Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
In the grand scheme of things, Interstate 78 isn’t all that important. Unlike its grand coast-to-coast cousins, it runs only 144 miles, connecting the Holland Tunnel to a random spot on I-81 north of Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
There’s one stretch of I-78, though, that’s of particular interest to broadcasters. As the highway enters Berks County from the west, it passes the curtain antenna of WMLK, the international shortwave station owned by the Assemblies of Yahweh, and then just a few miles later, the six-tower array of WEEU (830).
We’ve shown you this site and its predecessor before on this site (here, for instance, in 2003), but we’d never been inside until this warm July morning, when engineer John Engle was on site to do his regular weekly maintenance check.
John built this facility back in 1999 when WEEU sold off its old site closer to Reading, trading 1000 watts on 850 for a much bigger signal on 830, eventually growing to the present 20 kW days, 6 kW at night, aimed mostly southeast to protect WCCO in Minneapolis.
What does a high-powered AM site look like if you’re building it new at the dawn of the 21st century? Without any need to provide for full-time engineers on site, WEEU’s new facility went up in a series of prefab concrete shelters, just big enough to hold the necessary equipment. The biggest of the shelters houses the phasor, STL equipment and two backup transmitters, a Nautel XL12 and an older AMPFET.
There’s a generator in an adjoining shelter – and across from those shelters, a smaller building houses the Nautel XL30 that powers WEEU’s big daytime signal.
We’ll catch up with John again later on our Reading visit – but first, we need to take a quick break from radio stuff to show you a much older roadside attraction directly across I-78 from the WEEU towers.
That wide shot of the towers (which you’ll see in the new 2019 Tower Site Calendar) was actually taken from the parking lot of Roadside America, the venerable tourist attraction that predated the interstate here, back when the road that ran through Shartlesville was just US 22.
Should you ever find yourself over this way to see these towers (or just passing through), and if it’s not a Tuesday or Wednesday, when it’s closed, do yourself a favor and stop for an hour or two to see what was born from one man’s obsession with model trains and model houses. Laurence Gieringer started building models in 1905, opening the earliest version of this miniature world in 1935 in Reading. It’s been in its current location, a former roadside dance hall, since 1953 – and it’s been left largely unaltered since Gieringer died in 1961. (It’s now up for sale, so if you want to see it, it’s probably best not to wait too long!)
If you read up on Gieringer’s story, you’ll learn he first became enamored of miniatures when he was a young boy growing up in Reading, looking up at the bright lights of the houses up on Mount Penn east of downtown.
He set out one night to try to walk up the hill, not realizing the tiny homes he saw were actually big homes way off in the distance – and that, we’re told, is what inspired him to start building his tiny world.
A few years after the young Gieringer tried to walk up Mount Penn, the south end of the ridge became home to an Asian pagoda, originally meant to be a nightclub resort but eventually donated to the city of Reading as a tourist attraction, where you can pay your dollar and walk up six flights of stairs to an observation gallery, as we did with young Eli and our friend Mark Humphrey, engineer and historian extraordinaire.
By the time Gieringer was opening his masterpiece up in Shartlesville in the early fifties, something new was happening back here on Mount Penn, where two new UHF TV stations were being born.
We’ve touched on their stories before in this space, too, but on this July afternoon we got to see their remains more closely, assisted by Mark, who’s done a lot of research on the ground up here to figure out what was where.
One of our players up here was Humboldt Greig, who owned WHUM (1240) and secured the construction permit for WHUM-TV on channel 61. He built WHUM’s high-powered transmitter way up north of Reading (north, even, of Shartlesville) up at Summit Station – but he put the station’s studios in the old hotel here on Mount Penn. That building is gone now, but its foundation remains, and we spend some time in the sun poking around the old stones here to try to match up what we can see to what’s in the pictures from the 1950s.
The other player here was a bit more modest. WEEU radio spawned WEEU-TV on channel 33, operating from studios on Penn Street in downtown Reading and a new stone-faced transmitter building up here on Mount Penn, just north up Skyline Drive from the hotel that housed WHUM-TV’s studios.
Most of the traces of Reading’s UHF history are gone now.
WHUM-TV’s studios left the old hotel here on Mount Penn in 1955, a year before a lightning strike up at the Summit Station transmitter site took the station off the air for good.
The WHUM-TV tower came down in 1958, leaving only three crumbling concrete guy wire anchors in the woods off Route 183 for explorers to find. (We saw one in the brush off the edge of the Appalachian Trail where it crosses 183, but the ground was too swampy for us to get up close to it.)
WEEU-TV went off the air in 1956, once the VHF stations in Philadelphia started building tall towers at Roxborough that provided good service to Reading and vicinity. Its tower is gone (though Mark identified the spot in the pavement where the base once stood), but its building up here on Mount Penn remains in broadcast use.
A new UHF station, WTVE (Channel 51), signed on from this building in 1980 and lasted through several owners before selling off its spectrum in the auction last year; just after our visit in July, it turned off its RF 25 digital signal and began sharing spectrum on a low-power TV station in the Philadelphia market. Another nearby independent UHF, WFMZ (Channel 69) in Allentown, put up a high-power translator up here on channel 24 – and the basement of the old WEEU-TV building also houses several FM translators, including two fed by WBYN (107.5) in Boyerstown, a relay of Spanish-language programming from an Allentown HD subchannel, a relay of a Spanish-language Christian LPFM from Lebanon, and a relay of Scranton NPR outlet WVIA. (There’s also a translator up on Mount Penn for Philadelphia public radio WRTI, located just down Skyline Drive at a government site next to the William Penn Fire Tower and the old WHUM-TV studio site.)
And we’re not done yet with Reading – tune in next week to see the WEEU studio and more!
Thanks to Mark Humphrey and WEEU’s John Engle for the tours!
NOT TOO LATE TO BUY THE CALENDAR!
We have shipped piles of our 2021 Tower Site Calendar, and we’ll keep on shipping until it’s gone.
This is the 20th year we have been publishing our calendar. In addition to the beautiful cover shot of WEJL, we have photos from New Jersey, Nebraska, Texas, and much more!
You can get the regular calendar, or you can order a storage bag for it if you keep them, or you can get it signed by Scott (and get a complimentary bag).
And when you’re purchasing your calendar, don’t forget to take a look at the other great products in our store.
And don’t miss a big batch of Reading IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Reading 2018, part II