Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Over the years, our travels to New York City have taken us inside the studios of nearly all the city’s stations, sometimes at multiple locations as the city’s broadcast center of gravity has shifted inexorably from midtown Manhattan down to the island’s lower tip.
But even as CBS and Clear Channel consolidated their clusters from scattered Midtown locations into new combined facilities south of Canal Street, a few broadcasters hung on in Midtown, albeit not for the most part in English.
Univision’s stations have long occupied space in the former CBS building at 485 Madison Avenue. ESPN’s WEPN-FM (98.7), as we’ll see in an upcoming installment, recently moved out of the Cumulus (WABC/WPLJ/WNSH) facility at 2 Penn Plaza and into a new home next door to ABC Radio News at 125 West End Avenue, up in the mid-60s. Bloomberg’s WBBR (1130) is part of that company’s overall operation at 731 Lexington Avenue.
And then there’s Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS), which has made its home for almost a quarter of a century now in one of the more unusual spaces ever occupied by a New York City radio station.
This is 26 W. 56th Street, tucked between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and if it looks more like an upscale townhouse than a radio station, that’s because it is – or at least once was – an upscale townhouse.
I’ll let the nice folks at the West 54-55 Street Block Association pick up the story for a bit here: “Remodeled in 1907-08 by the noted architect Harry Allan Jacobs for investment banker Isaac Seligman and long occupied by banker E. Hayward Ferry and his wife Amelia Parsons Ferry, this highly intact former townhouse is an exceptionally fine example of the restrained Neo-French Classic variant of the Beaux Arts style and forms part of “Bankers’ Row,” a group of five residences built for bankers on West 56th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It was originally constructed in 1871 by the well-known New York architects D. & J. Jardine. Jacobs extended the house at the front and rear and relocated the entrance to the ground story. He created a new limestone façade and copper roof.”
The Ferrys lived here from 1908 until 1935, and I don’t know much about what happened in the 55 years that followed at this address. But I do know that around 1990, SBS moved its original New York station, WSKQ (620 Newark), and its newer sister station, WSKQ-FM (97.9 New York) from 1500 Broadway over here to this address, renovating the five-story mansion to become a narrow but fully functional broadcast facility.
The SBS station lineup changed a few years later: in 1996, SBS bought WPAT-FM (93.1 Paterson) and sold off the former WSKQ(AM), which had by then become WXLX with regional Mexican programming. The rooms you see above, toward the front of the building on the fourth and fifth floors, are production rooms now, but I believe they were the original studios for WSKQ AM and FM, updated somewhat over the years.
The main studios for each of the FMs in the building are now toward the rear of each studio floor, and they’re nice big spaces for making radio. Downstairs, the lower floors are now sales and management office areas, as well as an engineering rack room at the front of the building. It’s a tight squeeze, but a great location – and SBS is, we believe, the only major New York commercial broadcaster that gets to say it owns its studio real estate instead of paying rent.
This trip in 2013 not only took us inside the SBS studio building for the first time – it also took us inside the SBS transmitter room for the first time. (And we finally got a decent picture of that magnificent ASR plaque in the Empire State Building lobby, too!)
SBS inherited transmitter space from its predecessors on each FM frequency: WSKQ-FM was the old WEVD-FM, occupying one of the small transmitter rooms in the “mid-80s” on the Empire State Building. (I believe it was the 81st floor, but I may be getting it mixed up with WBAI.)
WPAT-FM, meanwhile, had migrated over the years from its original New Jersey home up to the Chrysler Building and then to 1 World Trade Center, where it was one of the four FMs (along with WKCR 89.9, WNYC-FM 93.9 and WKTU 103.5) that lost transmitters on that sad September morning 13 years ago.
In the aftermath, Empire management cleared out much of the 78th and 79th floors, replacing offices with transmitter rooms to accommodate the broadcasters who suddenly needed room there. That included SBS, which quickly obtained an STA to put 93.1 back on the air from Empire, and which eventually built out a nice new room on the 79th floor with room for both of its FM stations. (In the interim, until this room was finished in 2003, SBS operated WPAT from its backup facilities over at 4 Times Square, where it still maintains auxiliary transmitters for both stations.)
This nice layout features a mirror-image pair of paired BE transmitters, WSKQ on the left and WPAT on the right, with newer BE HD transmitters tucked in behind each set of analog rigs.
Because of spacing issues to WHYN-FM in Springfield, Massachusetts, among others, WPAT-FM hasn’t been able to be licensed at Empire at full power; its license still lists the World Trade Center and every six months it continues to apply for and receive an STA to operate from Empire at reduced power.
Our 2013 visit to Empire was the first in which the topped-off 1 World Trade Center could be seen off in the distance to the south. Will it once again have FM up there someday soon?
Thanks to SBS’ Tony Peiffer for the tour!
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Next week: More NYC studios, 2013