Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When I started doing this column some 18 years ago, it was mostly just pictures of towers I’d taken from streetside. After a little while, I realized that most engineers love showing off their sites to those of us who truly appreciate their work. And then, in the last few years, something’s changed: I’m not just photographing other peoples’ work – I’m getting to help broadcasters improve their signals myself.
Here’s one of the clients I’m most proud of: this little pair of studios on the second floor of an old house on the edge of downtown Utica, New York is the home of Phoenix Radio, the newest piece of Cassandra Harris-Lockwood’s growing “For the Good, Inc.”
Serving Utica’s African-American community, For the Good runs community gardens, education and entrepreneurship programs, the “Utica Phoenix” newspaper – and as of last year, two AM licenses that it picked up from the wreckage of a failed attempt to do local sports radio. WUSP (1550 Utica) and WRCK (1480 Remsen) have been mostly silent for the last few years, as has WUSP’s potent translator, W238CA (95.5).
Phoenix reached out to Fybush Media when the AM translator windows opened, and I was very happy to be able to help them file applications for two new FM translators for their AMs – and even happier to finally get to visit in July, just as WUSP and W238CA were returning to the air as “The Heat,” providing a radio voice the local African-American audience had long been missing.
The studios, up a steep set of stairs from the For the Good/Utica Phoenix offices on the first floor, were mostly filled with the gear that the former WUSP owners, Good Guys Broadcasting, had pulled out of their old studios in the Adirondack Bank building downtown. In their new home, the studios were still being finished up, and we’ll be back to see those again sometime soon.
After some strategic planning (which is always more fun to do in person than over the phone!), we headed out with Phoenix’s engineers to see a few of their sites that we’d never seen before. W238CA, the 95.5 translator, is up on Smith Hill just like most of the other big FMs and TVs in town – but while we’ve shown you plenty of sites up there before, we’d never paid much attention to the relatively short tower on Grace Road that carries the 95.5 antenna.
This tower (and another shorter one next door) sits right in the middle of the big tower farm here – just to the east is the Galaxy/EMF tower with WKLL (94.9) and WKVU (107.3) on it, just to the south across Grace Road is the WKTV (Channel 2) studio and the tower out back with several rental tenants, just to the west at the corner of Grace and Smith Hill Roads is WUTR (Channel 20)/WFXV (Channel 33)’s studio and tower, and three more FMs sit on two towers on the west side of Smith Hill Road.
This is an unusually clean site, especially up on the second floor where the translators live. W238CA is in one rack, next to CSN International’s W203BZ (88.5), the latest incarnation of a translator that used to be on 88.1, fed by satellite from WPCS in Pensacola, Florida.
It’s a bright blue-sky summer day, so we stop along Smith Hill Road to get some updated shots of some of the other sites, too, especially the WLZW (98.7) tower that’s now also home to Townsquare sister station WODZ (96.1).
From this high perch up on Smith Hill, we head back down to the valley, just west of downtown Utica and just south of the Mohawk River, where we find the AM 1550 site tucked neatly next to the railroad tracks and a busy rendering plant.
(Be grateful that we have not yet figured out how to add smell-a-vision to the Site of the Week experience! It is pungent back here…)
This site has plenty of history to it: back in 1962, it signed on as Utica’s fourth and last AM station, WBVM, “Blessed Virgin Mary.” For such a small signal so high on the dial, it had an outsized impact for many years, launching many radio careers from its little kilowatt daytime-only signal down here in the muck by the river.
Several owners later, WBVM became WUTQ in 1980, by then a sister station to WOUR on 96.9. Later on, those stations would end up with Clear Channel, and then the AM would be spun to Roser Communications, which added the 95.5 translator, moved the WUTQ calls to a full-power FM signal at 100.7, and sold 1550 and 95.5 to Good Guys Broadcasting, whose collapse allowed Phoenix Radio to come into play and save this signal for yet another new audience.
And so here we are, in a newer transmitter shed that replaced the original 1962 building back here. There’s not much to see right now – when we visited in July, the Gates One that Phoenix inherited from Good Guys was ailing and not ready to make full power, so the little LPB transmitter that provides 1550’s three nighttime watts was pressed into service. That, too, will change, and we’re looking forward to updating you as these signals all get back to full operation in the months to come.
Thanks to Dave Krause and the Phoenix Radio team for the tours!
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Next week: Youngstown, Ohio