Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of our ongoing quests over the years here on Site of the Week, as longtime readers know, has been to get to – and eventually inside – every last one of the 25 former class I-A clear channel AM transmitter sites in the country. As of early 2019, we’ve been to 24 of the 25, with San Antonio and WOAI the lone holdout. And we’ve been in 21 of the 25, missing only WHAS in Louisville, WTAM in Cleveland and WBAP in Fort Worth in addition to WOAI.
Amazingly, the 2018 visit we’re showing you here, in the company of our tower-hunting pal Mike Fitzpatrick of NECRAT.us, was only the second time in all these years that we’ve set foot inside the very closest of those sites to our home base. It’s less than 15 minutes from our driveway to Brook Road in the southwest Rochester suburb of Chili (say it “CHYE-lye”), where WHAM (1180) has been beaming out 50,000 watts of power since way back in 1948.
WHAM was already an elder statesman of the airwaves by then, having signed on in 1922 from the Eastman Theatre (yes, the George Eastman of Eastman Kodak) in downtown Rochester. A push for higher power moved the station southeast of Rochester to Victor, Ontario County, a few years later. And as with so many of the big stations in the years around World War II, WHAM decided to replace its outmoded wire antenna with a vertical antenna and relocate a little closer to town once the rules no longer forced high-power stations to stay far out of the cities they served.
By then, things were changing fast for WHAM. Early on, Eastman had sold the station to Stromberg-Carlson, the local manufacturer of telephone gear and other electronic equipment. Before World War II, WHAM moved out of its downtown hotel studios and into an office building at Stromberg-Carlson’s plant on the east side of the city, and the war’s end cleared the way for construction to start on “Rochester Radio City,” a massive new studio/office building at the edge of the Stromberg-Carlson property, designed not only for AM radio but also for FM and TV.
So it was something of a vote of confidence in the future of AM radio 71 years ago when WHAM also invested what must have been well over a million dollars in this very solid new transmitter building and 420-foot four-sided Blaw-Knox tower.
Stromberg-Carlson didn’t make transmitters itself, so it turned to competitor Westinghouse to supply one of its flagship 50HG transmitters, which took up most of a long wall in the second-floor transmitter room. It must have been quite a sight for anyone coming up the stairs from the entryway back then, walking into that long, narrow room with the Westinghouse glowing away along one side and a row of offices along the other.
The Westinghouse was joined a generation later by a Harris MW50, and then in the 1990s, the Westinghouse was hauled out, leaving behind a long empty space with a new Harris DX50 occupying just a fraction of the room.
(There’s also an MW10 across the room as another backup once the Gates was retired, and in recent years iHeart has built an off-site auxiliary facility for WHAM across town at its WHTK 1280 site. Unlike most of the big I-A sites, WHAM never had a backup tower here, though at one point it sought zoning permission to build one.)
The offices and kitchen from 1948? They’re still here on the other side of the transmitter room, though of course there’s not an engineer here on a daily basis anymore to use them. As with any old transmitter site, there’s plenty of storage going on here, too, especially in the wake of several studio moves in recent years.
Downstairs, you can still see the blower room that served the old Westinghouse and the caged-off electrical room where the transformers used to sit. There’s a workroom downstairs, and a big garage that’s also mostly being used for storage.
It’s a long walk out back to the tower, which hasn’t changed all that much since it went up here back in ’48.
The ATU for the AM signal is in the building to the left of the tower as we walk in the fence – but what’s that in the other building?
Why, it’s another important part of WHAM’s unusual history, as you can tell by looking very closely at the paint next to the door where it once read “98.9.”
That was the frequency of WHAM’s sister FM station, WHFM, which traces its roots to one of the very first experimental low-band FM signals as far back as 1939. What was then W8XVB, and later W51R, transmitted from the Rochester Gas & Electric building almost next door to WHAM’s studio location back then in the Sagamore Hotel. When FM was kicked “upstairs,” WHFM held a unique distinction: while every other commercial station in the U.S. shifted at least once to a different frequency in the 88-108 mc band as the FCC sorted out spacing and interference issues, WHFM landed on 98.9 as soon as it moved and never changed again, ever.
We learned something new as we were researching this Site of the Week: we’d thought WHFM moved straight from the RG&E building out here to Chili once the new AM tower went up – but it didn’t! When WHAM built its TV station, WHAM-TV (Channel 6), in 1949, its new tower up on Pinnacle Hill on the city line had plenty of room for an FM facility alongside TV, not to mention engineers on duty to run the FM rig. And so WHFM moved to Pinnacle Hill in 1949 and stayed there until 1958, when it moved out here to Chili.
Why move out here, to a rather lower elevation and a less central location? In 1956, Stromberg-Carlson sold radio and TV to separate owners. The TV became WROC-TV (by then on channel 5), while WHAM and WHFM cycled through several owners before landing with Bill Rust’s Rust Broadcasting in 1962. (Veteran engineers remember Rust for his early rotary-dial remote control systems, and it’s also no coincidence that WHFM’s move out here to Chili came once the FCC began allowing FM stations to be controlled remotely without an on-site engineer.)
It took a few years to separate everything out: the WHAM/WHFM radio studios stayed in the TV building all the way until new TV owners sent them packing in 1961. By then, WROC-TV had launched its own new FM station in 1959, WROC-FM (97.9, today’s WPXY), presumably taking the exact Pinnacle Hill space WHFM had used.
Ownership kept cycling into the 1980s, when Rust sold WHAM to the Lincoln Group, which already owned WVOR on the FM dial. In 1985, WHFM was sold off to separate ownership, becoming WZKC and then WKLX – and in 1987, 98.9 left this site behind for a new transmitter home at the WRMM (101.3) tower on the west side of Rochester.
All these decades later, the old 98.9 building next to the AM tower still houses the old WHFM antenna, not to mention a street sign up on a shelf commemorating Lincoln Group owner Bud Wertheimer, many years after he and his partners sold WHAM off to Jacor, ancestor of its present iHeart ownership.
Thanks to WHAM’s Joe Kochmanski and Randy Orbaker for the tours!
We are officially into the new year and out of the holiday season. If you didn’t get a calendar as a gift, now is the time to buy one for yourself.
You can also purchase a bag to keep it after the year is over, since the pictures are so pretty. You can even purchase a pen to put notes on your calendar.
Visit our store to buy the calendars and check out our other products.
The Radio Historian’s 2020 Calendar is SOLD OUT. If you didn’t order but wanted or meant to, please contact Lisa immediately. No guarantee we can get more, but we’ll at least ask.
And don’t miss a big batch of Rochester IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: A little more Rochester