Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we left you in our last installment of our February-March 2016 “Big Trip,” we had wrapped up a whirlwind day in and around Norfolk, Virginia, which meant it was time to start heading north again.
It wasn’t really the high season to do it, and there wasn’t much daylight left, but we pointed the car over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel anyway, headed for the fascinating scenery of the Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
After emerging from the long bridge-tunnel-bridge-tunnel-bridge complex, US 13 is a quiet rural road up most of the Virginia part of the peninsula, where we paused just before sunset to see the tower of religious WWIP (89.1 Cheriton) and then kept going.
“Hey, wanna detour to see WESR?,” we asked each other as the turn-off approached near Onley, and even though it was dark and almost certain to be closed, we couldn’t resist making the stop anyway.
And it was a good thing we did, because as we rounded the bend just east of 13 to see the WESR tower glowing in the dark, we saw that the lights were on inside, and thus an impromptu tour awaited us after all.
It turned out that morning host Kelley Drummond was hanging around after hours, awaiting some friends who were coming to shoot a scene for an independent movie in the WESR studio. They picked well: WESR (1330) and WESR-FM (103.3) are a great flashback to small-town radio as it once was. From the front room that looks right into the FM studio to the wood-paneled AM studio off to one side of the lobby, this is a classic radio facility indeed, as useful today as it was when it was built in 1958.
Both stations are dual-licensed, to “Onley-Onancock,” with country on the AM and AC on the FM, which has been on the air since 1968, a decade after the AM signed on. (The AM station added a translator after our wintertime visit.)
The movie crew eventually showed up, and we moved on, heading another hour north across the Maryland state line to an overnight stop in Salisbury, the commercial center of the peninsula.
Salisbury is a two TV-station town, though only relatively recently. WMDT (Channel 47) signed on as an ABC affiliate in 1980, supplementing cable coverage from Baltimore and Washington stations. We didn’t get in to its studios on Salisbury’s downtown mall, but we did get to see the TV station that long preceded WMDT to the local airwaves.
WBOC-TV (Channel 16) dates to 1954, one of the oldest surviving UHF operations anywhere. Its building on old US 13 north of downtown Salisbury is even older – it goes back to 1940, when WBOC radio (today’s WTGM 960 and WQHQ 104.7) went on the air at this very spot.
Over the years, a succession of owners (local Peninsula Broadcasting, then the Baltimore Sun‘s Abell family, and since 1980, local Draper Holdings) have kept expanding this building, creating a state-of-the-art broadcast center stretching back from the 1940 Deco facade that faces the highway.
(What’s that across the highway to the west? It’s the tower of the local Maryland Public Television transmitter, WCPB channel 28/RF 28. WBOC and WMDT both have their towers north of here; WBOC is just across the state line in Laurel, Delaware, while WMDT is near Sharptown, Maryland, just west of where the Delaware state line bends.)
WBOC re-entered the radio business in 2015 when it bought religious WOLC (102.5 Princess Anne) and turned it into AC WBOC-FM. The FM studio took over a former office right behind the reception desk in the WBOC lobby – which had, in turn, been an original radio studio back in 1940.
A long hallway stretches back from the lobby into an earlier expansion of the building, incorporating the original TV studio, newsroom and a production control room. But that expansion was dwarfed a few years ago when WBOC dedicated a massive new building that’s at the end of the long hallway, back where the transmitter tower once stood.
Aside from a master control/rack room complex that’s just off to the right as you walk into the new expansion, this is basically one big newsroom/studio in the round, surrounding a news desk at the center.
This is a much more sophisticated operation than you might expect in market #143, which may explain why WBOC’s newscasts (on both its CBS main channel and “Fox 21” subchannel) are by far the highest rated shows in town.
Thanks to WESR’s Kelley and the staff of WBOC for the tours!
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Next week: More Delmarva Peninsula