Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
The very last towers we saw in that strange year of 2020 were in a corner of western Pennsylvania that takes a little effort to get to. Kittanning and Butler aren’t on any interstate route, so you have to detour east from I-79 or (in our case at the end of December) north on smaller roads from Pittsburgh to go see what they have to offer when it comes to towers and studios.
Going north and east from Pittsburgh near the path of the Allegheny River, Route 28 is at least a freeway for most of the 40 miles or so it takes to make the drive. There’s just one local station here amidst all of the signals that boom in from Pittsburgh, and it was going through transition at the end of 2020. The daytimer on 1380 that started out as WACB in the late 1940s had become WTYM in 1992 – and it was in the process of being sold to Lightner Communications when we drove up to the only transmitter site it’s ever had, high on a hill just west of the river, a couple of miles south of downtown Kittanning on the east bank.
There’s a translator here, too, which is why the station is now known as “103.7 the River” after its February 2021 relaunch under new calls WKFO – and one of these days we’ll get back up here and see what’s inside the old station building at the base of the tower.
From Kittanning, the straight-line route back home to Rochester is a bad idea in late December – Route 28 stops being a freeway here, and then it’s hours of twisty mountain roads through the Alleghenies. So instead, we head west on US 422 for half an hour to see the stations in Butler, a town with lots of interesting radio history.
These days, all three local stations here are under one roof: the “Butler Radio Network” building on Pillow Street just outside downtown Butler. From this blocky building, there’s news and talk on WISR (680), classic country and some sports on WBUT (1050) and rock on WLER (97.7), combining what were once fierce competitors.
WISR got there first: it hit the air in the fall of 1941 from the same tower site north of town it uses today, at the dead end of McKinley Avenue near Calvary Cemetery and, these days, the south side of US 422. The calls stood for “Isaac S. Rosenblum,” the patriarch of the family that long owned the station – son David and grandson Joel ran it for decades, while Joel’s brother Ray owned WACB over in Kittanning for some years, and later became a well-known broadcast station broker. (It wasn’t until 1997 that Joel sold WISR to the local group that owned WBUT/WLER, ending the competition; WISR moved in with WBUT/WLER in 2003, ending many years at the Rosenblums’ building on N. Main Street at the corner of “WISR Way;” the stations have been at the current Pillow Street site since 2013.)
WBUT had local ownership, too – its FCC file cards show a series of applications as early as 1946 for signals on 1230, 1600 and 1430 before it finally hit the air in early 1949 as a daytimer on 1580 from a site on the south side of town. Both WBUT and WISR had early FM outlets, on 103.9 and 97.7, respectively, and while both went silent quickly, WBUT went back on FM in 1954, this time using WISR-FM’s former 97.7 frequency.
WBUT-FM took the WLER calls in 1978 (get it – “BUT” and “LER”?), and in 1980 WBUT and WLER left their old transmitter site on McQuistion Road south of town for a taller new tower a few miles north of town, east of Route 8 on “Tower Lane” off Palmer Road. That’s where we find them now, along with WBUT’s new translator on 97.3 (later on, WISR also added a translator on 107.5 from the top of its tower.) And it’s where we close out 2020 as we head north on 8 toward I-79 and home for New Year’s.
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 Pennsylvania IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: More scenes from Buffalo