Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If you’re a radio buff who’s also a roadgeek, Virginia’s Hampton Roads have so much to offer you. Want big bridges? There are plenty of those. And if you’re into tunnels, there are plenty of those, too – including one of the newest, the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel that carries I-664 from Newport News across to Suffolk, and carried us from last week’s installment at WNIS over to two sites in Portsmouth and Norfolk that also figure in to the complex histories that led to today’s WNIS and WTAR.
The “MMMBT” is more than four miles long, with artificial portal islands at each end of a tunnel that is itself almost a mile long. When it opened in the early 1990s, it shortened what would once have been a long drive over to Portsmouth – but now it’s barely ten minutes from the Newport News site across to our next stop, the AM 1350 transmitter site just east of the MMMBT’s southern end, right by the Craney Island Naval Supply Center.
This, too, is part of the great merry-go-round of Hampton Roads AM frequencies: what was originally WSAP signed on in 1943 as a 250-watt signal on 1490. (Its original site on Spratley Street in Portsmouth later played a very different broadcast role: it was home to an early failed UHF station, WTOV channel 27, and later to a new channel 27, WYAH, that became the hub of Pat Robertson’s CBN empire.)
WSAP moved to 1350 at this Portsmouth site in 1951, then changed calls to WAVY in 1953 and four years later launched WAVY-TV (Channel 10), the second VHF station in the market. The radio station was sold off later in the 1960s, becoming WCVU and then, for many years, WKLX.
This was Bob Sinclair’s first station in the market, initially with NBC’s News and Information Service, then oldies (“Honey Radio”) and then with talk and news as WNIS. And yes, that means this was the place the WNIS calls started, before getting swapped over to AM 850 in 1987. The old 850 calls, WRAP, and its R&B format moved here to 1350, followed by several more owners and calls before 1350 ended up with Black gospel as WGPL.
It’s good we got here when we did in the spring of 2021, because WGPL had already lost its lease at this site after 70 years. These towers lasted only a few more months before being taken down, preparing for new development at this old location.
And now we come full circle on this corner of Hampton Roads broadcast history, because our next stop is just two miles away along the banks of the Elizabeth River, in a little industrial neighborhood cut off by the VA 164 freeway, at the site off Broadway Street where 850 (and before that, WCAV 860) operated from 1948 until the new 850 site went up in 1992.
For most of that time, 850 was pumping out R&B hits as WRAP, with its studios and transmitter right here in this little one-story building. (And just to recap, if you’ve lost track of the back-and-forth we’ve been documenting in the last few installments: in 1987, Sinclair Telecable, which had owned WNIS on 1350, bought the 850 facility here and moved WNIS to that frequency. WRAP moved to 1350, WNIS spent five years on 850 here, then built its current facility 20 miles away and shut things down here.)
So what happened here after 1992? The site was sold, two of the three self-supporting towers from the 1950s were torn down, a new guyed tower went up for rental use, several LPTV stations took up residence in one of the empty offices (check out that vintage VHS goodness!) – and then Sinclair Telecable came back.
After crossing the Chesapeake from its initial home on the eastern shore, the 106.1 facility that’s now country WUSH moved to Sinclair’s 790 site in Hampton in 2004, then made one more big leap in 2009, upgrading from class A to B1 from the new tower here at the old 850 site, where it occupies a renovated space that once held the 850 transmitter way back when.
The four-bay antenna here is mounted on a custom tower section up top, a little hard to see from ground level out front.
What do we find if we get on the boardwalk and head back through the swamp? We rewind all the way back to the 1940s, to the original tower that went up for WCAV on 860, back before it moved to 850 and added two more towers.
A few weeks before we got here in April 2021, this tower lit up again with an AM signal for the first time in almost three decades, and it’s yet another part of the great Circle of Radio Life that seemed to make up so much of these visits.
Remember when we told you at the top of this column that WGPL, the latest incarnation of the 1350 signal that was WAVY, WKLX, WNIS and briefly WRAP, had lost the lease on its three-tower directional array?
It stayed on the air as a 1000-watt day, 26-watt night non-directional signal under special temporary authority, and for almost a year now it’s been on the air from this very tower, bringing one of the former incarnations of WRAP back to the tower that broadcast the original WRAP for so many years, all from a little transmitter in a shed by the tower base.
It’s a pretty amazing turn of events in a market that’s seen a lot of those, and a lot to pack in to just one afternoon – and we’re nowhere near done yet with our second sweep of this fascinating market.
One other address we missed on our last trip through Portsmouth was “Wavy Street,” home for the last three decades to the market’s NBC affiliate, WAVY-TV (Channel 10), and more recently also to the Fox affiliate, WVBT (Channel 43). This 1989-vintage building is just a few blocks south (across I-264) from the spot where WAVY spent its first 30 years, a now-demolished building on Middle Street in downtown Portsmouth. (And yes, this connects back to AM 1350, which was WAVY radio for much of the 1950s and 1960s.)
Get on I-264 heading east through the tunnel under the Elizabeth River and you’ll eventually find yourself out at the end of the road in Virginia Beach – but before you do, it’s worth hopping off the highway just after it crosses I-64 to check out how many stations are cheek-by-jowl in an otherwise unassuming office park.
This is where we find the market’s MyNetwork affiliate, Sinclair’s WTVZ (Channel 33), and in the next office suite over, the Audacy cluster of four FMs, WPTE (94.9), WVKL (95.7), WWDE (101.3) and WNVZ (104.5), with a one-bay antenna up on the STL tower as an auxiliary facility for WNVZ.
There’s some interesting history here: before those stations were sold to then-Entercom in 1999, they too were owned by Sinclair, which is how they ended up as neighbors to then-sister WTVZ. And two of the four stations here have connections to other stations we’ve mentioned on our journey: WWDE is the descendant of the original WVEC-FM, sister to WVEC-TV (Channel 13), while WVKL started out as WTAR-FM, sister to WTAR radio and then-WTAR-TV (now WTKR channel 3).
Thanks to Dave Morgan for the tours!
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Next week: Back to Hampton and Newport News