Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
After decades of traveling around the country visiting the broadcast landscape, it’s becoming rarer and rarer for us to arrive in a city for the very first time, with a completely blank slate of radio and TV facilities we’ve never seen. (Memphis? El Paso? Mobile? Fresno? We’re coming for you…)
But in the spring of 2021, we had the distinct pleasure of making a too-short first visit to the lovely college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, a small market with lots of scenery, both broadcast and otherwise.
Where to start for a first-timer? The obvious place was just south of the city, where I-64 crosses the edge of town on the way from Richmond east to the Shenandoah Valley. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate sits just south of 64, and if you look just a bit south and east, you’ll see a major TV/FM site just above, on Carter’s Mountain.
Anyone can drive partway up the mountain, where you’ll find the main business here – the entire mountain is a working orchard, producing apples and cider and other goodies that are sold at a nice farmstand near the top of the winding road. If you have permission (or if it’s you-pick apple season), you can continue up a dirt road to the line of towers up here.
This tower farm came along relatively late in the game, along with Charlottesville’s status as its own TV market. After decades being served by distant signals from Richmond, Washington and the Shenandoah Valley, the market gained an NBC affiliate in 1973 when WVIR signed on up here on channel 29.
In the mid-2000s, the market gained a full complement of affiliates with the addition of several new signals: full-power WCAV (Channel 19) brought CBS to town, followed by ABC on WVAW-LP (Channel 16) and Fox on WAHU-LP (Channel 27). WCAV and the LPTVs operate from a tower right next to the original WVIR site at the center of the tower farm up here – and WVIR’s tower is now crowned by a massive new low-band VHF antenna for its repack position on RF channel 2.
FM, as best we can tell, came to Carter’s Mountain in 1979 with the launch of WUVA (92.7), a commercial class A station operated by University of Virginia students. Today, it’s country WCVL (92.7), part of Saga’s cluster that mostly operates from a tall guyed tower at the north end of the farm. The big station at the top of the tower is rock WWWV (97.5), the oldest FM in town. It’s been here since the early 1990s, when it moved across I-64 from Shadwell’s Mountain to the north.
This site is also home to Saga’s AAA “Corner” WCNR (106.1), a more recent addition, as well as Monticello Media’s competing news-talk WCHV-FM (107.5), plus several translators.
At the far end of the line of towers, there’s another tower that carries antennas for several noncommercial stations: the university’s student station WTJU (91.1) and independent AAA WNRN (91.9) share an antenna at the top, with the regional Radio IQ NPR service, WVTW (88.5) below.
And there’s one more tower on the brow of the hill to the west: public TV arrived here in 1989 on WHTJ (Channel 41, for “Home of Thomas Jefferson,”) a satellite of Richmond’s WCVE, which we showed you a few weeks ago. Today, it’s part of the larger VPM network, and it channel-shares its RF 26 facility up here with the “zombie license” of WNVC (Channel 56), which was relicensed from Fairfax to Culpeper when it left the Washington market in the repack auction.
After we take another moment to admire the amazing views from up here (and to pick up some cider and donuts!), let’s head back down into the valley to see more of what Charlottesville has to offer.
At the far north end of the market, we missed out on one directional array – Monticello’s WCHV (1260) recently took down its five-tower array six miles north on US 29 in favor of going non-directional as an 800-watt daytimer, accompanied by WCHV-FM on 107.5. WCHV is the oldest AM in town, going back to the 1920s, and it moved around the dial quite a bit, landing on 1420 before the war, then 1450, then 1240 before going to 5 kW in 1956 on 1260.
The other big AM DA in town is a few miles to the southwest, off Rio Road. That’s Saga’s WINA (1070), with 5 kW fulltime, using four towers at night. WINA started after World War II as a daytimer on 1280, then moved to 1450 after WCHV went to 1240, then to 1400 – and then finally landed on 1070 at this site in 1967.
Confused yet? It gets more complicated: for many years, WCHV operated both studios and its AM transmitter from a site on Rose Hill Drive, just north of downtown. The three-tower AM array that had been at this site went away in the 1980s when WCHV moved its 1260 facility north, and the studio complex here ended up not with WCHV but with its original FM sister, now WWWV, part of Saga’s Charlottesville Radio Group. In addition to WINA (on 1070 and the 98.9 translator on Carter’s), WWWV, WCVL and WCNR, the cluster here also includes ESPN outlet WVAX (1450 and a 102.9 translator) and AC “Z95.1” WQMZ.
Driving over to the WQMZ/WVAX site at Melbourne Road and Rio Road East, on the northeast side of town, we encounter more history: WQMZ was the original WINA-FM on 95.3 and has been here since the 1960s; WVAX was a much later arrival, a product of the last FCC AM window in the mid 2000s, operating from a folded unipole antenna mounted on the side of the tower.
(There’s also a translator here on 105.5 that brings in rimshot “SAM FM,” co-channel WOJL Louisa, via an HD subchannel of WCNR.)
The studios of WCAV/WVAW are north of here on Rio Road, in a nearly-unmarked office building. This office park area north of town off US 29 is also home to two more broadcasters: next door to a big Pepsi plant, there’s the office building that’s home to Monticello’s stations, WCHV/WCHV-FM, Christian hits WKAV (1400, plus a 94.1 translator), and several rimshots – top-40 “Hot” WHTE-FM (101.9 Ruckersville, to the north, plus a 104.9 translator in town), 80s “Generations” WZGN (102.3 Crozet, to the west) and country WCYK (99.7 Staunton, to the west).
Just a couple of buildings away, there’s a studio complex shared by three LPFM stations: rock WXRK-LP (92.3), hip-hop WVAI-LP (101.3) and oldies WREN-LP (97.9).
The LPFMs over here have been the subject of a bit of controversy in recent years, running into a buzzsaw of objections from Saga, which has complained that the shared studio and transmitter arrangements among the three LPFM licensees, as well as their underwriting practices, have violated FCC rules. (Two other LPFMs that had been part of this “Virginia Radio Co-op,” including WPVC-LP 94.7 here in Charlottesville, ended up surrendering their licenses as a result.)
The antenna shared by the remaining LPFMs sits on a monopole tower a mile or so to the north, in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.
What else is there to see in our limited time here in Charlottesville? Heading into the pretty downtown area, we go by the tower of WKAV (1400), on Starr Hill just south of Main Street between downtown Charlottesville and the UVA campus to the west. This site also houses two translators, WKAV’s on 94.1 and WHTE’s on 104.9.
Right in the heart of downtown on Market Street, we find WVIR’s studio, in a building that certainly appears to be rather older than the station itself.
And we wrap up on the west side of town, on Ivy Road just west of the university. The University’s stations, WTJU on 91.1 and WXTJ-LP on 100.1, share part of a building on the south side of the road; almost directly across the road is the office building that houses WNRN, which has grown from its roots here in Charlottesville into a network that also includes stations in Richmond and Lynchburg. We’ll be back, soon we hope, to visit them and see much more of this enjoyable city.
WE’RE FIRMLY IN 2023
And if you don’t have your 2023 Tower Site Calendar yet, now is the perfect time to get it. Because we have lowered the price to just $14.
The calendar has great photos of broadcast sites near and far (everywhere from Navajo Nation on the cover to Boston to Toronto to Texas, and beyond), plus a lovely “centerfold” you can keep on your wall for 2024.
It’s still shipping regularly, and you can have yours in just a couple of days!
Order your copy and you’ll see what we mean.
If you have already ordered your calendar, make sure you check out the other items in the store, too!
And don’t miss a big batch of central Virginia IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley