Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
The oldest broadcast facility in Erie, Pennsylvania continues to also be one of the most interesting, as it goes through transformation after transformation to adapt to the 21st century world of broadcasting.
Television in Erie started in 1949 at 3514 State Street, where WICU-TV hit the air on channel 12 as the first signal in the small market. As we’ve shown you in earlier Tower Site installments, the old WICU building here has been expanded and renovated many times over the years, most recently and most dramatically a decade or so ago when Lilly Broadcasting bought its onetime rival, CBS affiliate WSEE (Channel 35), and moved it into the building, carving out a separate studio and control room for the second station.
The “Erie News NOW” banner eventually expanded to both WICU and WSEE, which no longer do separate newscasts but instead largely simulcast on NBC and CBS. There’s a new set since the last time we visited, on what had been the WICU side of the studio, while the old WSEE set is now used as a secondary set and you have to peer hard to spot the CBS eye that used to be a prominent feature in the middle.
Perhaps the most dramatic change at 3514 State is right in front, where what had been an office space just off the front lobby was undergoing transformation last fall, with new wood paneling and sound treatment to prepare for the return of radio to this building for the first time in more than 50 years.
An interesting bit of history here: after putting WICU on as a TV station in 1949, Edward Lamb bought a radio station a few years later. WIKK (1330) moved its studios into this building in the early 1950s, then changed its callsign to WICU(AM) in 1957. The AM station lasted here only a decade longer before being sold again in 1967, moving out and becoming WRIE (and eventually today’s WFNN).
A few years ago, Lilly bought an upstart Erie FM station, “Happi 92.7,” changing the calls from WEHP to WICU-FM. The WICU(AM) calls eventually returned, too, landing on a Happi simulcast to the east in Warren – and last fall, Happi was getting ready to move its studios from a downtown storefront to this new space looking into the WICU lobby.
The old channel 12 transmitter room across the hall from the front lobby still holds transmitters, but just for two translators: one on 96.3 rebroadcasts the current WRIE (1260), Cumulus’ sports station, while the other on 104.3 runs Cumulus’ classic hip-hop format, fed from an HD subchannel of WXKC (99.9). They’re both on the original channel 12 tower out back, now used mostly for STL and ENG purposes.
What about WICU-FM? The 92.7 allocation was dropped in very late and squeezed in very tightly against a dominant signal from just across Lake Erie, the big class C co-channel of CJBX in London, Ontario. To provide a deep directional notch to the north but still serve all of Erie, the new 92.7 here was built in an unusual spot, on a mast mounted atop a luxury apartment building right on the edge of the lake, the South Shore Place apartments just west of downtown.
There’s a fabulous view of the harbor and Presque Isle State Park from the rooftop here, just outside the little penthouse at the top of a stairwell where WICU-FM’s Nautel transmitter sits behind a locked door.
This is something of a compromise of a tower location: while it usefully puts the null to Canada out over the water, even the height of the apartment building and the mast still can’t overcome the terrain here, which rises sharply south of the city heading up to the hills where the rest of the city’s FMs and TVs sit. As a result, this 6000-watt facility ends up with its four-bay directional antenna centered just three meters above average terrain, and you don’t have to get too far outside the city to have the Canadian 92.7 signal overtake the local “Happi” format.
Even so, it’s a valued addition to the Erie radio dial, and we’re glad to have had the chance to see this unusual rooftop site with its well-shielded DA.
2023 IS CLOSER THAN YOU THINK…
The 2023 Tower Site Calendar is in pre-production at the moment. We will be taking early-bird orders very soon!
While you’re waiting, we have some great books about broadcasting in our store.
Please browse our other items, too!
And don’t miss a big batch of Erie IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Bristol Mountain’s historic Rural Radio site