Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
There are not enough gigabytes on the internet to tell the entire story of television in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania with the depth and color it deserves. (Which isn’t stopping Clarke Ingram’s UHFTelevision.com from trying, though!)
Just far enough from Philadelphia to take a stab at being its own separate TV market with the dawn of UHF in the early 1950s, the region stretching from Allentown through Bethlehem and Easton spawned nearly a full dial’s worth of stations – only to prove to be just close enough to Philadelphia to see all of those early UHF signals fail fairly quickly once the Philly stations built tall towers and powered up with full signals later in the decade.
Over in Easton, WEEX radio and the Express had WGLV-TV 57, a DuMont showplace. WLEV-TV 51 in Bethlehem had a good few years with NBC before Philadelphia’s channel 3 came booming in. On channel 39, WQCY had a construction permit but never saw air. And for a few short months from December 1954 until April 1955, pioneering FM station WFMZ (100.7) operated WFMZ-TV on channel 67 before going dark.
Two decades later, a new WFMZ-TV returned to the airwaves here, this time on channel 69 – and from its debut in 1976 until now, it’s been a neat small-market TV success story that we were eager to see in person.
The WFMZ-TV studio and transmitter site sits off East Rock Road on Allentown’s South Mountain, a steep uphill climb from I-78, and we had the chance to visit one morning this past March.
Standing in the lobby and looking up, an alert visitor notices what appear to be radio studios up above – and indeed, they are: those are the old WFMZ-FM studios, though there hasn’t been a WFMZ-FM since the 1997 sale of the 100.7 facility to Citadel. (It took another heritage set of Lehigh Valley calls, becoming WLEV-FM; the former WLEV-FM on 96.1 is now “Cat Country” WCTO.)
Those radio studios now belong to religious station WJCS (89.3), Beacon Broadcasting’s non-commercial signal that shares some roots with WFMZ’s Maranatha Broadcasting ownership – but instead of heading up, we head back, into one of several additions that have been tacked on to the original 1976-era WFMZ-TV building.
While it started out as an independent station with a heavy dose of religious programming, WFMZ-TV found its focus with local news. It started with two local newscasts daily for the Lehigh Valley, but by the turn of the century began adding more and more local news aimed not only at Allentown and vicinity but also at Reading, 30 miles or so to the west. (That city had its own fascinating UHF history, too, but was without any local newscasts once Philadelphia TV took over there.)
Today’s WFMZ is a local news monster: it does more than eight hours of local news every weekday morning and evening, including several “Berks Edition” newscasts aimed at Reading and a Spanish-language newscast that airs at 6:30 on WFMZ’s 69.4 subchannel and at 11 on its main channel. There’s a new high-tech control room for HD news, plus a backup control room; the studio is an expansion of the original 1976 studio, where several walls were blown out for subsequent growth in the years that followed.
The advent of DTV brought an all-weather channel on 69.2, Heroes & Icons on 69.3 and RetroTV on 69.4.
That may change somewhat as WFMZ adapts to the repack and spectrum auction: Maranatha got more than $140 million for WFMZ’s RF 46 spectrum here in Allentown – but it’s not going off the air. That’s because WFMZ is entering into channel-sharing deals that will keep in on the air in the Lehigh Valley, as well as on its newly-purchased sister station, KJWP (Channel 2) in Philadelphia. (And no, we don’t know all the details of those deals just yet.)
The WFMZ tower out back still has 100.7 (now WLEV) on it, as well as WJCS (89.3) and another newer noncomm, public radio WDIY (88.1 Allentown). It’s also home to several translators – and to Allentown’s PBS station, WLVT (Channel 39).
The current Lehigh Valley TV dial is filled out with a third station from the tower just down the road from WFMZ: religious WBPH (Channel 60) operates from RF 9, and we suspect it will be the channel-sharing partner of both WFMZ and WLVT, which gets $82 million from selling its RF 39 spectrum in the auction.
WLVT is the oldest UHF station still standing in the Lehigh Valley, having signed on in 1965 from studios in a school building. It later moved to a location on “Sesame Street,” a driveway along North Mountain Road south of Bethlehem – and then again in 2011 to a spiffy new studio/office facility (also with a “Sesame Street” vanity mailing address) in the redevelopment of the Bethlehem Steel yards closer to downtown.
WLVT’s new digs are designed to be as open to the public as possible, in keeping with the current philosophy of making public broadcast facilities serve as community centers. Walk in and you’re greeted with a broad stairway leading upstairs past a case full of awards – and if you turn around, you’ll see the master control right there in one of the big windows that line the front of the building.
The rack room for the station is right at the top of the stairs; back downstairs, the middle of the building is a big studio for WLVT’s local productions and other contract work, with a control room across the hall next to an open office area for WLVT’s staffers.
Thanks to Brian Dewalt at WFMZ and the staff at WLVT 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.
Don’t forget you can still visit our store to check out our other great products. We’ll be taking preorders for the 2021 calendar soon. Stay tuned!
And don’t miss a big batch of Lehigh Valley IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Southern Connecticut, 2017