Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of the tallest tower sites in New York State is also one of the newest. It’s been less than 20 years since Gordon Ishikawa built the 800-foot tower that crowns Higman Hill, just southwest of the city of Corning and easily visible from almost anywhere in town. And yet it took us until early 2021 to finally get up to and inside this site, now home to all but one of the Elmira-Corning market’s TV stations and several FMs.
The road up to the site had been badly washed out by spring storms and rough winter weather, so we were happy to be riding up in Gordy’s vehicle (with his tiny dog as the happy co-pilot) as we turned off city streets to the rocky path that leads steeply up to this site, which he first began developing before the turn of the century for two-way radio use.
In 1999, two FM stations became the first full-power broadcasters to use Higman Hill, taking advantage of Ishikawa’s new 445-foot tower here for their class A signals: WGMM (97.7 Big Flats) and WCBA-FM (98.7 Corning) relocated to Higman from what had until then been the only major FM/TV site on the Corning side of the market, the Denmark Hill tower northeast of Corning.
In those relatively early days up here, there was no transmitter building, just a fleet of storage containers lined up next to the 445-foot tower. Those containers are still there now, home to lots of two-way radios and one container that houses all the FMs that use this tower.
The 97.7 and 98.7 stations are still here, at the back of the container, but they were in the midst of some big changes in the spring, transitioning from their former Sound Communications ownership to Seven Mountains, which in turn was selling 97.7 to Family Life, the regional Christian broadcaster that’s building a new headquarters down the hill in Corning. That meant call and format changes: 97.7, which had become WENY-FM with a “Magic” hot AC format, became Family Life’s WCIG a few months after this visit; 98.7, which was WGMM with a quirky classic hits format, became “Cool” WPHD with a more mainstream oldies/classic hits format.
Closer to the front of the container, we find the rest of the translator and LPFM lineup here: Family Worship Center’s satellite-fed 89.5; Seven Mountains-owned signals on 93.5, 95.1, 103.3, 106.7 and 107.9 carrying the rest of its program streams; what was then a Family Life signal on 104.1; Tower Broadcasting translators on 96.7 and 102.5; plus WLRG-LP (107.5) with another Christian format.
There’s one translator that’s not in this container or on the shorter tower. Moving over to the newer prefab TV building next door (which was a considerable project to get built, what with all the heavy equipment that had to get hauled up the hill), we find one rack of radio gear amidst the DTV transmitters. W214AA (90.7) signed on up here in 1998 from a much shorter tower, carrying the secondary news-and-jazz program feed from Binghamton public broadcaster WSKG (via its WSQX 91.5 Binghamton), then relocated to a spot near the top of the 800-foot tower once it went up.
(Why so much antenna for such a small signal? WSKG apparently considered using this site for its main Elmira-Corning FM station, WSQE 91.1, but chose to keep it at its existing site over on Hawley Hill in Elmira.)
Of the four TV stations that broadcast to the Elmira/Corning market, three now broadcast their DTV signals from this building. One, Lilly’s WENY-TV (Channel 36/RF 35), moved here for its digital transition from its longtime analog home over on Hawley Hill. (That’s where the odd man out, NBC affiliate WETM, has always been and still remains.)
Over-the-air PBS finally came to the market up here in 2006 in the form of digital-only WSKA (Channel 30), the buildout of a long-dormant application from Binghamton’s WSKG. It’s now on RF 25 after the repack, while RF 30 now belongs to the market’s Fox affiliate. WYDC (Channel 48) started in the 1990s over on Denmark Hill, then came up here as the first DTV signal from this site, originally on RF 50 pre-repack.
Thanks to Gordon Ishikawa for the tours!
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