Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We don’t get back to New England these days as often as we’d like – so when we do, it’s always fun to take in some corners of the region we’d never toured before. In June 2013, that meant an afternoon in Westerly, Rhode Island en route from New York City (and the dedication of the Major Armstrong plaque in Yonkers) up to Boston (and a panel discussion we moderated on the state of the radio industry).
These days, radio in Westerly means one person: Chris DiPaola. Chris started out small, broadcasting over a part 15 AM signal (“WCTD” on 1620) and marketing part 15 AM kits in the back pages of Radio World, but he’s moved up impressively over the years with a series of signals all known by the “WBLQ” calls that used to be offshore on nearby Block Island. First came a noncommercial FM at the bottom of the dial, then an LPFM licensed to nearby Ashaway, and then Chris went full-power on AM by purchasing Westerly’s AM 1230.
The erstwhile WERI had gone noncommercial as the southern link in the Rhode Island public radio network started by Boston’s WBUR around the turn of the century. From 1999 until 2009, 1230 was WXNI, simulcasting WRNI (1290) from Providence – but when WBUR sold off its Rhode Island interests to a new local public broadcast group (more on that in a bit), the Westerly signal went up for sale and DiPaola’s DiPonti Communications returned it to local commercial service as WBLQ(AM).
Today’s WBLQ(AM) operates from the heart of downtown Westerly, in a small space at the back of a High Street commercial building, right on the edge of the Pawcatuck River that separates Rhode Island from Connecticut. Stop by for a visit and you’ll find yourself right in the middle of the action: the reception desk is also the air console, looking out over a lobby that doubles as a talk studio. WBLQ does lots of local talk from here; if you live in Westerly and you’re not on the air at some point here, you’re probably in hiding.
The original 88.1 incarnation of WBLQ went to EMF in 2008 to become K-Love outlet WKIV (thus helping to finance the AM); the former WBLQ-LP, originally on 96.9, is now on 96.7 as WSUB-LP, doing modern rock as “96.7 the Buzz” from a second studio in the back room here. (It’s licensed to the “Washington County Chamber of Commerce,” run by other members of DiPaola’s family at an arm’s length from 1230.)
We’ll get back to the FMs in a moment, but first let’s go southward along the banks of the Pawcatuck, across US1 to Margin Street just south of downtown.
That’s where we find the site that has been home to AM 1230 since its beginning just after World War II. This is the original Blaw-Knox tower that WERI built, and it’s looking pretty good despite all those years next to the water. (As you can see in the photo of the tower base, there’s a marina right next to the tower.)
Inside the transmitter building just uphill from the tower, there’s less that’s original from 1947. The main Gates One transmitter went in when this site was rebuilt as WXNI; the SX-1 backup dates back to the WERI era. And yes, WBLQ is in AM stereo; look closely and you can see the distinctive golden coloring of the Harris AM stereo exciter in the rack next to the old SX-1!
And with that, we go back to FM-land as we start to head north toward Boston. Instead of the easy way – I-95 cuts just north of Westerly – we head eastward to the hamlet of Bradford through some of the very rural terrain that’s not what most outsiders would ever recognize as “Rhode Island.”
What’s now WSUB-LP started out on a pole behind a gas station here, but a few years ago it relocated to a most unusual site just up the road: a big brick smokestack behind what was once a big printing plant.
There are actually two FMs here. Before WSUB-LP mounted its one-bay antenna right at the top, Horizon Christian Fellowship went on the air here with WXEV (91.1 Bradford), which uses a pair of Scala log-periodic antennas to generate a directional pattern that’s wedged very tightly in amongst a whole bunch of co- and adjacent-channel signals.
Both transmitters live in a small building out back; if memory serves, they’re both fed by IP studio-to-transmitter links.
And with that panel discussion just a few hours away on the other side of Boston traffic, we have time for just one more transmitter stop on our agenda.
WELH (88.1 Providence) is another tightly-wedged signal. When the Wheeler School put it on the air in the 1990s, it had to protect WLNE (Channel 6), among others – and so instead of being in Providence (or even in the state of Rhode Island at all), it ended up out on Wheeler’s campus in Seekonk, Massachusetts, east of the state line.
These days, WELH is a fairly important station in Providence: even though it’s still owned by Wheeler, it functions as the flagship of Rhode Island Public Radio under an LMA. (RIPR’s original flagship, WRNI 1290, is in turn LMA’d out to Latino Public Radio, which used to be heard over WELH.)
This is a fairly simple site, too: a small Elenos transmitter takes pride of place in the center of the single rack in the shed next to the tower adjacent to a Wheeler athletic field.
Thanks to Dave Dougherty, Aaron Read and Chris DiPaola (in absentia) for the tours!
The Fybush Media podcast is back – for real! Listen to our latest episode right here!
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.
Find “Top of the Tower” on all your favorite podcast platforms or right here at fybush.com – and check out our Season 1 Archives, too!
And don’t miss a big batch of Rhode Island IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Boston, 2013