Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?”
If you’re on the west side of Richmond, Virginia, it’s easy – head out Midlothian Turnpike, turn right by the Marshalls, hang a left into a little residential neighborhood just past Huguenot Park, and look for the two tall towers that dominate the skyline out here, right behind the studios and offices of Richmond’s public broadcaster, conveniently located at “23 Sesame Street.”
WCVE’s studios, five years earlierWe had quite literally been down this road before back in 2016, on a quick sweep past the towers of Richmond, but didn’t get a chance back then to get a tour of these facilities, an omission we were happy to fix here in the last stop of our 2021 Richmond visit.
This is actually two facilities: in front, as shown above in 2016, is what’s now Virginia Public Media (VPM), which operates the local public radio and TV stations here in Richmond as well as a small network of public TV simulcasts covering most of central Virginia; in back, there are two towers carrying VPM’s signals and most of the Richmond commercial TV dial, too.
Let’s start out back, where the two big towers are the most recent chapter in a history of TV transmission that goes back to 1964. At first, it was just public TV out here: WCVE (Channel 23) signed on that year as the first UHF signal in town, operating from small studios and a 771-foot tower, soon joined by sister station WCVW (Channel 57) to double the amount of educational programming it was able to provide. (Back then, the address was “1904 Old Farm Road,” since nobody had heard of “Sesame Street” yet!)
Things got busier out here in 1978, when the original WCVE/WCVW tower was joined by a new 1000-foot candelabra shared with the market’s ABC affiliate.
WXEX (Channel 8) built the new tower to gain long-desired signal parity with its competitors. While CBS affiliate WTVR (Channel 6) at its downtown tower and NBC affiliate WWBT (Channel 12) to the east on Midlothian Turnpike were both Richmond-licensed stations, WXEX had been on the air since 1955 as a Petersburg station, with its main studios 20 miles south of town and its transmitter in Chester, also to the south of Richmond.
With the dawn of DTV in 2009, more of the market’s stations joined in to turn this site into a master antenna facility. They built a 1200-foot tower (now owned by American Tower) and a large transmitter building behind the public TV complex, with individual rooms for each of the stations taking part in the project.
That included not only WCVE/WCVW and WXEX (by then renamed WRIC-TV) but also WTVR and Fox affiliate WRLH, which had been transmitting from a site a few miles west of here.
Since then, more signals have been added: one room of the transmitter complex is home to several LPTV signals and to W203CB (88.5), a translator that’s fed by WNRN, the noncommercial AAA station in Charlottesville (we’ll see more of them later on this trip!)
There’s a combiner room to send the signals from each transmitter room up to the two stacked antennas at the top of the tower, of course, and plenty of backup power to keep this plant on the air no matter what.
Technically, there’s also a third VPM station here: while it was still known as Commonwealth Public Broadcasting, the agency put several of its outlying station licenses into the repack auction a few years ago. It had owned the “MHz Networks” signals at the edge of the Washington market to the north, which carried multiple channels of international news programming. After moving those to streaming, it sold off the spectrum of what had been WNVT (Channel 53) in Goldvein and WNVC (Channel 56) in Fairfax, turning them into channel shares with its existing stations. WNVT is now licensed to Spotsylvania and shares the RF 22 spectrum with WCVE, though the only real sign it still exists is a close look at the legal ID on one of WCVE’s subchannels.
The original WCVE building went through an expansion in 1991, adding more office and studio space for the TV stations and for their new radio sister, which requires a bit more history. For many years, Richmond’s public radio was a commercial-band station, WRFK (106.5), run by a local seminary. In 1988, that signal was sold to a commercial operator (it’s now WBTJ), sending WCVE scrambling to launch a new replacement. WCVE-FM signed on initially on 101.1, but by 1990 had relocated to its present home on 88.9.
(A larger frequency shuffle then followed in the market, moving a new commercial 101.1 to 105.7, shifting Chester’s 92.1 to 101.1 and eventually to 100.9, and taking the Mechanicville station on 92.7 to 92.1. We mention this here because it opened the way for more drop-in FMs, including one in Ettrick on 93.1 that will become important here in a moment.)
There’s lots of Sesame Street in the lobby of “23 Sesame Street,” which leads off into a few different parts of this sprawling building. There’s a big atrium lined with banners showing the different areas VPM’s predecessors served, including Charlottesville (WHTJ) and Staunton (WVPT), plenty of community meeting and education space, and two big TV studios used for local productions and other events.
There’s a spacious control room off to the side of one of the TV studios, as you’d expect, plus all the usual membership and business offices.
Radio is in one small wing of the facility, but these days only part of VPM’s radio operation is here – which means, yes, more history. After three decades of operating WCVE-FM as a split service mixing news and music, Commonwealth acquired two commercial stations in 2018 as part of Alpha Media’s exit from the market. WWLB (93.1 Ettrick) to the south of Richmond and WBBT (107.3 Powhatan) to the west of Richmond relaunched in June 2018 as “WCVE Music,” carrying a fulltime classical format, while WCVE-FM went to a fulltime news and talk format.
The music format stayed here at Sesame Street, using a complex of three studios, a music library and a rack room that had been the original WCVE-FM space.
Meanwhile, the former Alpha space in the Arboretum office complex just a mile and a half to the east of here also stayed with WCVE/VPM, becoming new office and studio space for the news service, which rebranded as “VPM News” when the new VPM brand launched in 2019. (We didn’t see it this time around, but we’re told it hasn’t changed that much since we toured it under Alpha ownership in 2016.)
There are also several outlying VPM radio signals on Virginia’s Northern Neck and in Southside Virginia, an hour to the southwest, that carry a split service, with VPM News in drivetime and VPM Music the rest of the time.
We finish up our tour in the older part of the building that dates back to the 1960s, now home to the TV technical core.
There’s still some vintage equipment in racks here in these wood-paneled rooms as we make our way back to the TV master control, now handling not only WCVE/WCVW here but also the VPM signals in Staunton and Charlottesville – and there’s also the transmitter room for WCVE-FM, with its BE transmitter that feeds an antenna on the 1978-vintage candelabra tower, which is otherwise mostly unused since everyone else moved over to the taller new DTV tower in 2009.
From VPM, we spend the night in a hotel on the southeast side of Richmond awaiting an early departure on Sunday morning to meet some radio friends for tours of sites in the Norfolk-Hampton Roads market.
You’ll see those starting next week – but before we got there, we made one more quick stop on the way out of the greater Richmond area. In Hopewell, just east of the I-95/VA 10 interchange, WHAP (1340) has been around since 1949 as the local radio voice. These days, its tower also holds a translator at 96.9, carrying a country format as “The Point.”
And after briefly getting WHAP-ped here at this vintage cinderblock building, we’re off to Norfolk for more radio fun – join us next week to see all the history the Hampton Roads sites have to offer!
2023 IS CLOSER THAN YOU THINK…
The 2023 Tower Site Calendar is in pre-production at the moment. We will be taking early-bird orders very soon!
While you’re waiting, we have some great books about broadcasting in our store.
Please browse our other items, too!
Thanks to Mike Friedman and Joe Fleming for the tour!
And don’t miss a big batch of Richmond IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com
Next week: On to Norfolk and WTAR