Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Utica gets a bad rap, it’s true. Even those of us in other parts of upstate New York have been known to take the occasional pot shot at this small city that’s known primarily for its low-priced beer and its unusual local delicacies. (“Chicken riggies,” anyone? How about some “Utica greens“?)
Utica’s profile is so low, in fact, that even legendary tower photographer Mike Fitzpatrick had driven right past the city for years on his way to come get some NECRAT.us pictures in nearby Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.
We fixed that in May 2016 with a one-day sweep through as much of Utica as we could see before Mike had to head back east and I had to catch a train westward. (Which ended up being three hours late, but that’s a story of CSX and Amtrak, and I digress…)
Our first stops for the day were all up on Smith Hill, the Utica TV/FM tower farm that we’ve profiled here several times in the past. This time, we started our tours at the top of the hill at the studio/transmitter building for Nexstar’s WUTR (Channel 20) and WFXV (Channel 33), where there had been plenty of changes in recent years. There’s a restarted news operation with a new set in the old WUTR studio and a new newsroom and control room in part of what had been the old analog WUTR transmitter room. (The digital transmitters for WUTR and WFXV are down the hall now in a newer transmitter space back by the tower.)
Changes in regional ownership also meant that WUTR/WFXV’s master control had come back in house for a while, requiring a rebuild of the engineering core at the center of the building.
Just across Smith Hill Road to the west, the tower of Galaxy’s WOUR (96.9) had an extra addition since our last visit – click on the photo to enlarge it and you’ll see the antenna for Galaxy’s 99.1 translator about halfway down. (At the time, it was relaying sports from WTLB 1310; it’s since become an HD2 relay with variety hits as “Tony.”)
Just south of WUTR is the oldest TV station in town, WKTV (Channel 2), which has been up here since 1949. This facility, too, has undergone some big changes lately, most recently the decommissioning of the old master control (which sat in the middle of an engineering area toward the back of the building) and the creation of a new control room in what had been the production control area.
This new room handles both production control for WKTV’s newscasts and master control for WKTV’s four streams of programming, which now include not only its legacy NBC on 2.1 and its CW and MeTV subchannels but also its recent addition of CBS on 2.2.
There’s a new news set here, too, which incorporates not only the original WKTV studio but also opened up a wall into the adjoining newsroom, which now forms the backdrop for channel 2’s newscasts.
The tower across the street still holds Townsquare’s WLZW (98.7) and WODZ (96.1); behind WKTV’s own building, the original 1949 channel 13 tower still holds WKTV’s STLs as well as antennas for W22DO-D (the Utica relay of Syracuse PBS outlet WCNY), WUNY (89.5; relaying WCNY-FM from Syracuse) and Herkimer-licensed WXUR (92.7).
From here, we head eastward through the hills to Middleville, some 20 miles east of Utica, where WKTV built a tall tower when a series of channel shuffles in the late 1950s moved it from channel 13 to channel 2.
Because of spacing issues to what were then WGR-TV in Buffalo and WSYR-TV in Syracuse, WKTV couldn’t use channel 2 from Smith Hill, and so it picked this hilltop site to serve a broad swath of central New York. Even after the move to DTV (and RF channel 29) eliminated the spacing issues, WKTV stayed put out here, using a side-mounted antenna below the old helical channel 2 antenna at the top of the tower.
There’s a small FM on this tower these days, too: religious WVVC (88.1 Dolgeville) has a one-bay antenna tucked away below WKTV’s STL dishes midway up the tower.
Inside the building, little has changed since our last visit at the end of the analog era a few years back. WKTV’s last analog transmitter, an RCA G-line, still sits silently at one end of the room (next to the small rack with WVVC-FM’s gear); at the other end is the Axcera DTV transmitter with its distinctive red stripe that’s carried around the room in a nifty paint job.
An even older analog channel 2 rig, the GE that put WKTV on the air out here in 1959, still sits in pieces out in the garage, a well-preserved bit of central New York TV history.
Thanks to WUTR/WFXV’s Bob Hajec and WKTV’s Tom McNicholl and Bob Thomes for the tours!
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
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And don’t miss a big batch of central New York IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: More Utica