Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It’s been almost 80 years now since a new radio station in New Haven, Connecticut uprooted from its daytime-only status from a studio and transmitter site downtown to a full-time directional array in what was then deep suburbia to the north in Hamden.
The station was WELI, which started in 1935 as WMFI as a daytimer on 900 and quickly changed its name to honor Eli Yale, who apparently gave his name to some sort of small college in the area. (Boola boola!) By 1936, WELI had secured a CP to move from 900 up the dial to 930, but it took three more years to get the directional array built out up on Benham Road (now Benham Street) in Hamden.
The NARBA shuffle of 1941 took WELI up the dial once more to its present home at 960, followed after the war by the addition of more towers to take WELI to 5000 watts full-time – and then in 1964 by the move of the station’s studios from downtown to a new facility, “Radio Towers Park,” that went up behind the old transmitter building here.
(The outer two towers are original; the middle two were rebuilt in 2011 after structural issues forced the originals to be demolished.)
Consolidation over the years eventually brought WELI’s archrivals, WAVZ (1300) and its sister FM WKCI (101.3), here to Radio Towers Park – and over the years the cluster made its way into bigger and bigger corporate hands, eventually landing with Capstar/Clear Channel/iHeart, which had just recently finished renovating the front end of the building when we stopped by for a visit in March. It’s an interesting contrast, isn’t it, between the iHeart corporate red walls and modern lobby furniture and the straight-outta-1964 wall of studio windows?
Head through the doors and down the hallway and you very quickly get back to 1964: running along the back side of the studio complex here is a large room that would have served back then as WELI’s master control, with an engineer looking into the main studio in one direction and the station’s RCA transmitter and phasor behind.
The phasor’s still there, but the transmitter yielded to a Harris MW5 and then the current BE AM6 that takes up hardly any space at all. The racks on either side of the transmitter now handle the STL and processing for the other stations here – WAVZ’s transmitter is to the south in New Haven, while WKCI is not far to the north on Mad Mare Mountain in Hamden. And that control board from 1964? It’s still here, though the old master control area is now mainly used for storage of old gear.
The old main WELI studio that was visible from the control room is still here, and still big, but now it serves a double function: one end of it is set up as the current WELI master control, while the other end has a big table for WELI’s morning talk show hosted by Vinnie Penn. (The rest of the day, as at most iHeart talkers, is all off the satellite – Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity and so on.)
Working our way around the other end of the old master control brings us down the hall on what’s now the WKCI side of the studio compound: there’s a promotions office and production studios, which double as studios for WAVZ’s Fox Sports format and “100.9 the Beat,” the rhythmic format that feeds WKCI’s HD2 and a translator.
WKCI’s top-40 format comes from a long, narrow studio next to WELI, looking into WELI’s studio on one side and out to the lobby on the other. That’s current KC101 PD Adam Rivers we see in the studio, holding the Tower Site Calendar. He’s come a long way from his early days posting on radio message boards as a teenager, having become one of the top young programmers in the business!
Collectively, WELI and WAVZ/WKCI represent most of the New Haven broadcast scene that wasn’t ever part of the other big broadcast group in town. There’s no longer a station in town called WNHC, but from 1945 until 1998, those calls were an important part of the New Haven scene on AM, FM and TV. WNHC(AM) on 1340 held on to the calls the longest, before being sold to Yale University and becoming WYBC(AM) in 1998. WNHC-FM on 99.1 became WPLR in the 1970s, the city’s premier FM rocker, and is now part of the Cox cluster based down the road in Milford.
And WNHC-TV, the first TV station in Connecticut back in 1948, moved from channel 6 to channel 8 and eventually ended up as an ABC primary affiliate after New Haven became part of a combined market with Hartford, which had its own NBC and CBS outlets.
In its WNHC-TV days, channel 8 (along with AM 1340 and FM 99.1) was part of Walter Annenberg’s legendary Triangle Broadcasting, operating from the Chapel Street studios from which it had signed on; in 1971, it became WTNH under Capital Cities, which moved the station in 1984 to its current building on Elm Street at the edge of downtown.
WTNH has been through plenty of changes in the years it’s been here: Capital Cities had to spin it off to Cook Inlet when it bought ABC (and nearby WABC-TV in New York), and it’s subsequently gone through LIN to Media General to present owner Nexstar. It’s added a sister station, the former WTVU/WBNE (Channel 59), now WCTX with MyNetwork TV. (If you go back far enough, that channel 59 license goes all the way back to 1953 as…yup, WELI-TV, with plans to locate a studio at Radio Towers Park; it was never built out but remained as a ghostly presence on the FCC’s books for more than 40 years before finally hitting the airwaves in 1995. Read more about that bizarre history from K.M. Richards at UHFTelevision.com, with a bonus look at the Radio Towers Park building in the 1960s!)
Under LIN, WTNH and eventually WCTX as well were hubbed up north at sister station WWLP in Springfield, Mass.; there’s no master control here, as a result. But there’s a vibrant news operation in a big corner newsroom that’s been through several expansions, and a slick new set in the adjoining studio. (And, this being a sprawling statewide market, two more news offices up in Hartford to the north and in New London to the east.)
And there’s one more TV station in New Haven, too: on East Rock, the outcropping that rises up northeast of Yale, Connecticut Public TV has had a fill-in transmitter for decades to reach into parts of the city that can’t see its higher-powered signals from Hartford or Bridgeport.
WEDY may behave like a low-power station, but it’s a full-power license, formerly on analog 65 and now digital on RF 41 (after initially going digital on RF 6!). It gave up its spectrum in the auction, and it appears the WEDY license will shift to a spectrum share on Bridgeport’s WZME (Channel 43/RF 42, repacking to RF 21), though nothing official has yet been filed.
Thanks to KC101’s Adam Rivers and WTNH’s Jen Ruggiero 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 Connecticut IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Eastern Connecticut and Webster, Mass.