Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
In retrospect, it seems like we spent a lot of 2021 going back and forth to New York’s North Country – but in fairness, it’s a very pretty part of the state and we like it up there, especially when more extensive travel isn’t quite possible yet.
On one of those trips earlier in the year, we made it up to half of Watertown’s TV/FM antennas, mostly located on the plateaus east of Watertown. But we missed the southernmost cluster of those towers, a few miles south (and across the Lewis County line) from the Champion Hill site of WWNY-TV (Channel 7) and several others.
At one point, WWNY had actually explored a move to the site on Hayes Road in Copenhagen that’s now home to its competition. ABC affiliate WWTI (Channel 50, originally WFYF) hit the air in 1988, 34 years after channel 7, operating from a thousand-foot tower here on Hayes Road.
It quickly gained an FM tenant, too: Community Broadcasters’ WBDR (106.7 the Border) is licensed to Copenhagen, serving Watertown from a class C3 facility just under the WWTI RF 31 antenna. (The old analog 50 was top-mounted, and is gone now.)
There’s an older UHF facility just to the south off County Road 194: in 1971, Watertown gained a public TV station with the debut of WNPE (Channel 16, though its original CP briefly called for the use of channel 50). It has new calls these days – WPBS-TV – and has moved from analog channel 16 to RF 41 and now 26, still using its original 1971 building and 950-foot tower.
(How did a station in the tiny Watertown get the fancy “WPBS” calls? They asked! The calls had been in use on an AM station outside of Atlanta since long before the Public Broadcasting Service came into existence, but once the FCC allowed stations on different services to share calls, it was WNPE in Watertown that thought to approach the Atlanta AM and ask for permission to become WPBS-TV.)
We visited the WPBS studio on Arsenal Road a few years ago and shared it with you in this space, and if you have a long memory, you might also recall that for the first few years of Channel 16, it operated from space at the original Channel 7 studios up on Champion Hill, donated to the station to help it get launched before it could find a building of its own.
These days, WPBS shares its building and tower with WJNY (90.9), the Watertown relay of Syracuse-based classical station WCNY-FM (91.3); right next door, another Syracuse-area public radio network, Oswego-based WRVO, has its separate building and tower for its Watertown relay, WRVJ (91.7). (What’s with all the J calls? Because these stations serve Jefferson County, even if they’re physically located in Lewis County.)
Is that a car we’re seeing in the WJNY grass driveway? It is – and so we get an impromptu look inside the WRVJ transmitter building while an engineer is there doing maintenance.
Why was channel 16 built relatively far south back in 1971? Because it was – and is – part of a two-transmitter network that also includes a full-power satellite station, WNPI (Channel 18), licensed to Norwood and serving St. Lawrence County locations including Potsdam, Canton and Massena, as well as Cornwall and Ottawa across the Canadian border.
We saw the WNPI tower, off Route 56 near Colton deep in the Adirondacks, on an earlier 2021 trip but we saved the pictures to combine with its Watertown sister station in this installment.
There’s also an FM station licensed to Norwood, but it’s nowhere near the WNPI tower. WVLF (96.1) serves Massena, up along the St. Lawrence River, from an antenna mounted on the tower of its much older sister station, WMSA (1340).
WVLF and WMSA are both part of Stephens Media Group, which also includes a third station in this cluster, WRCD (101.5 Canton), that doesn’t transmit from this facility on Route 420 on the southern outskirts of Massena.
In addition to WVLF’s class C3 facility here, there’s also a translator on this tower, bringing WMSA’s full-service AM programming to FM on 92.9.
From here, it’s back to Watertown for one more round of in-city sites… stay tuned, and then we’ll move on to other upstate hotspots as we head into June!
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Next week: Watertown’s Community Broadcasters cluster