Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we left off in last week’s Site of the Week installment, we were overlooking Reading, Pennsylvania from up on Mount Penn, the ridge east of downtown that’s crowned by several broadcast towers and a mock pagoda.
After lunch in the pagoda snack bar (and there‘s a sentence I’ve never typed before), we headed down Duryea Drive and into downtown Reading, bound for the studios of WEEU (830) to complete the tour we’d started earlier in the day up north at the WEEU transmitter site.
WEEU has been at this site since 1969, when the Reading Eagle moved its radio stations into a former insurance company office on North Fourth Street, just across the street from the newspaper’s own building.
(WEEU had moved around downtown several times already, occupying studios at 433 Penn Street a block south of its current site, and at 533 Penn Street, a block east of that.)
Step over the blue WEEU welcome mat and into the lobby, and let’s make our way upstairs to the long hallway that’s home to this neat local station’s studios. Before we see those, we take a moment to admire the pictures on the walls outside the programming offices, highlighting some of the stars who’ve appeared on WEEU over its 85 years on the air.
There’s Hank (as in Williams), Frank (as in Sinatra) – and who was that poised young lady making her very first ever radio appearance on WEEU early in the 21st century? Taylor Swift, of course, who was born here in Reading and was living in suburban Wyomissing before moving to Nashville to hit it big.
WEEU’s main control room sits on the left side of the hallway, right across from the elevator. It’s spacious, with a nice view through the window straight ahead to the talk studio next door – and a good view out across the hallway to the newsroom, too.
Across the hall, there’s a production room next to the newsroom, then a rack room.
And then we get to the room we never expected to find in a standalone AM station: in what had been the storage room at the end of the hallway, WEEU built its “Sound Room” a few years ago. This big space is a performance studio, complete with lighting and video facilities, which we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in FM music stations, but not so much in AM-only facilities. And what could have been a simple black box of a studio is so, so very much cooler – because the station lined the stage end of the room with basic wooden bookcases, then filled the bookcases with all of the stuff that would ordinarily have sat for decades collecting dust in a radio storage room. Reel to reel machines, old consoles, radios, carts, books – it’s all here in a glorious tribute to WEEU’s history that makes a fun backdrop for performers.
It didn’t cost much to build, it’s decidedly eye-catching, and at this point, why isn’t every radio station with any pretense of a local presence building one of these?
We’ve still got plenty of time before the Reading Fightin’ Phils game that will cap off our day in town, so we’re happy to ride along with Mark Humphrey to see an FM site we hadn’t expected to visit – it’s a long drive through traffic westward on two-lane US 422 out of Reading through Wyomissing, Wernersville and Robesonia toward Womelsdorf, where we turn south off the highway and uphill toward Eagles Peak, which started off as a cable TV headend site before becoming a link in the growth of Philadelphia public radio station WRTI in the early 1990s.
When WRTI spawned its first full-power relay station, WJAZ (91.7 Summerdale), it needed several hops for its studio-transmitter link. The first hop went to Mount Penn east of Reading – and from there across the Schuylkill River valley to Eagles Peak, which in turn has a nice westward line of sight over to the Harrisburg area and the WJAZ site.
As long as there was WRTI audio going through here, why not add an FM transmitter to bring the station’s programming to the Ephrata area just to the south? What started as a translator on 90.7 became full-power WRTL in 2000, filling the gap between WJAZ to the west and WRTI’s Mount Penn translator to the east. This Eagles Peak site also became a relay point for WRTI’s Philadelphia competitor, WXPN (88.5), connecting its programming to its own Harrisburg relay, WXPH. And the old cable headend tower next door now sports a translator on 98.7 relaying Lancaster’s Spanish-language religious LPFM, WLEB-LP (93.1) – which is in turn picked up back on Mount Penn in Reading to feed a 106.3 translator there.
As for the Fightin Phils? They earned their reputation as one of the most entertaining minor-league experiences out there, with a vintage ballpark filled with food and fun, capped off with a 5-4 victory that night.
Thanks to WEEU’s John Engle and to Mark Humphrey for the tours!
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Next week: Some Bits of Utica