Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It’s amazing how time flies when you’re having fun out on the road photographing tower and studio sites. It’s been almost exactly 13 years since we last crossed paths with the Raleigh-Durham market, back on a whirlwind 2003 expedition into the Carolinas, and somehow we’ve now done deep dives into that market twice in less than six months.
The first of our two recent visits was in late September, on the way down to the NAB Radio Show in Atlanta, when we spent a delightful morning checking out some of the sites that belong to local owner Don Curtis.
Foremost among his holdings, at least from the point of view of tower hunting, is WPTF (680 Raleigh), the big 50,000-watt signal that’s heard far and wide from its site in Cary, halfway between Raleigh and Durham.
Last time, all we did was drive by; this time, we enjoyed an extensive peek inside, where WPTF has been joined by two other signals in recent years. WFNL (570 Raleigh) moved here a few years ago from a site closer to Raleigh; WKIX (102.9 Raleigh) has a heritage set of calls but is a fairly recent drop-in.
WFNL’s comedy format comes from the little rack at top left, on the left side of a U-shaped arrangement of transmitters that surrounds an unusual enclosed control booth at the center of the big transmitter room. WPTF’s night phasor is also on the left; a Harris DX-50 is the main WPTF transmitter straight ahead of the booth, and a Continental 317-series is the WPTF backup on the right.
WKIX’s main and backup transmitters sit behind the control booth, backing up to a storage area. I suspect this was where WPTF-FM used to be; we’ll catch up with its current location in a bit.
There’s a huge basement at this site, which was once filled by power transformers. This space includes an enclosed fallout shelter with some very vintage equipment and that distinct scent that can only belong to an old transmitter site storage room.
Outside on this gray September day, we admire the Deco architecture of the transmitter building exterior, with its big windows that still look into the main transmitter room and out to the train line that parallels East Chatham Street between the road and the site itself.
Out back, there are three towers here, the 500-foot day tower that’s now crowned by the the WKIX 102.9 antenna and for the 104.7 translator that relays another Curtis station, “Just Right Radio” WPTK (850), about which we’ll have more to say in just a moment.
There’s an old slot antenna on the ground behind the building, too; I think this may have been WPTF-FM (94.7), or possibly WPTF-TV (Channel 28), which was at a different location.
At one time, WPTF had a fierce rivalry with WKIX (850 Raleigh), but today Curtis owns both signals. 850 has tried many formats in recent years; when we visited, it had just flipped from “WPTF 850,” running a complementary talk format to 680, over to a variety hits format as “Just Right Radio.”
Its current transmitter site dates only from the 1980s, after the original WKIX site (previously WNAO, for the News and Observer) succumbed to development. Today, this site west of Cary is itself heavily surrounded by newish development of its own.
From here, WPTK runs 10 kW days, 5 kW nights, with a nice layout that parallels a Harris DX10 and Continental 316 on one side and a phasor on the other. There’s a control room at the back, and some spare studio furniture in front that could be used as an emergency studio if the need arose.
The Curtis studios are located northeast of Raleigh in the Highwoods office park, an area full of broadcasters. Capitol Broadcasting’s radio stations are right next door, iHeart is not far away – and Curtis itself shares a big building with WPTF’s former TV partner. Channel 28 is now My affiliate WRDC, while sister station WLFL-TV 22 is CW, and they’re owned by Sinclair and located on the lower floors of this building.
Curtis is upstairs, sprawling out along several wings of the building. The WPTF newsroom (and the North Carolina News Network) has pride of place along one wall, with several adjoining studios dedicated to the news operation. A big rack room separates the newsroom from a long line of studios on the other side of this wing.
WPTF’s talk studio and control room anchor one end of studio row, adjoining studios for country giant WQDR (94.7, the former WPTF-FM). Spanish-language WYMY (101.1 Burlington) also has a spacious studio here.
Several of Curtis’s smaller stations operate from smaller studios in the central core of this wing. “Pulse” is a rhythmic top-40 simulcast on WWPL (96.9 Goldsboro) and WPLW (102.5 Hillsborough). WKIX (102.9) is classic hits.
And up at the front of the hallway, WBBB (96.1) is largely automated, running variety hits as “Radio 96.1.”
Out at the east end of the market, three 2000-foot towers line US 70 near Garner, North Carolina. The weather keeps us from seeing much of the tops of them, but we get a nice tour of Curtis’ piece of the westernmost of the towers. The current site at this spot was rebuilt after a 1989 storm took down both its predecessor and the nearby site of WRAL-TV/FM; after the storm, WRAL’s owner, Capitol Broadcasting, partnered with Durham Life, the owner of WPTF-TV/WQDR, to put up this beefy new tower.
Each partner here took half of the new building, and when Durham Life sold the TV and radio stations to separate owners, both owners continued to share the former WPTF-TV room.
Curtis’ WQDR (94.7) has a shiny new Nautel transmitter and an older Continental for backup, feeding antennas way way up high on the tower; Sinclair’s WRDC (Channel 28/RF 27) has the Acrodyne transmitter typical of all Sinclair stations. Next door, WRAL-FM (101.5) is still there, along with Capitol sister station WCMC-FM (99.9 Creedmoor). But there’s no other TV on this tower anymore – Capitol and several other broadcasters built another 2000-footer nearby for the DTV transition, and now WRAL-TV is over there instead of over here. (We’ll show you that in a few months when we chronicle the trip we’re on right now, which included visits to WRAL’s side of this building…)
Thanks to Curtis Media’s Allen Sherrill for the tour!
THE RADIO HISTORIAN’S CALENDAR IS OUT!
This is a special year for radio, and The Radio Historian is celebrating its 100-odd-year history in the 2022 calendar The calendar features images originating from original black-and-white photographs, digitally remastered and colorized to replicate the original scenes as accurately as possible. You can order it from us here.
And when you buy the Radio Historian calendar, don’t forget to buy the Tower Site Calendar — perfect in any room. We’re marking the 20th anniversary of the Tower Site Calendar, and we’re also celebrating the 100th anniversary of America’s radio boom in 1922, when the industry really took off and stations erupted all over the country. Our calendar showcases the survivors from the Class of 1922, which grew into some of America’s biggest radio stations. It’s nearly off the press and will ship in time for Christmas. Order yours here.
And check out our other great merchandise!
And don’t miss a big batch of Raleigh-Durham IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Florence, Columbia and Augusta