meanwhile, was chopped down into a small wedge of space accessed through a door in what’s now the WXTA studio, while the racks of studio-transmitter link gear and processing ended up in a separate wedge of space accessed through another door behind the jock in what’s now the WQHZ studio.
Another small wedge of space became the WRIE studio (it was doing ESPN Radio when we visited in 2012, but switched to CBS Sports Radio in 2013), while “i104.3” is in what’s otherwise a production room next to WXTA. (WXTA, for its part, took the “Nash” branding in early 2014.)
All of those studios look out into a common core area, facing the WXKC studio on the other side of what used to be the transmitter room.
By the way, that’s production guru Jim Griffey above at right – he started his career early in the history of Gannon’s WERG, and he’s one of the experts on Erie radio history, as well as the proud owner of a lovely Tower Site Calendar on his wall.
The big gun in the cluster remains “Classy 99.9,” which gets the big studio space toward the front of the building, where we find Erie radio vet Ron Arlen on the air in middays. Ron’s been in Erie radio since 1979, much of that time at WXKC, where he’s a local institution.
Back in 2009, we’d spent a fair amount of time visiting Erie’s TV stations, and so we’re giving them a somewhat briefer look this time around. Our visit to public broadcaster WQLN on the 2009 trip was a pretty comprehensive one, so this time around we’ll show you only the biggest changes since that trip. Most notable is the new automated master control just off the lobby, which was just being installed back in 2009.
We got a somewhat better look this time around at WQLN’s transmitters: that Axcera in front was carrying WQLN-TV on RF 50, while the Harris in the back (backed up by the lovely blue RCA next to it) was WQLN-FM on 91.3. The room behind this one housed the leased space for Gannon’s WERG-FM (90.5), which was just getting settled in up here the last time we visited. (That’s a Henry Radio transmitter, by the way, and you don’t see those all that often.)
The WQLN-TV studio had been set up for an auction the last time we visited; this time, something else was underway there in front of a white backdrop. Down the hall, we got a closer look at the radio studio complex, too, which features several smaller production/control rooms surrounding a larger space that’s used these days for pledge drives and offices.
The WQLN radio studios look out into the spacious main lobby, which these days itself doubles as an occasional live performance venue. Not long after we left, this space filled up with listeners who came for a piano performance that was simulcast on WQLN-FM. (You can see the WQLN radio studio window behind the piano; the TV master control is off to the left of the frame, with the TV control room, studio and transmitters also off in that wing of the building.)
That 2009 TV studio trip also included the building that sits between WQLN and busy Peach Street (US 19) to the west, Nexstar’s WJET-TV (Channel 24) and its Fox sister, WFXP (Channel 66). Not long after the 2009 visit, WJET and WFXP went through a studio upgrade, replacing the sets we’d seen with newer, widescreen-ready versions, and we stopped in for a quick look at those, too:
Back within city limits, our 2012 visit came just as NBC affiliate WICU-TV (Channel 12) was in the midst of a pretty hefty rebuild to complete the addition of new CBS sister station WSEE (Channel 35) to its venerable State Street building. Things were rather chaotic at WICU/WSEE that time around, but we’ve since caught up with that facility in finished form, and we’ll show it to you on another future Site of the Week.
Our last radio studio stop on this trip completed our collection of Erie college stations: at Mercyhurst, off 38th Street just south of WICU, we stopped in to visit another Erie radio legend, “Captain Dan” Geary.
Dan’s been almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing oldies back to the airwaves of northwest Pennsylvania. When we visited in 2012, he was programming a deep oldies format on WYNE (1530 North East), the AM sister to Mercyhurst’s WMCE (88.5), which was then mostly jazz.
WYNE was the latest incarnation of what had once been WHYP, James Brownyard’s distinctively odd one-man station based in a field outside North East, 20 miles east of Erie. Brownyard eventually added WHYP-FM on 100.9, simulcasting his anything-goes format that sometimes included long periods of time when records ran out on him.
By the late 1980s, Brownyard had sold his stations to Rick Rambaldo, who refocused the FM on Erie as “Rocket 101,” WRKT; the AM struggled through several incarnations as WRKT(AM), WEHN (news), WFLP (sports) and WEYZ (standards) before ending up in the hands of Mercyhurst in 2004. In early 2013, the oldies got a bigger platform when they replaced jazz on WMCE-FM; the AM station became WMCE(AM) and is now a straight simulcast of the FM during daylight hours.
From the WMCE/WYNE studios, tucked away on the ground floor of a building near the Mercyhurst sports fields, we began making our way eastward toward home, stopping off to see the AM 1530 tower at the end of a dead-end road that heads south from US 20 near North East. There used to be a studio building here – in the Rambaldo days, WRKT and sister station WRTS (Star 103.7) both had their studios out in this fairly remote spot – but a fire destroyed that building not long after WRKT and WRTS relocated to the Boston Store building in downtown Erie, and now there’s just a small transmitter shed keeping the AM station alive out here.
And that brings us to our final stop on the way out of Erie, just over the state line at the very southwestern tip of New York State.
When Rick Rambaldo took over the former WHYP-FM in 1989, he went to work improving the little class A signal for better reach into Erie. By 1995, that led to the current 450-foot tower in Ripley, New York, from which the 100.9 signal now beams forth as a 4.2 kW/797′ class B1 signal.
But it won’t stay that way much longer, which is one reason we made the detour to get out here: Connoisseur has a CP, expected to be built out sometime later in 2014, to move WRKT to 104.9, a frequency from which it can move much closer to Erie. The new “Rocket” would be a 4.5 kW/525′ B1 from the tower of co-owned WRTS (103,7) in Hammett Township, some 20 miles closer to downtown.
The Ripley tower, meanwhile, may become the home of a new Connoisseur CP for 95.9A in Mina, New York; it won’t have a great signal in Erie, but Connoisseur’s auction bid for that channel kept it out of the hands of…yes, Rick Rambaldo.
After merging his original Erie cluster into NextMedia and then selling to Connoisseur, Rambaldo and local car dealer Dave Hallman Jr. founded The Erie Radio Company and won the auction for another new Erie FM channel, 92.7A licensed to Lawrence Park. Not long after this 2012 visit, they put up a new antenna on a high-rise apartment building on the shore of Lake Erie west of downtown, and by November they were on the air as top-40 “Happi” WEHP, complete with a storefront studio a few blocks south of the Boston Store.
So we have another very good reason to make it back to Erie sometime soon to continue chronicling the development of this very energetic small market. Come back and join us, won’t you?
Thanks to Cumulus’ Jim Griffey, WMCE’s Captain Dan Geary and WQLN’s Aaron Coseo for the tours!
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Next week: A Western New York Grab-Bag