Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
On our last day in Virginia in May 2021, we were moving a little faster than we’d have preferred.
From an early start leaving Charlottesville (where it would have been nice to have had an extra day or two to see more of that charming city), we were headed west on I-64 and then all the way up I-81 into and across Pennsylvania to get to an evening baseball game in, of all places, Trenton, New Jersey.
So even though this was a brand new set of radio communities and a new landscape for us, we caught only a few quick glimpses from the road as we made our way north and east on a sunny blue-sky Virginia morning in the Shenandoah Valley.
Our first quick stop was in the small city of Staunton (the “u” is silent), right where 64 comes down over the hills from Charlottesville into the Shenandoah Valley. While most of the signals from Charlottesville are still pretty easily heard here, as are the ones from Harrisonburg to the north, Staunton has some of its own local radio, too, though we only stop at one: WTON (1240), tucked away next to a quarry just west of I-81, has been around since 1944. (It, too, has a connection to the Charlottesville AM frequency merry-go-round: it moved from 1400 to 1240 in 1956, as part of the shuffle that moved Charlottesville’s WCHV from 1240 to 1260 and eventually landed two other Charlottesville AMs, first WINA and then WKAV, on 1400.)
Today, WTON is part of a small local cluster, with ESPN on 1240 and classic hits on sister WTON-FM 94.3.
It’s only a short drive north on 81 into Harrisonburg, the commercial center of the central Shenandoah Valley, and again we find ourselves with only limited time to see everything we’d want to see. In an ideal world (and one less in the grips of the ongoing pandemic), we’d have visited our public radio friends at James Madison University, which operates its own WMRA (90.7) alongside WEMC (91.7), which is still licensed to its former operator across town, Eastern Mennonite University. WEMC’s tower is located next to the college observatory (and former studio location), up on a hill with a beautiful view down into town, and we do at least get a chance to see that. (There’s a great photo gallery, courtesy of longtime CE Bill Fawcett, on WMRA’s website, showing many of the sites in WMRA’s extensive relay network.)
For a relatively small market, Harrisonburg is served by several big operators. iHeart Media is here, with a cluster that includes three AMs (classic country WKDA 900 Staunton and news-talk simulcast WKCY 1300 Harrisonburg/WKCI 970 Waynesboro-Staunton) and four FMs, AC “Mix” WSVO (93.1 Staunton), top-40 “Now” WAZR (93.7 Woodstock), rock WACL (98.5 Elkton) and country WKCY-FM (104.3 Harrisonburg). They’re all in a compact building just off I-81 in the commercial district just east of the university.
Saga is here, too, with studios and offices west of town just off US 33 at the transmitter site of its oldest station in town, WSVA (550). Today, WSVA shares the site with a second AM, sports WHBG (1360), as well as two full-power FMs. “Q101” WQPO (100.7) is the original WSVA-FM, with a history dating back to the late 1940s, while “Rewind” WWRE (105.1 Bridgewater) came along much later.
There are lots of translators here, too – WSVA’s news-talk is on 92.1, WHBG’s sports on 106.9, plus HD-fed translators with oldies on 101.3, “EZ Favorites” on 100.1, and several regional Christian networks on 103.3 and 107.5. And Saga’s cluster also includes several more FMs: “More 96.1” is Broadway-licensed WMQR, while WSIG (96.9 Mount Jackson) does country.
Downtown Harrisonburg is compact and quaint, with the city’s TV station right there across from the courthouse square.
What’s now WHSV (Channel 3) started out in the early 1950s as WSVA-TV, the only station in this part of Virginia and a sister to WSVA/WSVA-FM. (For a few years later in the 1950s, the WSVA stations were part of Transcontinent Television and sisters to WGR in Buffalo and WROC here in Rochester.)
Since 1976, the radio and TV stations have been in separate hands; by then, channel 3 had shifted from its initial CBS affiliation to ABC, which it retains today under Gray Television ownership. Today, though, Gray controls every network in town through a group of low-power signals operated in tandem with WHSV: there’s NBC and CW on WSVW-LD (Channel 30), once a translator for Charlottesville’s WVIR; Fox and CBS show up on WSVF-CD (Channel 43), while NBC and CBS are both on subchannels on the main WHSV signal, too.
(For a time earlier in the 2000s, WHSV tried to do a separate ABC feed for Winchester, an hour to the north, as cable/subchannel “ABC3 Winchester,” but that service is now defunct.)
We weren’t planning to get up into the hills at all to see the FM and TV towers around Harrisonburg, but as we made our drive along I-81 as it rises up to the north around Mount Jackson, we couldn’t miss one FM that’s just west of the highway at a convenient rest stop – that’s iHeart’s WAZR 93.7, with four bays up above a bunch of cellular antennas.
Our final stop along 81 this day also should have been longer, but time was short: in Winchester, up there in the “Four State” region where West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania all come together near northern Virginia, we knew we had only this one chance to get a picture of the WINC building and tower.
The WINC calls in Winchester go back to 1941, and I think the studio/transmitter site we see here, now with a “Pleasant Valley Drive” address, is actually the same one in use since the 40s, then listed in FCC records as “Kerr St.”
The pieces of WINC were being broken apart when we drove by in early 2021, though: the old WINC-FM (92.5), with an enormous signal blanketing most of northern Virginia and audible in Washington, DC, had been sold off to EMF as Air1 WAIW. The WINC-FM calls and hot AC format had moved to a class A on 105.5, simulcast with WZFC on 104.9, but owner Centennial Broadcasting was in the midst of selling those off to Metro Broadcasting.
And the AM signal on 1400 with its news-talk format? It was the odd man out, eventually changing its calls to WZFC and being spun off to Colonial Radio Group of Williamsport, PA. It’s not keeping this venerable site, though – it’s applied to move south of town to a shared site with WXVA (610), another established Winchester station that also lost its longtime site a few years back.
From here, we still had lots of driving ahead of us to get to that game in Trenton (the Buffalo Bisons, playing AAA-level “home” games in exile while the Toronto Blue Jays used the Buffalo ballpark), and despite a long backup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we made it almost in time, wrapping up our first big radio trip of 2021 in style.
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Next week: Around New York’s Southern Tier