Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of the remarkable things about documenting tower sites here in the 2020s is how fast things change, especially if you’re trying to follow TV stations around as they’ve gone through the end of analog, a major repack and now the launch of ATSC 3.0 “NextGen” services.
It was only six years for us between stops at the big TV/FM tower farm in Driver, Virginia, on the western edge of the Hampton Roads (Norfolk/Portsmouth/Newport News) market, and yet so much had changed in the fall of 2022 from what we saw there on our first visit back in 2016.
If you head to the Driver tower farm from I-664, you’ll get off at Nansemond Parkway/VA 337 and head west, which means the first towers you see here are also some of the oldest. The first two TV stations in town, WTKR (Channel 3, originally WTAR-TV) and WVEC (Channel 13, originally channel 15) set up shop right next to each other on the south side of the road, just past where today’s suburban sprawl comes to an end (at least for the moment).
The old channel 3 tower went out of active TV use at the end of analog in 2009, remaining home only to a former FM sister, WVKL (95.7, the old WTAR-FM), but WVEC’s tower has remained in use, now crowned by a new RF 11 DTV antenna. There’s a great irony here, though: after WVEC fought hard in the 1950s to get off its original UHF channel for a better signal on VHF, in the DTV era the roles are reversed, and now WVEC has plans to move back to UHF, this time on RF 35.
Look very closely in the woods behind the channel 3 tower and there’s another tower back there – as we saw in 2016, that was the site of WGNT (Channel 27), but times have moved on there, too: WGNT has relocated, as we’re about to show you, leaving that tower with just an FM tenant, iHeart’s WNOH (105.3). Both channel 27 and 105.3 share roots in the original Pat Robertson era of CBN, which started here in Hampton Roads.
Keep going west on Nansemond Parkway as it bends south just before the middle of Driver and you’ll arrive at our real destination on this blue-sky September morning. Public broadcaster WHRO built the original tower at this site back in the 1960s when it hit the air as the new educational TV station in town, using the channel 15 allocation that WVEC had abandoned in its move to channel 13, but the launch of DTV turned the old WHRO site into a big multi-user site, now owned by American Tower.
A new candelabra tower went up next to the shortened remnant of the original WHRO tower, with a new multi-user community transmitter facility at its base. As with so many of these ATC facilities, it’s divided into separate rooms for each station group: CBS affiliate WTKR (now on RF 16) and its Scripps CW sister station WGNT (now on RF 20) share one room since WGNT moved over here from its original site to the east; Sinclair’s MyNetwork outlet, with WTVZ (Channel 33/RF 33) across the hall.
There’s a combiner room in here too that takes the signals of WTKR, WGNT, WTVZ and WHRO-TV (Channel 15/RF 31) and sends them up to the master antenna mounted on one arm of the candelabra.
There’s a VHF signal in another room here: Trinity Broadcasting’s WTPC (Channel 21/RF 7) has its own antenna lower on the tower. And Ion’s WPXV (Channel 49/RF 32) has its own separate UHF antenna on another arm of the candelabra, from its own separate building in the cluster here. Look very closely under the white WPXV antenna and you can see the two-bay panel antenna of WHRO-FM (90.3), one of the two public radio stations here.
The original WHRO building still sits by the base of the shortened original tower here, which has a six-bay antenna mounted on top these days for WHRV (89.5), the news-talk half of the WHRO public radio operation. (The WHRV antenna is also an aux for WHRO-FM, and I think that three-bay antenna beneath it was an old Entercom aux that’s no longer in use.)
Back in the 1960s, the WHRO building was probably just big enough to fit one big UHF TV transmitter, but of course things are much smaller now, and so there’s some empty space here even with three stations in the room. The WHRO-TV transmitter takes up three racks, perpendicular to the pair of Nautels that power WHRO-FM and WHRV.
And we get a peek into one more room before we leave: in the main ATC building, the little VHF transmitter for Trinity’s WTPC takes up almost no space at all, next to the racks that bring down the Trinity programming from the satellite and insert local IDs.
On the way back into Norfolk along Nansemond Parkway, we get a nice panoramic view of most of the Driver towers: that’s the old channel 27 at the left, the WHRO site’s candelabra off in the distance at middle right, and then WTKR and WVEC off at the right. There’s one more tower out here, just far enough west that you can’t quite see it from here: Nexstar’s NBC affiliate WAVY (Channel 10) and Fox affiliate WVBT (Channel 43) are out to the west of the WHRO candelabra.
There’s one other site out on this side of the market we’d never seen: a few miles northeast of Driver, where the Churchland neighborhood of Portsmouth juts up toward the Elizabeth River off the VA 164 freeway, Max Media’s WTWV (92.9 the Wave) sits by itself in what must once have been a rural area but is now a site tightly hemmed in by suburban homes.
This site dates back to 1972, when then-WFOG moved east from its original site on US 460 in Suffolk, shared with its original AM sister station (WLPM 1460, which later became WBVA 1450 and is now defunct). The WTWV calls were brand new when we stopped by; just a few months earlier, 92.9 had swapped its longtime WVBW calls to its sister station on 100.5 as part of a format change from “Hot” (WVHT) to “the Vibe.”
Thanks to WHRO’s Glenn Hickman for the tour!
FEBRUARY IS ALMOST GONE
We are down to our final copies and they won’t be reprinted.
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!
Don’t miss out — order yours today!
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