Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Drive south on Route 14 from the small city of Elmira, New York toward the Pennsylvania state line a few miles away and you’ll find yourself headed uphill pretty quickly. Take a left turn on Comfort Hill Road just before you cross the line and you’ll be headed up even more steeply – all the way to the top of South Mountain.
There’s a lot of broadcast history to unpack up here, going back to the very early days of television in this small market. WTVE (Channel 24) was the first TV station in Elmira when it signed on June 15, 1953, beating competitor WECT-TV (Channel 18) by three months. Even though WECT had deeper pockets backing it – it was a joint venture of the Elmira Star-Gazette (WENY radio) and the Corning Leader – it was gone by May 1954. (WECT’s Hawley Hill site northwest of Elmira was reactivated two years later as WSYE-TV, a satellite of Syracuse’s WSYR-TV, and it survives to this day as channel 18, WETM.)
As the only station left in town, with the only competition being distant VHF signals from Binghamton, Rochester and Syracuse, WTVE didn’t have long to enjoy its monopoly status. On October 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel whipped across the region, toppling the station’s 491-foot tower and taking it off the air for a year and a half.
WTVE rebuilt the tower and returned to the air in May 1956, but it didn’t want to stay on the troubled UHF band. The FCC had dropped a channel 9 allocation into Elmira, and WTVE was one of three applicants hoping to get the prized VHF signal. Instead, the FCC decided to leave Elmira as a UHF-only market, eventually reallocating channel 9 to Syracuse. In February 1957, WTVE left the air again, this time for good, leaving this site without broadcast activity for eight years.
Now listed on FCC records as “Comfort Hill,” this site returned to the air in 1965 with the debut of WENY-FM (92.7), a sister station to WENY (1230) and, a few years later, to the new second TV station in town, WENY-TV (Channel 36). (Instead of using Comfort Hill, however, WENY-TV mounted its antenna on the channel 18 tower on Hawley Hill.)
Over the decades that have followed, 92.7 has been the one constant in an ever-changing lineup of FM signals here. WPHD (96.1 South Waverly PA) joined it as a second full-power FM in the 1990s, later entering into a complicated frequency swap. The current 92.7 signal up here, WENI-FM, is actually the descendant of that 96.1 drop-in license, while the 1965 WENY-FM license eventually became today’s WCBF 96.1 Elmira, which now broadcasts from a different site up on the hill east of Elmira.
Multiple translators began to call this site home over the last few decades, and most of them reside in a very basic building next to the big tower here. Family Life’s W275DD (102.9) sits on one side of the room, facing several racks that house Tower Broadcasting’s AM translators (W230BB 93.9 for WEHH 1600 and W293CZ 106.5 for WELM 1410) and a satellite-fed translator for Family Worship Center, W205BR (88.9).
I think the original WTVE building from 1953 is the other blocky building shown at left above. It’s divided into two rooms these days: one houses the WENI-FM 92.7 transmitter as well as its co-owned translator, W295BY (106.9), which relays WENY(AM) and now carries the “Lite FM” format that had been on 92.7 before the big shuffles of 2020.
The smaller enclosed room near the door houses two more FM stations that moved here a few years ago from their former home up on Crane Road, east of town: Tower’s WLVY (94.3) and WOKN (99.5 Southport) are the other two class A FMs here.
If you’re keeping track at home, I’m pretty sure that’s WLVY with the two-bay Dielectric at the top of the tower, WENI-FM’s three-bay Shively just below, and WOKN’s three-bay Dielectric below that. The former 96.1 antenna is below that, and then the translators are mounted lower down on the tower.
It’s easier to know what’s on the towers at our next stop, on Lake Road north of downtown Elmira. This three-tower array has been in use since 1960, when the city’s second radio station, WELM, moved from 1400 to 1410.
We’ve visited this site several times before in this space, so we’ll just show you a few updates here this time around. There’s new signage out front marking its current ownership, Gordon Ishikawa’s Tower Broadcasting, and listing all four of the stations that call these studios home. In addition to WELM (which now has a classic rock format as “106.5 the Pirate”), this has also been the diplexed home of WEHH (1600 Elmira Heights-Horseheads) for years now, as well as the studio home of WLVY (top-40 “94 Rock”) and WOKN (country).
The newest development since we were last in the ground-floor studios out back here is a studio rebuild at WELM. There’s new paint on the walls and a new studio configuration for “The Pirate,” looking through the window at the WLVY studio on the other side of the glass.
The WELM studio used to face the other way, into the transmitter room that runs the length of the north side of the building. It’s still chugging away here, with the STLs for the FMs and translators, the main and backup AM transmitters and phasors for both AMs.
Tower got its name from Ishikawa’s original business, which is (surprise!) tower ownership – and our next stop this day is at his big tower in the market, Higman Hill just outside Corning. We’ll show you everything there is to see up there in our next installment.
Thanks to Gordon Ishikawa for the tours!
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Next week: Up on Higman Hill, Corning, NY