Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we made a few trips up to the northern realms of New York State last autumn, we had no idea that the region would suddenly be in the national headlines after those prisoners escaped from Dannemora last week.
Long before network reporters were zipping up the Northway to do standups by the shores of Lake Champlain, we made our way up US 11 for a series of stops in the company of the one and only “Radio Bob” Sauter, who’s the engineering guru for North Country Public Radio and does contract work for most of the other signals around here.
North Country is a remarkable public radio operation, with more than a dozen full-power signals (and even more translators) serving a vast realm that extends from Watertown and Cape Vincent on the west side over to Glens Falls and several Vermont communities on the east side.
It all began, though, at St. Lawrence University in Canton, where WSLU started off as a student station, found its way to the commercial side of the dial at 96.7, then swapped off facilities to land at its present home at 89.5 on the dial – and studio space on the second floor of what’s otherwise largely a medical building along Route 11 in front of the campus.
NCPR’s space here is laid out roughly as a big “L.” One arm of the L houses administrative offices, Bob’s engineering corner and a studio for WREM (88.7), the secondary signal NCPR added a few years ago to carry the PRX “Radio Remix” service. The other arm, off to the right as you enter the second-floor suite, is where we find the rest of the studios: individual studio/offices for NCPR’s talented news team, a talk studio and a control room facing out toward Route 11.
There’s also a production suite around the corner, where NCPR produced lots of local music for a neat three-CD set that came out a few years ago.
After the studio tour (and a peek at the really cool and quite ancient elevator machinery up in the penthouse above the NCPR studios, which is also where the STLs hang out), it’s off to see some towers, starting off southeast of town up on County Road 27 at the tower of NCPR’s flagship stations, WSLU and WREM.
WSLU is in the front room of the little block building by the tower base, with a newer BE transmitter and the old Singer-branded CCA that it replaced. WREM, the later addition, is in a small room out back, using another CCA.
This next part takes a bit of explaining: when WSLU moved to 89.5, it sold its old commercial-band frequency, 96.7, to a commercial broadcaster who relaunched it as WVNC in 1986. WVNC changed calls and format a few times over the years, eventually ending up as “Yes FM” under the WPAC calls (which had a long history over in Ogdensburg) before another big swap in 2004. That’s when co-owned WNCQ (102.9) in Morristown, near Ogdensburg to the west of here, swapped frequencies with the Canton station. 96.7 in Canton moved to 102.9 and picked up the WNCQ calls and country “Q” format that had been on in Morristown; 102.9 in Morristown changed frequency to 96.7 and soon became WYSX, “Yes FM,” the calls and format it still uses over there today.
The upshot of all that shuffling was to boost 102.9 to a 23.5 kW class C3 signal that covers a bigger expanse of the North Country from its home right across the road from WSLU/WREM. This site was also home for some time to yet another newer commercial station, WRCD (101.5 Canton), which eventually boosted power from a higher site south of here to better aim across the border at Ottawa and eastern Ontario.
From Canton, it’s just a short jaunt eastward to the neighboring college town of Potsdam, where things have been changing along US 11. The longtime radio voices in Potsdam, WPDM (1470) and WSNN (99.3), still have their transmitters in this little white building on the south side of the road, but their studios have moved to new digs in the village (which we’ll come back and see on a future trip!)
WPDM’s Nautel transmitter is now augmented by an FM translator at 100.1, housed in the rack between the AM rig and WSNN’s Harris transmitter down at the end of transmitter row. In the fall of 2004, 1470/100.1 was doing CBS Sports Radio, but has since flipped to country; WSNN, meanwhile, is “B99.3,” running 80s hits.
The whole facility is preserved pretty much as it looked the day the new studios were ready: there’s still copy on the desks, calendars on the wall and even a half-consumed can of soda in one of the managers’ offices on the other side of the row of studios that faces the transmitters. It’s a neat little time capsule of a great small-town radio station.
Thanks to “Radio Bob” Sauter 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 North Country IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: More North Country, 2014