Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we spent a night in Altoona last summer, we took advantage of some free time before hitting the road the next morning to catch up on some of the AM sites in town while they’re all still standing.
The oldest and biggest AM in town happens to have the (slightly) newest transmitter site. WFBG (1290) is Forever’s news-talker here, sharing studios on “Forever Drive” just off the Logan Avenue commercial strip in suburban Hollidaysburg with sister stations that include country monster WFGY (Froggy 98.1), top-40 WWOT (Hot 100.1). classic hits WALY (103.9), classic rock WRKY-FM (Rocky 104.9) and variety hits WTNA (Toona 1430).
Founder William F.B. Gable put WFBG on the air downtown in 1924, and by the 1928 AM realignment it was sharing 1310 with WJAC in Johnstown. WJAC got its own channel (1370, later 1400, and eventually 850) before World War II, leaving WFBG alone on 1310, then on 1340 after the 1941 NARBA shuffle.
In 1959, Triangle Broadcasting got WFBG off the crowded 1340 graveyard channel, moving it to 1290 from a four-tower directional site here, followed much later by the construction of this studio complex next door.
Where were the studios in the meantime? For many years, under Walter Annenberg’s Triangle group, WFBG radio shared studios at “Commerce Park” on Sixth Avenue with WFBG-FM (now WFGY) and WFBG-TV (Channel 10), the CBS affiliate for a broad swath of central Pennsylvania from the Maryland border up past State College. After Triangle had to divest the radio operations, Channel 10 became WTAJ (Television Altoona-Johnstown), and so it remains today, now owned by Nexstar, at the Commerce Park studios.
Head up Sixth Avenue toward downtown and look up to the east and you’ll see a hill that rises above Union Avenue and Tuckahoe Park, crowned – for the moment at least – by three AM towers.
This is the station on 1430 that’s now Forever’s “Toona” WTNA. For most of its existence it was WVAM, playing top-40 and often fighting fiercely with WFBG. It signed on in 1947 from a site one street over on Edgewood Drive, moving to this location at the end of Albert Drive in 1954 and changing its directional pattern.
The old studios here are long since abandoned after the station ended up in Forever’s hands. “Toona” now reaches local listeners by way of a translator at 99.7 on one of the 1430 towers, which also hosts the 104.5 translator for WFBG. As of last November, WTNA’s AM signal has gone non-directional, with just 25 watts at night, and if the other two towers here aren’t gone already, they will be soon.
We wrap up our Altoona AM tour, such as it is, on the other side of downtown. Near Westfall Park on a hill at the end of 14th Avenue, a path leads back in the woods to the tower of WRTA (1240). This is another station dating to 1947, though it took another decade for it to move up here from its original site downtown.
These days, as we showed you last week, WRTA is part of Matt Lightner’s growing group, though most listeners connect with it via the translator on 98.5 that’s up on Wopsononock Mountain, the big FM-TV site northwest of town that we didn’t get to on this trip.
BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND….
It’s the annual Tower Site Calendar!
This is the 23rd edition of our popular wall calendar, featuring gorgeous full-color photos of tower and transmitter sites from around the country, and sometimes the world. Our photos capture the sites throughout the day and throughout the year.
This makes a great gift for the tower enthusiast in your life — or a special treat for yourself!
Because it’s not yet off the press, we’re offering a pre-production price of $20. Once the calendar is printed, the price will go up to our regular price of $21.
Don’t wait – order yours today!
We have the Radio Historian’s Calendar again this year, too. There are only 25 in stock and they sell fast, so don’t wait to order.
And don’t miss a big batch of Pennsylvania IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Washington DC