Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we left you in last week’s installment of our May visit to Utica, we were about 20 miles east of the city at the venerable WKTV (Channel 2) tower near Middleville. More to the point, we were in the company of NECRAT.us‘ own Mike Fitzpatrick, who’s always just a little more eager than we are to go chasing little FM towers in the middle of nowhere.
Aw, who are we kidding…we were actually just as eager to head up into the hills to see a few FM sites we’d never seen before. And so we found ourselves west of Middleville (and about 15 miles east of Utica), near the sites of two relatively new FM entrants.
WMHU (91.1 Cold Spring) is just a couple of years old, relaying the Syracuse-based Mars Hill religious network to the Utica area; a few hundred yards to the west across a cow pasture sits Ken Roser’s “Bug Country” WBGK (99.7 Newport Village) and its three-bay antenna.
From here, we head west and a little south, crossing the Thruway and the Mohawk River and then back up into the hills south of the river to the Higby Road site of Utica’s 100.7, which is now Roser’s AC WUTQ-FM but has been through two decades of earlier incarnations as local religious broadcaster WVVC and then EMF’s WKVU. The tower sits up on a hill above the studios for WVVC, which lives on as an LPTV station and as the lower-powered 88.1 FM that we saw at the WKTV site.
With a few hours yet to spare before our train is due to get us back to Rochester, it’s off to see what’s left of Utica’s AM dial…and it’s a little depressing, to be honest. We start south of Utica in Washington Mills at WTLB (1310), which was the big top-40 station here through much of the 1960s and 1970s. Galaxy Communications recently moved out of the studio/transmitter building here and into a new downtown Utica streetside studio – and it’s had a longstanding CP to take down three of these four AM towers, dropping from 5 kW day/500 watts night to 2.6 kW day and just 40 watts at night.
If and when that happens, the last directional AM remaining on the air here will be WIBX (950), whose four-tower site west of Utica recently got an overhaul. The old WIBX studio building still stands out here, too, though the studios have long since moved to a new home just off the Thruway near Marcy.
And that brings us to the saddest of the Utica AM stories, the tale of WRUN. At 1150 on the dial, this was once the best AM signal in town. With 5000 watts day, 1000 watts at night from a five-tower array halfway between Utica and Rome, WRUN was the only AM station that served both cities with a usable signal day and night. It boasted talent that included a young Dick Clark, and it eventually spawned the best FM signal in town, too, a superpower signal at 104.3 that’s now top-rated WFRG, “Big Frog 104.”
And then things started to go south in the 1990s. WRUN ended up in the same cluster as WIBX, vacating its studios here at the end of Thomas Road in Oriskany. It flirted with standards, and then was sold off to Albany public broadcaster WAMC, then to Syracuse-based Leatherstocking, which turned it into WUTI, a talk simulcast with its WFBL (1390 Syracuse), another AM giant that fell on hard times.
There was vandalism at the tower site, which sits in a swamp across the railroad tracks from the old studio, and in the end WUTI fell silent and stayed silent, with its license deleted in the summer of 2014.
Those old Lingo flagpole-style towers still stood two summers later, though from a distance we could see that the doghouses at their bases had been broken into, a sad end for a once-great station. (Its towers, incidentally, can be seen quite well from the passing Amtrak Empire Service train…)
A few more sites round out our Utica-area day trip: at Utica College, WPNR (90.7) has a callsign that honors the college teams, the “Pioneers.”
Just west of downtown along Route 5S, WUSP (1550) is the old WUTQ(AM), and WBVM before that. Its single tower also flanks the railroad tracks; more to the point, it sits right behind a rendering plant that made this one of the more pungent sites we’ve ever visited. (WUSP is also silent, though its license remains alive under a series of silent STAs).
And we leave you with one more small FM: up in the hills south of Oneida, west of Utica, the former WMCR-FM (106.3) was recently sold to Family Life Ministries, which is now running it as WCIT-FM. Expect this site to go away before long, since FLM has already announced it wants to move 106.3 closer to Utica to reduce overlap with its other recent acquisition, the 105.1 in DeRuyter that’s now WCIS-FM.
And don’t miss a big batch of Utica IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Springfield, Mass.