Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It’s been more than 35 years since your editor first walked in the door of a broadcast facility, and one of the small joys of having been at this so long is getting to see those facilities evolve and keep evolving in and around my hometown of Rochester, New York.
This week’s edition is a little bit of a “grab bag” of quick visits from late 2012, updating some familiar spots that had been going through technical evolution along the way.
Take, for instance, the venerable building just down the road at 2077 Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. NBC built this structure in the late 1950s for its ill-fated attempt at a UHF owned-and-operated station, WBUF-TV (Channel 17), but when a third VHF signal came on the air in the Queen City, NBC shut down channel 17 and sold the facility to Buffalo’s oldest TV station, WBEN-TV (Channel 4), which has been there ever since. These days, channel 4 is WIVB, and when we stopped by in 2012 it had recently completed a big HD studio and control room buildout. That’s the new news set above, and below at left is the new HD production control room. (Master control is a few hundred miles away at LIN’s hub in Springfield, Massachusetts.)
The smaller second studio at WIVB had also just been through a rebuild, becoming the new home of the “Winging It! Buffalo Style” entertainment show that airs in midmornings on WIVB’s sister station WNLO (Channel 23).
But that one bit of non-news programming is nothing compared to what’s coming out of one of the city’s smallest and newest stations. WBBZ-TV is the descendant of what started in the 1990s as WNGS-TV (Channel 67), a tiny UHF operation out of rural Springville, 20 miles or so south of Buffalo. WNGS went through some hard times, ending up with Equity Broadcasting and then Daystar before going completely dark during the DTV transition. But instead of dying completely, it found its way into the hands of Buffalo broadcasting veteran Phil Arno, who rebuilt it as a very local, very interesting operation indeed.
WBBZ found a new digital home on RF 7, vacated by WKBW-TV, and secured cable carriage on channel 5 across most of the market. And speaking of WKBW, Arno hired longtime channel 7 programming/news director John DiSciullo to run “Buffalo’s Buzz” from its new home in a vacant storefront at the Eastern Hills Mall.
In 2012, you don’t need a lot of equipment to make a TV station look good. This is a simple but effective setup: enter the offices from the door to the left of the storefront studio and you go down a long hallway into an office space with a small, largely automated master control in one corner. That space connects to an equally small but effective production control room next to the studio. That audience seating really gets used, as WBBZ brings visitors in from the mall to serve as a live audience for local productions that include a sports show, talk shows and even a local game show, all interspersed among the MeTV programming that fills the rest of the broadcast day.
It’s a neat model for local TV, and here’s hoping Arno and DiSciullo and the crew at WBBZ can make it work over the long term!
Back home, we had another big move to check out, thanks to Clear Channel. Its purchase of Jacor had included one of the Rochester FMs that was dropped into the dial in the heady years of the Docket 80-90 expansion. WKGS (106.7 Irondequoit) had started out in the hands of Auburn Cablevision, which put the signal on the air in 1992 as AAA-formatted WMAX-FM.
Ironically for Auburn Cablevision, it was an Auburn-licensed signal, WPHR (106.9), that severely limited where the 106.7 could be dropped in. It signed on from a transmitter site up at the northern end of the market, high atop the Seneca Towers apartment building perched next to the Genesee River just a few miles south of Lake Ontario, below the ridge that separates the lakefront from the higher elevations in the rest of the market. Auburn Cablevision tried to rectify the signal weakness by purchasing the class A signal on 102.3 in Canandaigua, southeast of Rochester, but Clear Channel eventually split that frequency off with separate programming.
But then Clear Channel made a big change over in the Syracuse market: having also acquired that 106.9 signal in Auburn, Clear downgraded it from B to B1 and shifted it much closer to downtown Syracuse as WSYR-FM, a relay of news-talk WSYR (570). That opened up expansion potential for several other upstate stations: in Binghamton, it allowed another class A drop-in at 106.7 to move into the heart of the market. And in Rochester, it allowed WKGS to move south from Seneca Towers, which means we had to get up and see the old site there before the big move.
When then-WMAX built up here, it did so in a nifty, inconspicuous way. Aside from the two-bay antenna that went up atop the elevator penthouse, you’d barely have known the station was in the building. Its “transmitter room” was a converted studio apartment on the 22nd (and top) floor of the building, with the kitchen ripped out. The transmitter racks occupied what would have been the living room, with some extra cooling added next to the window looking eastward along the Route 104 expressway.
That Energy-Onix shown above was the original WMAX-FM transmitter, and it kept 106.7 going from Seneca Towers while its newer replacement, the BE shown directly above, was relocated to its new home in the old AT&T building on Pinnacle Hill. As we showed you in a 2007 installment of this column, that building was divided up, with one side becoming the DTV home of Fox affiliate WUHF (Channel 31/RF 28) and the other side becoming home to what were then CBS Radio’s WCMF (96.5) and WPXY (97.9). A small space in the front of that FM room became the new home of WKGS’ transmitter, with a new directional panel antenna going up on the tower next to the building. (The Energy-Onix later joined the BE here.)
And so it came to pass that both of Rochester’s top-40 archrivals, WPXY and “Kiss” WKGS, ended up sharing a single transmitter room, without as much as a chain-link enclosure dividing them. Isn’t radio fun?
Thanks to Dennis Majewicz, late of WIVB/WNLO, WBBZ’s John DiSciullo and Clear Channel Rochester’s engineering team 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: The new KBRT 740, above Orange County, California