Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
The sites we’re showing you in this week’s installment of our June 2016 New England trip all have something in common: they’re all within a few miles of the looping path of the Merrimack River as it makes its way from central New Hampshire south and then east toward the Atlantic.
We start with a site you’ve seen here before – but for all the points at which we’ve stopped on the side of the Everett Turnpike to photograph the vintage tower site of Manchester’s WFEA (1370), we’d never made it inside the transmitter building until this trip.
This site is not only one of the oldest still standing in New England, it may well be the oldest AM tower in continuous use anywhere in the country! The Blaw-Knox diamond tower here went up in 1931, predating by a few months its taller cousins at WLW in Cincinnati and WSM in Nashville.
Back then, WFEA was non-directional on 1340; a power increase a few years later added that Lingo pole on the west end of the property to create a nighttime directional signal. The original transmitter building from 1931 still stands as part of a larger building with two additions that created a new transmitter room and, later, studios that WFEA used out here in the 1960s and 1970s.
Those studios are still out here, now used as emergency backups to the main studios downtown for WFEA and sister station WZID (95.7), which we’ll see in a moment.
The AM and FM studios look into each other and back into the “new” transmitter room, where a new Nautel transmitter and an older SX-series Harris keep WFEA’s talk format humming along. (It’s augmented now by a translator at 99.9, up at the WZID site on Mount Uncanoonuc that we showed you two weeks ago.)
As it hit its 85th anniversary, that Blaw-Knox tower was still going strong out back, with a recent coat of paint helping it to keep its prominent spot for travelers heading from Nashua up to Manchester.
And what became of the original 1931 transmitter building? It was later divided into offices when WFEA moved its operations down here from downtown Manchester; today those offices are being used for storage in this neatly-maintained building.
One more note here – that lovely shot of the WFEA tower shining in the sun? It’s one of the images you’ll find in Tower Site Calendar 2017, now on sale at the Fybush.com store!
Under current owner Saga Communications, WFEA and its sister stations maintain tidy studios on the top floor of one of the old mill buildings next to the Merrimack River on Commercial Street in Manchester, and this was our first visit to those studios, too.
WZID is the flagship of this cluster, and it enjoys brightly-lit studios in the middle of the facility, where we found the morning show winding down.
When WFEA built its studios right off the lobby here, the AM signal was still doing standards, which helps to explain why there are still turntables here. At the moment, WFEA is mostly automated and satellite-fed, though this studio sees some local use on the weekends.
There’s a rack room nearby from which the four signals here are fed out to their various transmitter sites: in addition to WFEA and WZID, there’s classic rock “Mill” (WMLL 96.5 Bedford), which shares the WZID site up at Uncanoonuc, plus “Hits,” which lives on WZID’s HD2 and feeds translators in Manchester and Concord at 94.1 and 103.1.
Unlike most HD subchannels, “Hits” actually has its own studio down the hall here, in a part of the floor that Saga annexed as its Manchester operations grew. WMLL, meanwhile, is down the hall from WZID in a two-studio suite.
One more set of pictures before we leave Manchester behind: we also took advantage of a nice summer evening to take in a Fisher Cats baseball game. The AA-level minor league team plays in a ballpark that’s just down the road from WZID/WFEA and the WMUR studios we also showed you recently – and there’s a neat bit of sponsorship here, as we find out when we get to Section 101 of the park, which is decked out for iHeart’s “Rock 101,” WGIR-FM 101.1.
We diverge a bit eastward from the Merrimack’s course to stop in Derry, where our friend Bill Blount was in the midst of massive studio renovations at his headquarters station, WDER (1320). We’ll visit again sometime soon to show you more of what’s inside this split-level studio/office building…and maybe try to get some better shots of the hard-to-see tower array in the swamp out back, too.
(If you find yourself over this way, be sure to stop around the corner, too, to see the house where poet Robert Frost once lived.)
Our last stop of the day is near the other end of the Merrimack, where Costa-Eagle Broadcasting maintains studios and offices on, appropriately enough, Merrimack Street just off I-495 in Methuen, Massachusetts.
This complex now houses four stations: Spanish-language WNNW (800 Lawrence, plus a translator on 102.9) and WCEC (1490 Haverhill), English talker WCCM (1110 Salem NH) and Portuguese-language WMVX (1570 Methuen), which recently moved here from its longtime home in Beverly.
The WNNW studios have an unusual look for a radio station. They’re a little more carefully soundproofed than your usual new radio construction, and they look out through big windows into an office space that itself looks like a big studio.
And that’s because it was one – in fact, this facility used to be a recording studio, and we’re told that back in the 1980s, New Kids on the Block recorded their first album right here in what’s now Costa-Eagle office space!
WCEC’s smaller studio is also here, adjoining the WNNW studio and looking out into the big office area.
We go upstairs to see the other two stations in the cluster: WCCM has its own office/studio suite up here, and down the hall and around the corner we find the studio where WMVX’s “Nossa Radio” programming is fed out to the transmitter.
Thanks to Saga’s Peter Stohrer, Bill Blount and the staff at Costa-Eagle for the tours!
And don’t miss a big batch of Merrimack Valley IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Boston, 2016