Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
North central Pennsylvania isn’t an area you get to by accident. Maybe you’re making the long slog westward on I-80 from New Jersey to Ohio, or, less likely, you’re headed south through the rugged mountains from western New York toward Johnstown and Pittsburgh. Either way, if you’re spinning the dial looking for a signal that holds in for more than a few minutes amidst the terrain, your dial is likely to land on 97.5, where one of the bigger FM voices in the region belongs to a distinctive country station: Denny Heindl’s WDDH (97.5 St. Mary’s), the country signal that goes by “97.5 the Hound.”
For a relatively young station, 97.5 has had a long and interesting road to becoming “The Hound”: it signed on in 1986 as WKYN, the first radio property owned by Bob Stevens. “97 KYN” operated from studios in a trailer at its remote mountaintop transmitter site, where it was an early stop along the way for budding personalities such as Phlash Phelps. (True story: Phelps was using the airname “Clarke Ingram,” lovingly borrowed from the Pittsburgh programmer/air talent who was born with that name, when the real Clarke Ingram drove up the mountain one day, knocked on the door, and introduced himself to the faux Ingram. The real Ingram, who damaged the water pump in his Volkswagen on that rocky drive up the hill, would later go on to hire Phelps, who would in turn end up as a well-known Sirius XM personality.)
WKYN became WKVE when Stevens added a Johnstown-market simulcast (WXVE 97.3 Spangler), then WPKK (“The Peak”) after Stevens sold the station to Cam Media, and finally WDDH when Heindl bought it. Along the way, the transmitter site relocated westward to its present home south of Kane, and the studio relocated first to a former drive-in theater south of St. Mary’s and then to its current location in a renovated former restaurant at the top of Bootjack Hill, on US 219 just south of Ridgway.
It was there, in some very, very nice studios for such a relatively small market, that we finally made face-to-face contact with Paul Walker, who was then WDDH’s afternoon jock and who had recently been the co-founder of that “I Take Pictures of Transmitter Sites” Facebook group that’s become so incredibly active.
Did we say nice studios? That’s an understatement: how many stations this size have a full Axia interconnected console system, two big studios for music and talk (complete with custom gold-plated EV mics, a special project of chief engineer Joe Portelli?), spiffy woodwork featuring the station logos, and so on?
Two more stations recently joined the Hound up here on Bootjack Hill: Heindl bought WKBI (1400) and WKBI-FM (93.9) from Cary Simpson’s Allegheny Mountain Network in 2013 and moved them in to the WDDH building from their former home over in St. Mary’s. They’re largely voicetracked, but their local talent comes from a studio just across the hall from WDDH at the back of the building, where WKBI-FM’s hot AC “B94” and WKBI’s soft AC formats are promoted with some nifty carpet work on the wall!
WKBI-FM’s tower is just up Boot Jack Hill from the studio, and we take a drive back into the woods to see the stick, which is also home to competitor WJNG (100.5 Johnsonburg, part of the “Mega Rock” simulcast) and to W233BS (94.5), the translator that puts WKBI(AM) on the FM dial for Ridgway and vicinity.
WKBI(AM)’s tower is still at the old studio site on Melody Lane over in St. Mary’s, a dozen or so miles to the east, and while the studio building has been torn down, the AM transmitter sits in a clean little building that used to be out back of the studio. There’s a new Nautel in the rack at right, and that’s an older Energy-Onix for backup at left.
And we finish off back at Boot Jack Hill, at an industrial building on Servidea Drive just up from the WDDH studios, where we see the antenna for one of the many signals in the “Rev FM” religious network out of State College. This one is WRVI (91.1 Ridgway), one of two Rev signals that can clearly be heard around here, along with WRQV (88.1 Ridgway), which now transmits from a site south of here closer to I-80.
Thanks to Paul Walker for the tour!
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Next week: Several historic Cleveland AM sites