Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Some of our trips are carefully planned down to the second. Others come together on the fly, as was the case with our impromptu visit to Norfolk, Virginia in the fall of 2022. If you’d asked us the night before whether we’d be seeing any studios in town, we’d have shrugged and said, “Maybe?” – but then things came together for a few tours, including the one we happily present here.
The story of WHRO public media is a familiar one around the country: educational TV came to Norfolk in 1961 at the hands of the Norfolk and Hampton public school systems, which took advantage of an available UHF channel (channel 15, which had just been vacated by commercial WVEC-TV in its move to VHF channel 13) to provide a few hours a day of instructional programming to students in the region. (The calls initially stood for Home Room One, though they also nicely reflect the “Hampton ROads” area, too.)
WHRO’s earliest broadcasts came from WVEC’s former channel 15 transmitter and studio location in Hampton, but within a few years it had moved across the water to Norfolk, setting up a bigger studio facility on Hampton Boulevard across from Old Dominion University. Now owned by the Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association, a consortium of area school districts, WHRO absorbed a struggling public radio station, WTGM (89.5), renaming it WHRO-FM.
Today’s WHRO is still on Hampton Boulevard, in a facility that went through a big expansion in the early 1990s. Before we head inside for the grand tour, we take a moment in the lobby to admire an otherwise unexceptional upright piano – because this piano belonged to composer and Virginia Beach native B.J. Leiderman, and it was on this piano that he composed, among other things, the themes to “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition” before donating it to his hometown station.
We head down the hallway off to the right of the lobby into the WHRO radio studios, which now churn out multiple formats. The original WHRO-FM on 89.5 became WHRV in 1990 when a second radio signal at 90.3 was added. The new WHRO-FM 90.3 became an all-classical service, while WHRV was able to go all news and information – and in the years since, both formats have spawned a collection of satellite transmitters up the Eastern Shore and across eastern Virginia.
The studios for WHRV and WHRO-FM sit on either side of a shared engineering/production area that in turn leads into a small radio rack room where those signals are fed out to all those transmitters.
WHRO was an early proponent of HD Radio, using subchannels to broadcast additional formats that included an all-1920s format. More recently, one of the radio production rooms down the hall from the main WHRV-WHRO studios became the home of the “Time Machine Radio Network,” an oldies service that airs on WFOS (88.7 Chesapeake), which WHRO acquired from the Chesapeake public schools to keep it on the air.
From radio, we turn the corner to WHRO’s TV operations, starting with a big rack room that also houses a corner where there’s still tape equipment in use, allowing access to the station’s considerable archives.
As with many public TV stations these days, there’s not that much live studio production, so the big TV studio space and its accompanying production control rooms are used for pledge drives and are leased out for other production. (Do note, however, that there’s the obligatory Big Bird cutout, which is still a common feature at so many public TV studios!)
And after a glimpse at WHRO-TV master control (where there are five subchannels programmed over the DTV signal, including Create, World, Kids and First Nation eXperience), we head out from the Hampton Roads area toward Richmond and an eventual baseball game that night.
The direct route to the state capital would take us across to Hampton and then up I-64, but having done that before, we instead head south and west to pick up US 460, which would eventually take us toward Peterborough, south of Richmond.
Why go out of the way like that? A tower, of course, and one that we didn’t think might be around that much longer, because Saga had recently applied to move its WAFX (106.9 Suffolk) closer to the core of the Hampton Roads market from its current site on a thousand-foot tower in Windsor, 26 miles west of Norfolk.
With a 100 kW class C signal, “106.9 the Fox” reaches from Hampton Roads almost into the suburbs of Richmond, not to mention deep into eastern North Carolina, which made sense when 106.9 went on the air in 1981 as religious WTID. Saga added the station to its Norfolk-based cluster in 1994, and these days that extra coverage to the south and west has been balanced by a relatively weaker signal in Norfolk and Virginia Beach compared to the class B FMs in the core of the market.
That’s why Saga had applied to downgrade WAFX to a 47 kW class B signal and move it to the tower of sister WNOR (98.7) right across from downtown Norfolk, and it’s why we made this detour to see the tower in Windsor with its 12-bay main and aux antennas while we still could – but as it turns out, maybe we didn’t need to rush, because a few months later, Saga changed its mind and withdrew its downgrade application, leaving WAFX on its big signal out here in the sticks. In any event, it’s only 63 miles from here to Richmond, a journey we complete in little more than another hour – and in the next installment, we’ll show you what we saw there.
Thanks to WHRO’s Glenn Hickman for the tour!
WE’VE LOWERED THE PRICE!
It’s officially summer. Have you still not ordered your Tower Site Calendar?
Good news! You can now purchase it for just $8. You also still have the option of getting it signed for $13, or buying a storage bag for $1.
And don’t miss a big batch of Hampton Roads IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: On to Richmond!