Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We’re into our very last broadcasting photos from calendar year 2018, taken from what was otherwise a decidedly non-radio trip, shuttling a car down to Florida over New Year’s week. That’s not a time when a lot of broadcasting people are in the office, so we didn’t expect to make many stops along the way.
One of the sad truths about living up here in Rochester is that there’s no really direct route southbound. There’s lots of terrain between us and the big highways funneling traffic down to the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, and the usual route from here (in fact, the only reasonable routes) wind through northern Pennsylvania and end up in Harrisburg, where there’s always a tangle of traffic to find a way around.
After that four-plus-hour ordeal, we’re not always eager to add many stops – but when old New England pal Tory Gates invited us to stop by and see where he was working at the time, we were eager to add a little detour off the Harrisburg beltway to see one of the last public broadcasters we hadn’t yet seen in the Keystone State.
WITF-TV (Channel 33) and WITF-FM (89.5) went through the typical history of so many public broadcasters, starting out in the 1960s (for TV) and 1970s (for radio) in borrowed quarters that used to be school buildings. Over the years, the stations kept outgrowing space, and by the early 21st century they were ready for their first purpose-built building.
It was late 2006 by the time WITF moved from its former Locust Lane quarters (now a church) east of downtown Harrisburg to this spot in Swatara Township, right on the way between Harrisburg and Lancaster and just an exit north of the airport.
The new “Public Media Center” was built with lots of public interaction in mind. Even with most of the staff on vacation this holiday week, it’s easy to see how this facility functions at busier times. From the lobby, windows look in to the TV master control area and production control room, which sit across a more private hallway from the two big TV studios here. (One of them is home to the Pennsylvania Lottery drawings, which of course get fed to commercial stations statewide.)
There’s a nice nod to WITF’s history here – a wall of vintage photos, including some cool ones of early station logos from back when the TV station was still licensed to Hershey. (And no, it was never on channel 15 – that’s a 15th anniversary logo from 1979.)
Did you think the calls stood for “Instructional Television Facility” or somesuch, by the way? Nope – “It’s Top Flight” is the unexpected meaning of these calls.
Walk through the doors from the main lobby and you turn left into a two-story atrium that runs the length of the building, a sort of “main street” where staffers can interact and where all sorts of public events can take place. This space is also used as an art gallery, with a constantly changing set of exhibits.
At the far end of the atrium, there’s a big space that opens off the side; this is WITF’s news operation, and when we visited, it included the separate commercial “Radio PA” network where Tory was working. Not long afterward, WITF announced plans to close down Radio PA in the face of the changing commercial radio landscape, where statewide news networks have had a harder time lining up affiliates. (But fear not – Maryland’s Steve Clendenin stepped in, buying Radio PA and continuing it as a sister to his Maryland statewide news network across the border.)
There are radio production rooms down the hallway across from the newsroom, but the studio heart of WITF radio is a very visible air studio whose windows on three sides jut into the atrium, putting the air talent on display when they’re hosting local shows.
Inside the fishbowl studio, it’s Wheatstone studio gear and ENCO automation, the very same I’d have been using back home in Rochester if I’d been at work at WXXI that afternoon.
One more WITF-FM note before we move on: in addition to several translators in the region, it now has a full-power simulcast at the southwestern edge of its market, WYPM (93.3 Chambersburg), serving the I-81 corridor between Harrisburg and Maryland.
As we continued south down the twisty, narrow I-83 corridor down toward Baltimore, we made one more stop just for some exterior shots. At the south end of York, this old stone-faced building on South Queen Street goes back to the very earliest days of UHF television – December 1952, to be exact, when what was then WSBA-TV (Channel 43) hit the air as a Susquehanna Broadcasting sister to WSBA (910).
First with ABC and then with CBS, WSBA-TV struggled against the VHF behemoth in the market, Lancaster’s WGAL-TV, combining forces for a while with two other UHFs to form a trimulcast to better cover the sprawling region. That ended in 1982, when channel 43 became WPMT, first independent and then Fox. It was owned by Tribune when we drove past, but since Nexstar already owned the market’s ABC affiliate, WHTM (Channel 27), WPMT has ended up with Tegna instead.
(And there’s a WITF connection here: in the spectrum auction, WPMT gave up its own channel and now shares with WITF, which has shifted its over-the-air coverage from the York-Lancaster end of the market up to Harrisburg.)
Thanks to Tory Gates for the tour!
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Next week: Wilmington, NC