Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Welcome back to the new fall season of Site of the Week, including the launch (very soon now!) of Tower Site Calendar 2023.
Before we took our little summer break in posting, we were showing you some of the sites we saw as we made a brief return to northern New England in the autumn of 2021, and we continue this week with what we’d hoped would have been a longer stop almost within sight of the New Hampshire-Maine border.
One of the big news stories that fall was iHeart’s physical downsizing, including its sale of what had long been its studio facility in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This site tucked in behind a shopping center off Lafayette Road (Route 1) just south of the city’s historic downtown had been in broadcast service since the summer of 1940, when daytimer WHEB (then on 740) increased power from 250 watts to a kilowatt and moved its transmitter from Bean’s Hill in Newington here to the marshes along Sagamore Creek. The salt marsh carried that little kilowatt (soon moved to 750 in 1941) up and down the coast with great efficiency, giving WHEB an audience from Maine down to Massachusetts, at least until co-channel WSB Atlanta took over at dusk.
WHEB added an FM signal on 100.3 on a short tower out here at the end of 1963, mostly simulcasting the AM’s full-service format and extending it into the evening hours. The FM changed calls to WPFM in 1967, returning to WHEB-FM in 1971. Under Knight Quality Stations, the WHEB signals went to a rock format in the 1980s, with the AM rocking along in simulcast stereo during daylight hours.
The original FM tower was replaced with a new 460-foot stick, down a short road in the woods behind the building. The AM signal went silent forever in 1991, allowing room for a bigger adjacent-channel signal in central Massachusetts as WVNE (760 Leicester) increased its power. In more recent years, the building was significantly expanded as Knight Quality gave way to Capstar, which eventually became Clear Channel and today’s iHeart.
The cluster that operated from the expanded building came to include not just WHEB-FM and its rock format but also top-40 WERZ (107.1 Exeter), country WTBU (95.3 York Center ME), talk WQSO (96.7 Rochester) and sports WPKX (930 Rochester) – but then iHeart began consolidating. The “Greg and the Morning Buzz” show from WHEB-FM went regional, the other FMs and WPKX were mostly tracked from elsewhere, and by the time the pandemic hit, the company didn’t really need a physical space in Portsmouth. The morning show and whatever other offices remained relocated to Manchester, an hour to the west, with the building and land going up for sale.
We’d have loved a tour of the inside, of course, but it was already too late; most operations had moved out by the time we drove by. From around back, it’s easier to see what’s been added over the years to the building, including a 1960s-era structure from when the studio moved out here from downtown and the newer office building that expanded the footprint later.
Because iHeart had already sold off its tower portfolio, the FM transmitter tower (which also holds an aux for WTBU) will remain where it is out back even as the studio and old transmitter building is sold off for whatever comes next.
What becomes of the older history here? That self-supporter right behind the building that held iHeart’s STLs is the old AM tower, and it’s not clear whether it stays or goes as this property takes on its next uses.
With daylight running out on us and good pizza awaiting over the next state line, from here we head south to Massachusetts and our next batch of visits.
A stop for gas off I-95 gave us one more New Hampshire tower for the collection, though: we still remember when the 102.1 frequency lit up in Hampton for the first time back in 1992 as “Seacoast 102” WZEA, then boasting a standards format.
Today, 102.1 is WSAK, half of a Townsquare-owned rock simulcast (“The Shark”) with WSHK (105.3 Kittery ME) to the north. The WSAK tower is in the same place it’s been since WZEA hit the air 30 years ago, tucked in to a wooded hill behind an industrial area off the I-95/Route 107 exit to Seabrook a mile north of the Massachusetts line.
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 Seacoast IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: WBZ 1030, Hull, MA