Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We’ve been a little Canada-focused here in this space recently, in part because over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of introducing several radio friends to all the fun of broadcasting north of the border – and in part because of how excited I’ve been about the new RadioDays North America conference that recently happened in Toronto. (Tune in to the Top of the Tower Podcast for more on that…)
We showed you most of the transmitter sites in Ontario’s Niagara Region a few months ago when we recapped our introductory tour for NECRAT’s Mike Fitzpatrick, but there were a couple of locations we missed in that whirlwind trip, including one very significant studio site.
We’re pretty sure no station in Canada has been in the same studio location for as long as CKTB (610) in St. Catharines, which has made its home at 12 Yates Street for a remarkable 85 years. The historic mansion at that site was built in 1860 for William Hamilton Merritt, builder of the nearby Welland Canal, and it’s never changed much on the outside in all the decades since.
On the air, this building is often called the “White House of Rock,” a nod to one of the three Bell Media stations that now make their homes here. CHTZ (97.7) is the active rock station for Niagara, with listeners around the Golden Horseshoe and into nearby Buffalo, and its studio sits prominently in the front left corner of the old mansion, along a hallway that also leads to the back of the building and a cluster of studios for CKTB and its news-talk format. There’s an interview studio, a small production booth and a main control room at the back of this row of studios, all set off behind a heavy wooden door from the main hallway and the front lobby to the building.
On the other side of the mansion’s first floor, there’s a newsroom for CKTB, albeit a little emptier these days as Bell has cut back on local staffing in small markets like these.
An addition at the back of the building on this side houses the third station in the cluster: CHRE (105.7) moved in back in 2000, when then-owner Affinity Broadcasting took advantage of relaxed CRTC ownership rules to add a second FM signal, acquiring 105.7 from its founder, Redmond Broadcasting. (Redmond retained its AM station, CHSC 1220, which later folded.)
These days, the sunlit CHRE studio is home to Bell’s “Move” format, and afternoon jock Aiko Iwashita is on the air when we stop in.
How do you squeeze three radio stations into a 19th-century mansion? Wherever you can – which is why the rack room for the stations is down in the basement, where the engineering department is spread out over several rooms at the foot of the stairs.
There’s a storage room down here for the promotions department, and some history, too – in this 160-year-old basement, there are openings that lead to curious passageways that are rumored (somewhat dubiously) to have been part of the Underground Railroad, or perhaps to have been used by Prohibition-era bootleggers.
From the basement, we head back up a very grand stairwell (albeit with the windows blocked off by subsequent additions) to the second floor, home to managers’ offices and a conference room in the original mansion and a sales office in a very non-19th-century addition upstairs from the 105.7 studio at the back of the building.
Is there an attic? Of course there is, and it’s up here that we find the microwave links pointing over to the tower that’s shared by CHTZ and CHRE out to the southwest of St. Catharines.
There’s also more storage up here, including some artifacts of earlier call letters and formats: what started out as CKTB-FM on 97.7 turned into country station CJQR from 1979 until becoming CHTZ in 1986, and there are still signs up here for the old “QR FM Country,” as well as decades of CKTB memorabilia.
And there’s even more storage out back in the historic carriage house that was also part of the Merritt estate, truly one of the most interesting studio facilities in all of North American radio.
Head down the Welland Canal that Merritt built, and 20 minutes or so south of St. Catharines you’ll pass through the city of Welland, which has had its own radio station since 1957. That’s when CHOW hit the air as a 500-watt daytimer on 1470. Over the years, CHOW kept expanding its tower farm on Forks Road, south of Welland, and by the end of the 1970s it was up to 11 towers for 10,000 watts day and night with very tight directional patterns to protect a slew of co- and adjacent-channel stations on both sides of the border.
Those 11 towers still stand, but they haven’t been in use for more than two decades – in 1999, CHOW moved to FM on 91.7, and today it’s CIXL (Giant FM 91.7), now owned by My Broadcasting. The studios are still out here on Forks Road, but the transmitter for CIXL and its newer country sister station, CKYY (89.1), are well to the east of here, closer to Niagara Falls and Fort Erie.
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 Niagara IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Thanks to Bell’s Lonny Bergen for the tours!
Next week: Mansfield, PA