Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We’re very, very partial to New York’s Finger Lakes in the spring and summertime. The scenery is picturesque, the wine and beer and food is top-notch, the prices are affordable – and of all the small towns in the Finger Lakes, we’re especially fond of Penn Yan. Right in the middle of the region, this little village happens to be where your editor spent many happy summers at camp in the 1980s, listening to the quirky local radio stations. (And never suspecting that many years later, he’d know most of the people who worked there and would even end up brokering sales for some of them!)
Back then, Penn Yan’s AM 850 was brand new. A late arrival to the AM game, this signal signed on in 1982 as WOZO, then changed calls quickly to WQKA, as in “Keuka Lake,” the distinctive Y-shaped lake that sits just south of the village. A few years later, WQKA flipped again, picking up the WYLF calls from a Rochester-market FM station that had dropped “Music of Your Life,” and it’s been WYLF for almost three decades now. (The WQKA callsign followed a former employee down the lake and is now attached to a nice little local LPFM station along Keuka Lake at 92.9.)
The studios? They’ve never moved – the office and two small adjoining studios have always sat right in the middle of town, looking out from second-floor windows at 100 Main Street.
Somewhere along the way from WOZO to now, WYLF went non-directional, dropping a second tower and going to 500 watts day (and a smidge of night power) on its one remaining tower a few miles west of the village. Current owner Jeff Pearce has a solid-state Armstrong in the compact transmitter building, next to the carcass of the old GE that originally powered 850 when it went on the air. And now it has a translator as well, giving its standards format 24-hour coverage of Yates County at 93.9 on the dial.
Before 850 ever lit up here, Yates County had another radio voice, based a few miles south in the equally picturesque village of Dundee. WFLR (1570) signed on in 1956, added an FM on 95.9 in 1968, and lived most of the next half-century in a studio built into a 19th-century house in Dundee. (We featured it on Site of the Week back in 2013.)
After the FM signal moved into the Ithaca market and was later sold (it’s now Saga’s top-40 WFIZ 95.5), WFLR added multiple FM translators to its AM 1570 signal – and just this past spring, it moved out of the house in Dundee to a new storefront studio directly across Penn Yan’s Main Street from WYLF.
We weren’t able to be there for the official grand opening of the new WFLR digs at the end of July (we were already on the road, taking our summer break from this column while collecting lots and lots of interesting new visits and stories and pictures for the next few months’ worth of Site of the Week), but we did get an early sneak peek at this nice compact facility.
Just as at the old Dundee house, visitors to WFLR are greeted by the station’s mascot, the latest incarnation of “Wiffler the Cat” (there was a bit of a to-do over whether or not the landlord in the new space would allow a feline tenant, but thankfully everything was resolved in a Wiffler-positive manner), and just as in Dundee, there are two studios running back from the front door.
Cats being cats (and yes, this column leans toward dogs), Wiffler had little interest in being photographed for Site of the Week. Fortunately, the rest of the new studios were rather more photogenic.
It’s all Axia here (yes, with just two studios), and there’s some interesting networking going on: most of the audio heard on WFLR actually plays out of servers 20 miles north at Finger Lakes Radio Group headquarters in Geneva. But for listeners in Yates County on 1570 or on any of the three translators (101.9 to the south in Watkins Glen, 96.9 in Dundee, 96.1 here in Penn Yan), WFLR is plenty local, with local news and sports coming out of the back production room and veteran morning man Mike Smith holding forth in the main air studio up front.
An interesting bit of trivia: this isn’t the first presence WFLR has had in Penn Yan. In much earlier WFLR days (back when that beautiful clock hung in an advertiser’s window), the station had studios in a different downtown Penn Yan storefront. We remember visiting a WFLR sales office just down the street from here back in the 1980s… wonder where those bumper stickers went?
Thanks to WYLF’s Jeff Pearce and WFLR’s Alan Bishop and Mike Smith for the tours!
We still have the 2019 Tower Site Calendar in stock — but we barely have 10 left.
This is the last printing for the year, so if you haven’t ordered yours yet, don’t wait. Order it now.
We still have eight copies of The Radio Historian’s 2019 Calendar available, which are now 20% off.
Check them both out in our store!
And don’t miss a big batch of fresh IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Zanesville, Ohio