Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
What’s the most picturesque city for broadcast towers in America? You can make a strong case for Pittsburgh, where the natural and manmade scenery is plenty dramatic around the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers flow into the Ohio – and then it’s supplemented by plenty of historic and interesting transmitter sites on the hills above the rivers.
Having just been in the Steel City for a quick visit on the 100th anniversary of KDKA in November of 2020, we weren’t at all expecting to be back less than two months later. But when you’re a consultant and a client calls, you jump in the car and go, especially when a roof has given way on a transmitter building and a strategy needs to be put into place for recovery and reconstruction.
And so that’s why we found ourselves on the last weekday in 2020 back in Pittsburgh, up on Mount Washington right across from downtown Pittsburgh above the southern shore of the Mon River, at the self-supporting tower of public station WESA (90.5), a site we’d last visited almost exactly a decade earlier.
There’s a heck of a view here, including a clean shot right across downtown to the North Hills and the tower sites of NBC affiliate WPXI (Channel 11), the closest to downtown, as well as the Sinclair tower just to the north that’s home to WPGH (Channel 53) and sister station WPNT (Channel 22). But that’s not what we were here for, was it?
We’ll spare you all the gory details here at the WESA site, but suffice it to say the Nautel Q-series transmitter that was still fairly new when we saw it in 2011 was directly under the leaky roof and was no longer operable. The rig that normally generated WESA’s HD signal was repurposed as a low-power analog signal while Nautel came through, first with a low-power temporary transmitter and, right after the new year, a new full-power GV-series transmitter that went into a redesigned transmitter room. (We need to get back again now to see the finished final product!)
As long as we were there with the guys who had the keys, it was a good opportunity (after taking lots of pictures and notes and working out some immediate recovery plans) to go see WESA’s sister station, a site we’d never seen before.
Four miles or so to the east-southeast (but rather longer by road), WYEP (91.3) sits on one of several towers that crown a steep hill in the Glen Hazel neighborhood, on a bend of the Monongahela just across from the historic industrial city of Homestead.
WYEP started out in the 1970s at low power on 91.5 from atop the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh (more on that in a moment), then moved to 91.3 up here in 1983, eventually switching to a unique AAA format that’s found a nice niche for itself in the Pittsburgh market. (It was successful enough that it gave the station the resources to partner up to create Essential Public Media, the organization that bought the 90.5 license and relaunched it with news and talk as WESA back in 2011; today, both stations operate under common management and ownership as Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.)
WYEP’s Nautel sits on the second floor of a two-story transmitter building in the middle of the little tower farm here, right next to a tenant of longer standing. What’s now WRRK (96.9 Braddock), “Bob FM,” has a history going back to the late 1940s as WLOA-FM, sister to the old WLOA (1550). Later known as WFFM and WMYQ, it also moved up here in the early 1980s, as best I can tell; today, it has both main and aux antennas on a tower here. (There’s also a translator here, W250CY on 97.9, carrying an EMF Air 1 feed from an HD subchannel of WPKV 98.3.)
This being a quick trip, we didn’t get much other tower-hunting in – except from a very well placed hotel room window on the south shore of the Mon, where we had a lovely sunset view across the river to Oakland and a couple of sites that showed up nicely on the long lens.
At the western edge of Oakland (at left in the wide shot above looking over the Hot Metal Bridge), the “goalpost” tower of public broadcaster WQED near the Pitt athletic complex has been a fixture for half a century (and a subject of Site of the Week a few years back, itself.)
WQED across the river
It keeps changing, of course – these days the goalpost holds an antenna for Ion’s WINP (Channel 16), with WQED (Channel 13) now on its post-repack facility on RF channel 4, on a side-mounted Jampro antenna. WQED-FM (89.3) is up here, too, on a two-bay side-mounted antenna, as are several LPTV stations.
And there’s another small FM signal coming out of Oakland, too. The University of Pittsburgh’s WPTS-FM (92.1) doesn’t have much power – just 16 watts – but it has a prominent perch for its antenna, up on the top of the 42-story Cathedral of Learning that’s a distinctive local landmark – not to mention having been the original WYEP site back in the 1970s.
Thanks to the good folks at WESA/WYEP for the tours!
The 2022 Tower Site Calendar – PREORDERING OPEN NOW!
This is a special year for our calendar – it’s the 20th anniversary for us, and the 100th anniversary of America’s radio boom in 1922, when the industry really took off and stations erupted all over the country. This special edition of the calendar will showcase the survivors from the Class of 1922, which grew into some of America’s biggest radio stations.
Though it’s not off the presses yet, don’t wait or risk shipping delays – you can order it right now.
And check out our other great merchandise!
And don’t miss a big batch of Pittsburgh IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Butler County, PA