Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Drive down West Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia and you can’t help but notice the 851-foot self-supporter that towers over the studio building of WTVR (Channel 6).
If you’re the sort of person who has an eye for broadcast history (and you are, because you’re here, right?), it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of history going on in this building. We’ve touched on it before in this space, but in May 2021 we finally had a chance to get inside and see just how much more we never knew.
The basics: WTVR traces its history to one of Richmond’s oldest radio stations. WMBG hit the air in 1927, ending up in the pre-NARBA era on 1210 and then on 1350. In 1939, it built a new Art Deco studio here at 3301 W. Broad, which is the part of the building you see on the left in the photo above. NARBA moved WMBG to 1380. After the war, WMBG moved quickly into new territory, starting an FM station, WCOD, in 1947, followed by WTVR on April 22, 1948.
The new TV station was the first to hit the air south of Washington, beating several other southern pioneers (Atlanta’s WSB-TV and Fort Worth’s WBAP-TV) to the air by five months, and it held a monopoly on Richmond TV until 1955.
It’s been through lots of changes in the years since, moving from NBC to ABC to the CBS affiliation it’s had now for six decades. Owners came and went – from its founder, auto parts dealer Wilbur Havens, to Roy Park, to Raycom and Tribune and eventually to today’s ownership, Scripps.
The radio stations changed calls to WTVR(AM) and WTVR-FM once the TV station took off; eventually, they went to separate owners (we’ll see the fate of the FM in a bit), leaving this building as home just to the TV station. As with so many of these vintage buildings, it’s gone through renovations and expansions – but it’s managed to hang on to its original 1939 Deco flavor, too.
So let’s head inside, shall we? The original 1939 front door and lobby is closed off by windows now, but that little Deco lobby space has been preserved inside, complete with the “WMBG” calls in the terrazzo floor and fancy lighting – but these days it’s the station snack bar!
Most of the rest of the original 1939 building is office space these days, while most of the studio and technical functions have moved to the newer addition that went up in the 1980s to the west.
There’s a new lobby space in the new building, adjoining a conference room that was also part of the original WMBG building.
Off the new lobby, we can look into the main production control room for WTVR’s newscasts. It’s modern HD facility, but with some vintage touches: take a close look at the light that hangs in the center of the room and you’ll see the 1939 globe that once hung in the WMBR offices.
Deeper into the building, we find the station’s tech core, the stairs that lead up to the second-floor sales offices, and the original TV studio from 1948, which is now the exclusive domain of the Virginia state lottery drawings.
The new TV studio and newsroom facilities sit at the opposite end of the new building, where we walk into a high-ceilinged open newsroom that adjoins the current TV studio, where our Saturday visit finds things dark and quiet between newscasts.
Our newsroom visit also includes a chance to catch up with an old colleague from Boston, who turns out to have some of the other pieces of the old WBZ building signage that match with the “W” that lives in our backyard – but we digress!
Where to next? How about out back, where we catch up on the transmitter history of WTVR.
When the FM and TV stations signed on, they hit the air from the AM transmitter site a couple of miles to the west, a location that’s since been thoroughly paved over by development. (The AM station eventually became WBTK, and transmits from a different site up north of Richmond these days.)
By 1950, the TV and FM stations moved here to Broad Street, where that big self-supporter went up to carry the channel 6 and 98.1 FM signals to a broad swath of central Virginia.
Much later on, the TV station joined most of the rest of the Richmond TV signals at a taller tower west of town, behind the studios of public TV stations WCVE-WCVW. (We saw that site on this busy Richmond day, too, and you’ll see it in a few weeks in this space.)
The self-supporter here stayed in place, though, because it continued to carry WTVR-FM, which has kept those calls even as it’s gone through multiple owners. Today, it’s part of Audacy, transmitting its superpower signal (50 kW/256 m, far above a standard class B) from the antenna up at the top of the tower and a transmitter room inside the old transmitter building out back behind “The South’s First Television Station.”
Thanks to WTVR’s Don Talley for the tours!
2023 IS CLOSER THAN YOU THINK…
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In two weeks: Richmond’s legendary WRVA