Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Some radio stations get to their 65th anniversary trailing long histories of multiple studio and transmitter sites. Others find a home and stay put there for decades. In the northern tier of Pennsylvania, 25 minutes south of the New York border, the cluster of local stations in the city of Warren is a good example of the former, as it prepares to mark 65 years without ever having relocated.
When we headed up the steep hill south of Warren in the fall of 2020, we expected to just snap a quick picture of the tower and antennas up at the top of Mohawk Avenue, but there was a truck in the driveway, and a tour soon followed.
These days, the low-slung building up here houses four signals owned by Lilly Broadcasting out of Erie, an hour to the northwest: WICU (1310) and its translator on 96.7 relay Lilly’s top-40 “Happi” (WICU-FM 92.7) from Erie, WRRN (92.3) is the big class B FM with classic hits as “92 Gold,” and WNAE (104.3 Clarendon) is a class A FM signal doing country as “Kinzua Country,” named for the nearby Kinzua Dam that’s a major area landmark. (Say it “Kin-zoo” if you don’t want the locals to point and stare at you.)
Go back into the history cards and you’ll find that this very site, then known as Buchers Mill Road, was the very one listed on the first CP for 1310 back in the summer of 1946. The Northern Allegany Broadcasting company put the AM station on the air in March 1947 as a 1000-watt daytimer under the WNAE calls, and it remained WNAE until just a few years ago when Lilly changed the calls to WICU (matching its WICU-TV over in Erie.)
WNAE-FM hit the air in October 1948 from the studios downtown at 92.1; by 1953, it had moved up here to the hill on 92.3, gradually making its way to full class B power. The class A signal on 104.3 came on in 1997 as WKNB, then took the heritage WNAE callsign in early 2020.
Today, various generations of transmitters for all three stations now fill the building up on Mohawk Avenue. There’s a big engineering shop in the front from back in the days when on-site engineers were constantly fixing equipment, and a studio space from the days when at least some programming might have originated up here. The studio looks into the main transmitter room where the AM rig and the translator still sit; the current WRRN transmitter is around the corner, while 104.3 is tucked in back.
The Pennsylvania mountains were the birthplace of cable TV in the 1940s and 1950s, and there’s a long-abandoned cable TV headend tucked in the woods behind the transmitter building, with remnants of tuners and amplifiers still on one of the decaying walls. (Oddly enough for a market where an Erie TV station owns the radio stations, the Warren area is actually part of the Buffalo TV market, a relic of the days when big antennas up here pulled in signals from 70 miles north, the nearest market with a full complement of signals.)
After an impromptu transmitter site tour, why not an impromptu studio tour, too? Down the hill we go into downtown Warren, tucked into a bend of the Allegheny River.
When WNAE went on the air in 1947, it was from offices up a steep flight of stairs above the First National Bank in its building at 310 Second Avenue, with studios another steep flight of stairs up from there. All these years later, the bank is long gone, leaving behind a once-impressive columned entrance, but the building and studios remain, and what a treasure they are!
The offices on the second floor have expanded over the years into the building next door, up above a Jamestown Mattress showroom. (The inconspicuous doorway is tucked away next to the mattress storefront.)
The ceilings here are high, which means it’s not just a steep stairway but a long one leading up to the studios on the third floor. Stop and catch your breath, and then let’s have a look around.
There are two clusters of studios here: in back is the studio used for WRRN and another that was the AM control room, with a rack of equipment for STLs and such (was this once where the early FM studio and transmitter once sat?), while in front is another big room that serves as the 104.3 studio, with an even bigger room facing Second Avenue that’s used now for production, all filled with decades of memorabilia and signage and other fun old stuff.
Once upon a time, we suspect, this production room was where big live shows once happened – was there live music here back in the day, with big mics hung from those massive booms?
There’s not as much that’s live here now, of course; 1310 and 96.7 are programmed entirely from Erie, and 104.3 is mostly automated, but there’s still local news and some local jocks on WRRN, providing an important radio voice to this area that’s otherwise rather deprived of local media.
There’s one more really impressive thing to see up here on the third floor before we make the trip back down the long stairwell and head out of Warren to see some more cool stuff on the US 6 corridor across northwestern Pennsylvania: as WNAE/WRRN expanded into the building next door, it ended up with a big storage room running the length of the other building.
When a station stays put for as long as these stations have been here, rooms like this are treasures – and indeed, there’s all sorts of old stuff in here, from consoles to cart machines to turntables to more exotic gear, and maybe someday we can come back and poke around for a while longer.
Thanks to Mike Kobylka for the tours!
THE RADIO HISTORIAN’S CALENDAR IS OUT!
This is a special year for radio, and The Radio Historian is celebrating its 100-odd-year history in the 2022 calendar The calendar features images originating from original black-and-white photographs, digitally remastered and colorized to replicate the original scenes as accurately as possible. You can order it from us here.
And when you buy the Radio Historian calendar, don’t forget to buy the Tower Site Calendar — perfect in any room. We’re marking the 20th anniversary of the Tower Site Calendar, and we’re also celebrating the 100th anniversary of America’s radio boom in 1922, when the industry really took off and stations erupted all over the country. Our calendar showcases the survivors from the Class of 1922, which grew into some of America’s biggest radio stations. It’s nearly off the press and will ship in time for Christmas. Order yours here.
And check out our other great merchandise!
And don’t miss a big batch of northwest Pennsylvania IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: More northwest Pennsylvania sites