Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Hey, Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau! You don’t have to do anything at all to persuade me to come back to coastal South Carolina sometime soon to experience more of your fascinating city. (Though if you see this, I wouldn’t say no to a few nights in a decent hotel and a plane ticket…)
Seriously, though, after making an initial, too-brief visit to Charleston on the next to last day of 2018, I’m very eager to return and see more of the history, eat more of the food – and revisit some of these tower sites under bluer skies and with a fuller knowledge of all the history I missed on this initial go-round last year.
Let me explain…
I began my exploration of Charleston’s broadcast scene at a site that didn’t even exist the one time I was in listening range of the market before (a brief airport layover back in 1985). That was before Hurricane Hugo ravaged this area, and just before Charleston’s TV stations moved en masse to new towers near Awendaw, just off US 17 about ten miles north of Charleston itself.
Let’s rewind: this was a small market then, and still is even now, ranked in the low 90s in Nielsen’s rankings. It had three big commercial stations then, dating back to the 1950s and 1960s: WCSC-TV (Channel 5) was the CBS affiliate of long standing, while WCBD (Channel 2) and WCIV (Channel 4) had swapped affiliations over the years, with NBC landing on 2 and ABC on 4. WTAT (Channel 24) was just starting up as an independent, while WITV (Channel 7) was the local outlet for South Carolina’s statewide ETV network.
Each of the commercial stations had its own tower then, none of them especially tall. (We’ll get to that history in a moment.)
In the mid-1980s, WCIV and WCSC teamed up to build one 2,000-foot tower on the east side of Seewee Road, while WCBD built its own 2,000-footer on the west side, less than a mile away. WTAT built its own 1,500-footer near the Seewee Road/US 17 intersection, and after Hugo, WITV moved from the old WCSC-TV tower to the new one.
Coming south down 17 from Myrtle Beach and Georgetown, it made sense to stop at these Awendaw towers before heading into the city, and they weren’t hard to find at all.
The end of analog TV made the WCSC-TV tower look a little unusual, since all the antennas there (at least before the repack) were side-mounted, not a big deal in this case since the entire market is inland from this site just a couple of miles from the ocean. (Why build here? With all the military and commercial aviation activity in and around Charleston, there simply weren’t many spots where a 2,000-foot tower farm could be built in the area!)
Who’s on these antennas? WCSC’s digital signal, now on RF 19, along with WITV, moving from RF 7 to RF 24 in the repack (how did they pull that off?). “Channel 4” is here still, too, but with a big twist: a few years ago, an ownership shuffle sent the original WCIV (virtual 4) license to a new owner, the Sinclair shell company Howard Stirk Holdings. Stirk changed the calls to WGWG and now runs Heroes and Icons on the virtual 4 signal, RF 34. (But “WCIV” lives on, as we’ll see in a moment!)
Two FMs are here, too: WIWF (96.9, the original WCSC-FM) and SCETV’s WSCI (89.3).
Across the road, there’s a more traditional antenna assembly still in place on the WCBD tower, with the old analog 2 antenna crowning the UHF antenna for WCBD’s current signal (RF 20), shared with what’s now the Fox affiliate, WTAT (channel 24/RF 24, moving to 17) and the station now known as WCIV.
The current WCIV started as independent WCTP/WBNU, then My Network affiliate WMMZ, on channel 36. It became a sister station to WTAT and then assumed the WCIV intellectual property and ABC affiliation in Sinclair’s 2014 shuffle. Today, it’s on RF 25, virtual 36 – but it brands itself and its newscasts as “ABC 4.” (It’s less confusing for cable viewers, since the new WCIV took over the old WCIV’s cable positions in most areas, and this area is heavily cabled.)
The older WTAT tower down the road is gone now, so it’s just these two towers to see in Awendaw before we continue down 17 into the more thickly urbanized areas approaching the bridge that connects Mount Pleasant to Charleston.
If I’d done my usual careful history research and mapped things out better, and if it hadn’t been nearly dark, I’d have made a bunch of stops along US 17 in Mount Pleasant on the way into Charleston. It turns out this suburb just across the Cooper River from downtown Charleston is full of local broadcast history – and the only part of it I actually saw is the oldest TV location in the market.
What was originally WUSN (Channel 2) signed on from Coleman Boulevard, right by the foot of the US 17 bridge to Charleston, back in 1954. It had its transmitter here back then, too, and part of that tower still stands long after the channel 2 (now WCBD) transmitter moved north to Awendaw in the 1980s. Two FM stations, LM Communications’ WYBB (98.1 Folly Beach) and WCOO (105.5 Kiawah Island), transmit from the shortened old WCBD tower, as do a couple of Calvary Chapel translators, fed by satellite from Idaho.
And of course channel 2, now a Nexstar-owned NBC affiliate, is still very much here, in a studio building greatly expanded from its original 1950s Quonset hut, complete with a Mount Pleasant historical marker about the station’s early days and its original mascot, an Asian elephant named “Suzie Q,” part of an entire zoo’s worth of wildlife that once roamed the station grounds back in the days when local TV stations were owned by quirky local people instead of hedge funds.
What did I miss here? A lot, as it turned out: the original WCIV (Channel 4) studio and tower from 1963 still exist in Mount Pleasant, along SC 703 near the causeway that leads out to Sullivan Island, though today the building is used for a garden center and the tower holds only a translator. (In a weird irony, this 800-foot tower was later used for the new Channel 36 in the 1980s and 1990s, before that station moved to Awendaw and eventually became the new WCIV.)
WCSC-TV’s second tower, in use from the 1959 until the move to Awendaw in the 1980s, still stands, too, just a few hundred yards to the east, now home to WSSX (95.1). We need to go back and see that 1000-footer, and the two other tall towers just to the northeast that today are home to several more Charleston FM signals.
So, yes, convention and visitor bureau, we will be back to your fine community – and we haven’t even shown you the actual historic or scenic parts of Charleston yet, or any of the AM sites. That’s all in our second installment, right here next week.
Thanks to Ari for putting up with driving around looking at towers!
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
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And don’t miss a big batch of Charleston IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Winter 2019