Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
OK, we’ll gladly acknowledge there are more likely tourist destinations out there. But after more than two decades of making the trek from upstate New York to northern Indiana several times each year, we’re always up for an alternate route and a different stop along the way, and so our big mid-summer 2018 trip found us spending our first night in…
Which, if you’re a broadcasting history buff, is actually a fun place to spend an afternoon in early August, especially in the company of the chief engineer at one of the market’s two TV facilities.
And so we find ourselves in downtown Youngstown, where the Art Deco facade of WFMJ-TV (Channel 21)’s building faces off against police headquarters and City Hall just across narrow West Boardman Street, a block away from the “Vindicator Square” headquarters of WFMJ’s owner, the Youngstown Vindicator newspaper.
The Vindy is the only owner WFMJ has had in its 65 years on the air, making this a very rare locally-owned station these days (and the second locally-owned NBC affiliate we got to visit in Ohio in 2018, following our fun stop at WHIZ a couple of months earlier.)
The Art Deco facade on this building is a bit misleading. When WFMJ moved in here – not WFMJ-TV in 1953, but WFMJ radio before World War II – it renovated a structure that was already several decades old. We start up at the top floor, where an elevator lets out on a hallway lined with autographs from everyone who’s passed through here, and where hefty radio-era studio doors lead into a long, narrow studio that started as a live radio studio before being repurposed for TV in 1953.
(WFMJ radio lasted until 1990, when its AM 1390 frequency was sold to crosstown competitor WHOT; an early WFMJ-FM on 105.1 survived only from 1949 until the mid-50s.)
WFMJ’s technical plant is also up here on the top floor, in a warren of rooms that I’m pretty sure were originally radio studios back when WFMJ hit the air in 1939. (William F. Maag, Jr., the Vindicator’s owner, gave his initials to the radio and then the TV station.)
As a locally-owned standalone station, WFMJ has its own master control up here, running both the NBC on 21.1 and CW affiliate “WBCB” on 21.2.
That’s not a black-and-white photo above – it’s a color picture of the monochrome hallway downstairs where WFMJ has lovingly chronicled its long history in radio and TV. From there, we work our way to the back of the building and the WFMJ newsroom, longtime owner of the dominant news ratings in town.
WFMJ is an unusual station out on the transmitter side of things, too. When the TV station hit the air in 1953, it did so from a site on Mabel Street, up on the rise of land just south of downtown across the Mahoning River. And did I mention that back then, it was on channel 73?
The guy anchors from the original channel 73 tower are still out here on the front lawn, and the original channel 73 transmitter building is still here as the back section of the current structure. But WFMJ-TV was quickly on the move: in 1954, it bought the unbuilt construction permit for WUTV, channel 21, and by June WFMJ was down on channel 21 at the bottom of the dial instead of way up on channel 73.
Once it was on channel 21, WFMJ settled in for many years with a big RCA tube transmitter, which still sits in the mostly-decommissioned analog room here almost a decade later, albeit without the blue doors that would once have adorned it.
The DTV transition brought a bigger, higher-ceilinged new building in front of the old one, where the original WFMJ-DT transmitter now sits across from a pair of newer Comark digital transmitters, all set for the repack that will move the station from RF channel 20 up to RF channel 33.
The tower out back is a 1020-foot giant with an unusual twist: after WFMJ built here, Interstate 680 went in just to the north, right under one set of guy wires, which now stretch over the highway to an anchor off a foot trail on the north side of the busy highway. (We always make it a point to drive under the WFMJ guy wires when we’re passing through town, just for fun.)
There’s one little FM up here right now, Catholic WILB-FM (89.5 Boardman), down lower on the tower, but plenty of other broadcast activity within just a short drive.
Head south on South Avenue, jog right on Sunset and in just a few minutes you’re in front of the other big TV complex here.
WKBN-TV (Channel 27) has occupied this Art Deco gem since 1953, when it beat WFMJ-TV to the airwaves by a couple of months. For many years, WKBN (570) had both studio and transmitters here, but after the radio station was sold off (it’s part of iHeart now), the AM facility was relocated a few miles south, freeing up land for a taller TV tower and new transmitter building out back.
Except that when we drove by in August, there wasn’t any full-power TV coming from the tall tower, or from the older self-supporter next to the studio building. That’s because Nexstar ended up owning not only CBS affiliate WKBN-TV but also ABC affiliate WYTV (Channel 33), which allowed it to sell WKBN’s RF channel 41 spectrum in the auction ($34 million, nothing to sneeze at) and channel-share WKBN with WYTV.
For now, the WKBN/WYTV share comes from the former WYTV studio and tower site, just a few blocks east on Shady Run Road, where the old Channel 33 building sits otherwise vacant. After the repack, WKBN/WYTV will return to the WKBN site on Sunset, operating on RF channel 31, sharing the big tower with their sister Fox affiliate WYFX-LD (Channel 19) and the FMs that operate here, public radio WYSU (88.5), Family Radio’s WYTN (91.7) and iHeart’s WMXY (98.9), the old WKBN-FM.
(There’s a whole complex history to WYTV, too – it started across the state line in New Castle, PA as WKST-TV 45 back in 1953, moved to Youngstown and channel 33 in 1959, and freed up channel 45 to become the new home of independent WXTV, which had taken over channel 73 after WFMJ-TV moved to 21. As you’d expect, Clarke Ingram and K.M. Richards have documented this in obsessive detail at UHFTelevision.com. Oh – and then in 1973, 11 years after WXTV went under, channel 45 became public broadcaster WNEO in nearby Alliance, which in turn has a digital translator on RF 44 on the WFMJ-TV tower.)
So what about radio history? That’s here in this neighborhood, too – and we’ll show you some of that in part two of our Youngstown visit next week!
Thanks to WFMJ’s Bob Flis for the tour!
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Next week: More Youngstown, plus Sharon, PA