Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Late March 2019 found us meandering up and down the Connecticut River, the spine of western New England.
From New Haven and Bridgeport, where we showed you some neat sites last week, we had some time to spare and the thought that it had been a while since we’d spent a night in western Massachusetts – so off we went to have dinner with friends in Springfield, followed the next morning by a drive past a spot right next to the river where a lot of great radio once originated. WMAS (1450) and WMAS-FM (94.7) operated both studio and transmitter for many decades from a little building on West Avenue, tucked between I-91 and the river – and sadly, we never made it inside that building before it was demolished a couple of years ago.
The Cumulus stations now operate from studios a few miles south at the Basketball Hall of Fame, but their transmitters are still here off West Avenue, next to the empty patch where the studio building once sat. WMAS-FM’s big class B signal comes from the top of this fairly low tower, while 1450 (then doing NASH Icon country as WHLL) uses the whole tower, with new antennas perched on the side for the new 98.1 WHLL translator that hadn’t yet signed on when we drove by almost a year ago.
From Springfield, we were southbound again down 91, heading for Blue Hills Avenue on the north side of Hartford, the longtime home of WDRC (1360)’s studio and transmitter.
We pulled up here at a time of big transition: after Connoisseur sold WDRC and WDRC-FM (102.9) to John Fuller’s Full Power group, the other Full Power stations – WMRQ (104.1) and the “Bomba Radio” group of HD-fed translators around the state – were in the process of moving in here on Blue Hills Ave. from their former home out in suburban Glastonbury, which we showed you last year.
So consider these just placeholder photos – it’s a quick look at a couple of the studios while they were in the midst of renovation, with a fuller (no pun intended!) visit needed at some point soon to see the “after” results of the move.
While we’d seen WDRC’s home base on previous visits, our next stop an hour or so to the east was one we’d never made before. The old mill town of Willimantic has launched a lot of radio careers by way of its top-notch local radio stations, WILI (1400) and WILI-FM (98.3), which super-serve this area that’s just isolated enough from Hartford in one direction and Norwich/New London in the other to sustain good hometown broadcasting.
The ground floor of this brick office building at 720 Main Street in Willimantic has been home to the WILI stations since 1988, first under the longtime Rice family ownership, and since 2005 in the hands of Hall Communications, which added WILI to a regional cluster that includes WICH, WNLC, WKNL and WCTY based out of Norwich.
Enter in the back of the building, which backs up to the Willimantic River, and you’ll see a display case full of the annual calendars WILI has published for years. The station lobby off to the side looks into the air studio for WILI(AM), which still maintains a traditional full-service/AC format, now augmented by a translator on 95.3.
There’s a news booth (seen below) separating the AM studio from the WILI-FM studio at the end of the hall, where the “I98.3” top-40 format has been a fixture on the dial for many years as well.
The hallway bends to the left, where two production rooms sit across from the air studio, adjoining a record library that looks like it has everything back to the start of the AM station back in 1957. (All those boomboxes on the shelves? They’re used in an annual Boom Box Parade each July 4 – no marching bands, just community groups who march through town with radios all tuned to WILI as it plays patriotic music!)
Working our way around to the back of the building, we pass the engineering office and rack room, then the sales area – and dig the historical displays showing WILI’s studios through the years, leading up to the current incarnation.
WILI’s ops manager, Kevin Pilz, has the station vehicle at the ready to take us out for some transmitter visits, too, taking us south across the river (via the “Frog Bridge,” decorated with frogs on each end) and up to Gates Hill, the current WILI-FM site.
WILI-FM got a nice boost in coverage when it moved up here in 1989; even though it’s just a class A signal (height-derated to 1.05 kW at 160 meters), it’s widely heard across much of eastern Connecticut from this prime spot.
The 95.3 translator for the AM is up here, too – and a separate room (which we didn’t get to see) is home to the transmitter for Eastern Connecticut State University’s WECS (90.1), which shares the tower.
A little closer to town and lower down, Mountain Street heads up Hosmer Mountain – and it’s here that 98.3 operated in its earlier days. The FM station signed on in 1975 as WXLS, a competitor to WILI; it was later WNOU before the Rice family bought it out in 1985 and created the present-day WILI-FM.
The old FM site here on Hosmer Mountain now serves mainly as a storage space for old TV spots for the station, as well as artifacts from old parades and remote events.
And while we didn’t get inside to see the transmitter, the WILI(AM) site sits at the east end of town, just across from Brick Top Road at the edge of the Natchaug River, in what I’m pretty sure was the original 1957 location.
Thanks to Full Power’s John Fuller and WILI’s Kevin Pilz for the tours!
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Next week: WVBR, Ithaca