Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
How many radio markets can claim an FM transmitter site that’s been in constant use for almost 75 years? There’s New York’s Empire State Building, of course, which is closing in on 85 years of FM, and Mount Wilson in Los Angeles, which is past the 80 year mark now. But both of those sites were initially developed for television, with FM coming later. There’s Major Armstrong’s tower in Alpine, New Jersey, which was the first site developed specifically for FM back in 1937, but it hasn’t had continuous FM operation for all of those 85 years, with a big gap between the end of Armstrong’s KE2XCC in 1954 and the launch of WFDU at the site in 1971.
Who’s next in that historical timeline? Several more signals connected to Major Armstrong – West Peak in Meriden, Connecticut (1939), Mount Washington, New Hampshire and Mount Asnebumskit near Worcester, Massachusetts.
After that, we get close to home: in 1948, FM spread across a huge swath of upstate New York in the form of the Rural Radio Network, six mountaintop sites stretching from Cherry Valley in the east to Wethersfield in the west, south to Ithaca and north to Turin on the Tug Hill Plateau.
Five of those sites remain in use, and probably the most original is this one, 30 miles southeast of Rochester near the top of Bristol Mountain. It was the second-to-last link going west in the Rural Radio Network when it signed on June 6, 1948 as WVBT on 101.9, receiving programming over the air from RRN’s stations to the east in Ithaca and DeRuyter.
Today, it’s an easy drive up paved highways and a well-graded gravel road to get to this site, less than an hour in all from Rochester. In 1948, though, it would have been rather more of an adventure to get up here – and when you did, you’d have found a self-sustainable site, with lodging up in the attic for the on-site engineers, a garage downstairs that would have held a snowmobile in the winter, and a main floor with a small wood-paneled lobby, a glass-enclosed office/studio where local weather reports would have been delivered several times daily, a transmitter room and a workshop/kitchen area around the corner.
Most of those spaces still look pretty much the same, if a little more worn down, almost 75 years later. You wouldn’t want to sleep in the attic, probably, and the basement area is now filled with the remnants of earlier antennas, but the main floor looks surprisingly well preserved, doesn’t it?
There have been lots of changes behind the scenes here, mind you: RRN moved this station from 101.9 to 95.1 in the early 1950s (fixing some co-channel interference issues with other stations in the network). By the late 1960s, the RRN stations had been sold to Pat Robertson, who ran them until 1981 as part of his Christian Broadcasting Network, in this case as WMIV.
After the network broke up in the early 1980s, 95.1 here began targeting the Rochester market, playing Music of Your Life as WYLF, then beautiful music as WZSH (“Wish”), and then became a rocker as “The Nerve,” WNVE. There was an abortive effort in the 1990s to get the 95.1 signal off Bristol Mountain and closer to Rochester, using a Rochester Telephone tower in the town of Farmington, but interference issues with neighbors quickly sent 95.1 back up here. (That’s the source of one of these sets of antenna bays, I think.)
By 2001, WNVE was owned by Clear Channel, where head honcho and facility genius Randy Michaels had a plan. The company had acquired another Rochester rimshot, a class A on 107.3 licensed to Honeoye Falls southeast of the city. By swapping cities of license, the full class B 95.1 signal could become a “Honeoye Falls” station on paper and a full Rochester signal in reality, moving from Bristol Mountain to Baker Hill and sharing a tower and antenna with Rochester-licensed WVOR (100.5).
The old 95.1 antenna came off the tower here (another source of the bays in the basement!), while the little class A on 107.3 moved away from Rochester up here to Bristol Mountain. The old Collins transmitter on 95.1 was left in place in the middle of the transmitter room, while the new 107.3 signal came from a little BE transmitter in the racks across from the old Collins.
Over the two decades since, 107.3 has gone through wheel after wheel of formats on this little signal that doesn’t quite hit Rochester usefully. When we visited in 2021, it was doing country as “the Bull,” WNBL, but more recently has flipped again to 80s hits as “Big 107.3.”
There’s HD radio up here, believe it or not, with a newer BE exciter above the 107.3 transmitter. (WNBL’s HD2 carries an iHeart Christmas R&B format year-round, for whatever reason.)
And there’s a newer addition in the next rack to the right: the little daytime AM station up the road in Canandaigua, WCGR (1550), spawned two very big translators in the last few years. “The Lake” does a 70s-heavy classic rock format on 100.1 from Baker Hill (right next to the present 95.1 site, reaching the east side of Rochester) and on W283BF on 104.5 here at Bristol, nicely covering Canandaigua and much of the western Finger Lakes.
Today, you can look from the current transmitter room into the adjoining kitchen/workroom, but in the original 1948 configuration the 250-watt GE transmitter (later accompanied by a 1 kW Phasitron amplifier) would have been sitting in the middle of this photo, creating a wall between the studio/control room (roughly where the present transmitters sit) and the workroom.
There are all kinds of old 95.1 equipment and no shortage of ghosts in that kitchen/workroom, not to mention a fridge that has to date almost to the beginning of this site.
Out back, this is the last remaining original Rural Radio tower, now crowned by the three-bay 107.3 antenna on the mast (replacing the original GE pylon antenna), with the 104.5 single-bay antenna all the way at the top.
It’s a remarkable piece of history here, and we’re glad to have finally had the chance to see inside and document it while it’s still standing.
Thanks to Alan Bishop of WCGR for the tour!
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Next week: Across northern New England, fall 2021