Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years in Utica, that friendly smallish market just a couple of hours down the Thruway from here, and yet there are still sites we’d never seen until it was almost too late. We’ll check out one of those later in this week’s column, after an update to a Utica site we’ve seen plenty of times before.
NBC affiliate WKTV was on channel 13 when it signed on from Smith Hill, north of Utica, back in 1949. While its transmitter moved 11 miles east as part of a channel realignment that shifted WKTV to channel 2 in 1959, its studios have stayed put all these years in that original Smith Hill building, albeit with plenty of renovations along the way.
(Even so, WKTV doesn’t have enough space in the building for all its staff, so commercial production and some other functions are across Smith Hill Road in a small building that also houses the transmitters for Townsquare’s WLZW 98.7 and WODZ 96.1.)
Another renovation was just wrapping up when we stopped by in 2014: the studio at the rear of the building got a new set, new lighting and a new open wall connecting it to the newsroom right behind it.
Things were changing inside the rest of the WKTV building, too. New owner Heartland Media was settling in, and while the station hadn’t gone HD with local news just yet, the new set was ready for that transition, which took place in January 2015.
So is the master control at the heart of WKTV’s technical center, which serves as the control point for both the NBC programming on 2.1 and the CW on 2.2 (and MeTV on 2.3, added just after our visit.)
Out back, there were big changes in the transmitter building that feeds the old channel 13 tower. In addition to WKTV’s own STL and ENG units, this building has long housed Utica transmitters for Syracuse-based public broadcaster WCNY. Today, that’s a Harris main and backup for WUNY (89.5) and a new low-power digital transmitter (at far right in the photo below) for W22DO-D, the relay of WCNY-TV that replaced the old analog transmitter here, W59AU.
And what’s that BE at the left of the photo below? It’s the newest addition to this room, which is now also home to Mindy Barstein’s WXUR (92.7 Herkimer), which moved to Smith Hill a few years ago.
The WUNY and WXUR antennas are on opposite sides of the tower, so we need two shots below to show them both to you (along with W22DO-D, up at the top!)
Just up Smith Hill Road, here’s an outside look at the other TV stations in the farm: WUTR (Channel 20) signed on here in 1970, and today its Nexstar sister station WFXV (Channel 33) is here with its DTV signal as well.
Which brings us to the “see it before it’s gone” part of today’s feature: Ken Roser’s Utica radio cluster was in the midst of making a big move to new digs when we were passing through in early 2015, so we jumped off the Thruway and headed down Genesee Street into the heart of downtown Utica to get a first and last look at the “before” studios, way up on the top floor of the 1926-vintage Adirondack Bank Building. (So high up, in fact, that it’s one floor above where the main elevators stop, requiring a second elevator or a steep flight of stairs to get up here!)
There are three stations here, or five, depending on how you count: the window behind the receptionist looks into the studio of “Bug Country” (WBGK 99.7 Newport Village/WBUG 101.1 Fort Plain), which doubles as an office for our host this day, production director/midday host Dave Silvers. There’s a nice view of the hills around Utica out the windows, too, something that was about to go away as these stations prepared to move to new one-story digs just north of downtown.
The corner studio next to WBUG belongs to “Kiss” (WSKS 102.5 Rome/WSKU 105.5 Little Falls), the top-40 station Roser picked up when Clear Channel exited the market a few years back. Next to that, a smaller studio housed mostly-automated WUTQ (100.7 Utica), the current incarnation of a soft AC format Roser started on AM 1550 years ago. (The AM 1550 signal, now WUSP, along with its 95.5 translator and WRCK 1480 up in Remsen, were sold to another small local group, Good Guys Broadcasting, and they now make their home one floor below in the Adirondack Bank Building.)
There’s still one more station in the Roser portfolio, and we’ll show that too you, as well, as seen later on this cold, icy January day: WVTL (1570 Amsterdam) is the original WBUG(AM). Its single tower sits on Route 30A just south of the Amsterdam Thruway exit, an hour and change east of Utica; that AM tower is now also home to a translator on 104.7.
So why did Roser have to move? Because – and how can you not love this in this day and age – the staff up here was growing so fast that there wasn’t room for everyone anymore. That’s due not just to the radio side of things but also to the advertising agency that Roser runs right next door, and we’re looking forward to getting back to Utica to check out the new spacious digs for both radio and ad agency.
Thanks to WKTV’s Tom McNicholl and WBUG’s Dave Silvers 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: New York’s North Country