Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
In this week’s installment of Tower Site of the Week, we wrap up a whirlwind couple of days in Washington, D.C. in November 2013, starting with a return to a site we’ve profiled here in the past.
We last profiled the historic WTOP (now WFED 1500) site in Wheaton, Maryland in 2009 (see that detailed visit here), but not everyone in our traveling party this time around had seen this beautiful facility, so we pop in for a quick look at the nicely-preserved transmitter rotunda upstairs and the phasor downstairs before moving on to a co-owned facility down the street.
Not many tower sites can boast adjacency to a golf course, but this diplexed site sits right in the middle of Sligo Creek Golf Course just a couple of miles southeast of the big WTOP/WFED site.
This tower is shared by WBQH (1050 Silver Spring), the latest incarnation of the signal that started out as WGAY and was later, among other things, the first home of “Federal News Radio” WFED before it moved up to the bigger 1500 signal.
These days, 1050 shares this tower with Spanish-language WACA (1540 Wheaton), but the diplex is a later development: historically, WGAY (later WQMR) and its FM sister, 99.5 WGAY-FM, were located in a very distinctive Art Deco building on nearby Kemp Mill Road, since demolished and replaced by a shopping center. (There’s a great historical site for WGAY/WQMR here if you want to learn more about the early days of 1050.)
When 1050 moved in here with 1540 (then WDON), it built a separate transmitter building at the front of the site, and we see main and backup Nautel transmitters in here, as well as a small combiner cabinet tucked in the back of the building. WACA has its own building at the back of the tower, and we get just a quick peek at the Nautel there that powers “Radio America”‘s 5 kW day signal.
Later in our travels, we make another return visit, this time to the Idaho Avenue NW studios of WTOP and WFED.
The famed “Glass Enclosed Nerve Center” studios here had been renovated since our last visit, and the model established here – newsroom with editor’s desk at the front facing a mirror-image pair of air studios through floor-to-ceiling glass walls – has become standard for most all-news studio buildouts in recent years, including New York’s WCBS and Chicago’s WBBM.
That’s one of the mirror-image air studios above at left, and next to the studios is the new traffic center where the legendary Bob Marbourg and his colleagues ply their trade in one of the most traffic-choked markets in America. (How serious is Marbourg about what he does? So much so that he covered up some of the open windows on his computer screens so we couldn’t photograph the specific sites and services from which he’s getting some of his proprietary information!)
Downstairs from WTOP is a smaller suite of studios that’s served several purposes over the years: it housed classical WGMS (103.5) once upon a time, before then-owner Bonneville moved WTOP from 1500 to 103.5; later, it was home to the ill-fated “Washington Post Radio” on 1500, and now it’s home to Federal News Radio WFED.
How potent is WTOP as a news voice in the nation’s capital? So much so that it was one of the reasons the market’s big public broadcaster, WETA, backed away from a brief attempt to go news and talk a few years ago. (The other, of course, was the dominance in that arena of WAMU, which we showed you last week.)
But WETA is still a fascinating place, and we got to spend part of a morning there seeing three of its facilities on the Virginia side of the river.
WETA’s studios are split into two locations: radio, along with master control for WETA-TV (Channel 26), is at the station’s business offices in a tower in the Shirlington section of Arlington, and we start upstairs on the floor that houses those facilities, with a long radio hallway perpendicular to the main hallway where TV master control sits.
WETA-FM (90.9) jumped back to all-classical when Bonneville pulled the plug on commercial classical WGMS (those calls now reside on WETA’s 89.1 relay signal up in Hagerstown, Maryland, formerly WETH), and its announcers occupy a large studio with big windows looking out at Shirlington. That Studer console was on its way out when we visited, so this is actually a “before” picture for an “after” visit we’ll have to make next time we’re in town. There’s a big music library just down the hall, some of it donated by WGMS when it went away.
There are several production rooms down the hall, too, also with that Studer gear that was about to be replaced, and the rack rooms for all of it are directly below in a ground-floor rack room.
WETA’s TV studios are a few blocks away in a very anonymous-looking two-story building that belies the importance of what comes from within: this is where the PBS NewsHour is produced every weeknight, and where Washington Week in Review is broadcast on Fridays. There are two control rooms, main and backup, along the hallways that ring the two studios at the center of the building. One houses “Washington Week” and is leased out often for outside productions…
…and the other, relatively small studio is where the current “NewsHour” set resides.
(The NewsHour offices are upstairs, and we didn’t get a chance to see them on this early-morning visit, before the staff had arrived for the day.)
Just as WETA-FM and WETA-TV have separate studio locations, they also have separate transmitter sites: WETA-TV is on the Tenleytown towers we showed you last week, while WETA-FM is on a tower on 19th Road in Arlington that has quite the history to it.
What’s now the WETA-FM tower was built in the late 1940s for WTTG (Channel 5), Washington’s DuMont station, and it remained in use for TV until WTTG built its current studio/transmitter site on Wisconsin Avenue NW in the District, just up the road from Tenleytown, in the 1960s.
The site was then donated to WETA to give the upstart educational broadcaster an initial home base, and today it’s used by several FM signals.
With 75 kW, WETA-FM is the only grandfathered superpower FM in Washington, and that power was coming from a pair of Nautels when we visited in 2013. (I believe these, too, have since been replaced.)
WETA’s signal uses the antenna up top here fulltime, and it’s combined with two auxiliary users, WAMU (88.5) and WMAL-FM (105.9). WAMU reciprocates with a WETA backup at its own site over on the American University campus.
The combiner is in WETA’s FM room toward the back of the building, sharing space with the WETA Nautels (and Harris HD transmitter) and a newish tenant here, religious WGTS (91.9 Takoma Park).
Down the hall, the WMAL-FM and WAMU aux transmitters are in a tenant room with other non-broadcast users, and a small room off to the side houses the other full-time tenant FM here, Salem’s religious WAVA-FM (105.1 Arlington).
And there’s still TV out here – sort of: when WETA began some of the earliest DTV testing in the country in the late 1990s, it happened here, and the transmitter that powered it is still in a front room of the building, in what was probably the DuMont engineers’ office back in the day.
Thanks to WTOP’s Brian Oliger and Dave Kolesar and WETA’s Michael Byrnes for the tours!
Our December deals continue this week with a special on the limited-edition Tower Site Calendar — all this week they’re $1 off.
You don’t even need a coupon — you’ll see the sale price when you go to our store.
We had just a few copies of The Radio Historian’s 2018 Classic Radio Studios Calendar this year, and we have already sold out. There may be a second print run depending on demand, so if you wanted to buy it, please send your name and email address to email@example.com and we’ll put you on a waiting list.
And don’t miss a big batch of Washington IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: WPHT, WOGL and WRTI, Philadelphia, 2013