Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of the oldest stations in central Pennsylvania is also one of the last family-owned radio groups in the area – and so the real mystery here is why it took us so long to finally make our way off Route 15 and up the hill to see Sunbury Broadcasting’s cozy home alongside the five-tower array of its AM flagship, WKOK (1070 Sunbury).
A little history before we step inside: WKOK began as WJBU, the radio voice of Bucknell University just down the river in Lewisburg. In May 1933, WJBU moved to Sunbury, changed calls, and came under the management of the Sunbury Broadcasting Corporation, whose founders included Harry Haddon. Haddon’s grandson, Roger Haddon, Jr., manages the station these days, presiding over lots of growth in the ensuing 80-plus years.
In 1963, those changes brought WKOK from its longtime home at 1240 on the dial to 1070 and from its old transmitter site in town to this location up on the hill on County Line Road just west of the spot where the west branch of the Susquehanna flows into the river’s main course.
Initially just a transmitter site, the building here was expanded later on to serve as studios for WKOK(AM) and what was then WKOK-FM (94.1), mostly simulcasting the AM.
Today, there are five stations under the Sunbury Broadcasting roof here. WKOK is the news-talk signal, with 10 kW by day and 1 kW at night. There’s a big talk studio at the center of the complex here, along with a smaller control room just adjacent.
Adjoining the AM studio is the former WKOK-FM, now top-40/hot AC “94KX” WQKX, with a dominant signal that blankets the valley from a site a few miles south of here near Trevorton. That’s morning man Drew Kelly posing in the studio in the middle of the very comprehensive tour he was giving us.
The third station to join the cluster here started off as another incarnation of WKOK-FM in 1994, when a newly dropped-in facility signed on at 107.3, licensed just across the river in Northampton. After a few years as a WKOK simulcast, 107.3 went classic rock in 1998 as WEGH, “Eagle 107,” and it’s kept that format for two decades now. (Its studio, adjoining the WKOK transmitter room and rack room, is the former WKOK main studio.)
The L-shaped transmitter room is the pride and joy of longtime engineer Harry Bingaman, who prides himself on being (if we recall correctly) just the third chief engineer in WKOK’s long history.
That’s a gorgeous and fully functional Collins 21M transmitter in the middle of the row there, though by the time we visited in the fall of 2016 it had long since been supplanted by the Nautel AMPFET 10 that sits just to the left of the Collins.
To the right of the Collins is the phasor for five-tower 1 kW nighttime operation – and to the right of the phasor is the brand new Nautel NX10 that Harry was just getting ready to install as WKOK’s new main transmitter.
The racks for the cluster form the other arm of the “L” here in tech-land, visible from windows behind the Eagle’s DJ position; there’s some wonderful vintage gear back here alongside everything that Harry still uses to keep these stations humming along.
The newest pieces of the Sunbury Broadcasting empire are the two stations licensed just up the river in Milton, which the Haddons bought in 2002: WMLP (1380) now does a mostly-satellite talk format, while AC WVLY-FM (100.9) is “The Valley.”
Both operate from what were once production rooms across the hall from the main studio complex, looking out to the front of the building.
With big thanks to Drew and Harry (and a promise to come back sometime to see the other transmitter sites in the cluster), we head out into the late afternoon sunshine for one more station visit before dusk.
20 miles or so east of Sunbury, we’ve been following the story of Bloomsburg’s WHLM (930) for as long as this column has been around. Back in 2003, we showcased Joe Reilly’s excellent little local station and recounted the unusual set of circumstances in which both threads of Bloomsburg radio history – Harry L. Magee’s WHLM (once on 550) and its erstwhile competitor WCNR (930) – came together to form a new WHLM on 930, brought back from near-death by Reilly and his family.
Since that profile, Joe’s been busy here indeed! WHLM moved down Main Street from the old “WHLM Building” to a much more visible streetfront studio not long after that 2003 column, then bought WKAB (103.5 Berwick) just down the road, flipping it to WHLM-FM as “Classic Rock 103.5.”
WHLM(AM) has grown, too: Joe bought former competitor WFBS (1280 Berwick), too, using it to simulcast “Newsradio 930” to the east. He feeds the WHLM programming to three FM translators now, 104.3 here in Bloomsburg, 94.7 to the east in Berwick and 105.5 to the west in Danville. That 105.5 signal? It comes from an antenna mounted in a tree – and you just know we need to get back this way before long to check that out, too!
Thanks to Drew Kelly and Harry Bingaman at Sunbury Broadcasting and Joe Reilly at WHLM for the tours!
The Fybush Media podcast is back!
Season two of “Top of the Tower” offered you several preview editions during the NAB Show last month in Las Vegas – and now we’re back to regular weekly editions. Join host Scott Fybush and a wide variety of industry insiders every Wednesday for interesting conversation about what’s happening in the business of radio and TV, not to mention programming, engineering and the newsroom.
Find “Top of the Tower” on all your favorite podcast platforms or right here at fybush.com – and check out our Season 1 Archives, too!
And don’t miss a big batch of Susquehanna Valley IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: State College, PA