by SCOTT FYBUSH
In the 11 years I’ve been doing the Tower Site Calendar, there have been only three times I’ve featured images from my hometown of Rochester, New York – and until now, the calendar has never featured Rochester’s biggest and oldest radio station, WHAM (1180).
The 2012 edition of the calendar provides a pair of good excuses to rectify that omission: first, I happened to have a particularly nice image of the WHAM transmitter site in suburban Chili (which rhymes with “jai alai,” not with the food) – and second, the new calendar pays homage to the hundreds of stations that signed on in radio’s first boom year, 1922.
WHAM was very much a part of that boom, once it overcame some initial hurdles. The station’s history goes back to an earlier signal, WHQ, which went on the air in March 1922 from the roof of the Rochester Times-Union building downtown. That station was a failure: hampered by signal problems (the steel in the building absorbed much of the station’s RF before it could reach listeners) and management issues, it signed off for good in May 1922. But the station’s equipment was quickly purchased by the city’s leading businessman, Kodak founder George Eastman, and on July 11 he put it back on the air with a new license from a new location, the rooftop of his Eastman Theatre just east of downtown. (Legend has it that he picked the callsign WHAM, much as he picked the name “Kodak,” simply because he liked the sound of it.)
WHAM quickly established itself as a first-class radio operation, joining the new NBC network and gradually boosting power to 5,000, then 25,000, and finally to 50,000 watts by the early 1930s. By then it had moved studios from the Eastman Theatre to the Sagamore Hotel at 111 East Avenue and relocated its transmitter site to the town of Victor, in Ontario County southeast of Rochester. On a hilltop there, new owner Stromberg-Carlson built two self-supporting towers and a longwire antenna as WHAM settled down on 1150 kilocycles as one of a handful of privileged clear-channel stations.
The NARBA shift of 1941 moved WHAM to 1180 on the dial, and the post-war radio boom moved the station to new studio and transmitter facilities. The new studios were at “Rochester Radio City,” a majestic Art Deco facility next to the Stromberg-Carlson plant (featured on Tower Site of the Week back in 2007), and the new transmitter site was on Brook Road near the Genesee River in Chili, considerably closer to the core of the market than the old Victor site was. In place of the old flat-top antenna, WHAM erected a 420-foot Blaw-Knox tower – not one of the classic diamonds, but still a very substantial four-sided structure that eventually carried not only WHAM’s AM signal but also held antennas for WHAM’s sister FM station, WHFM.
(It seems odd, in retrospect, that WHFM never ended up on the WHAM-TV tower on Pinnacle Hill in Brighton, which would have put it several hundred feet higher than the low-lying Chili site; this may have been simply an issue of timing, since the new Chili tower was ready in May 1948, while the TV tower wasn’t in place until the spring of 1949. Until then, WHFM had been operating from the roof of the Rochester Gas & Electric building, just up East Avenue from the Sagamore studios. It’s also worth noting that when FM was “kicked upstairs” around that same time, WHFM moved from 45.1 mc to 98.9 mc and never moved again; as best we can tell, every other surviving FM from the low-band era changed frequency again at least once after getting moved to the new band. The FM license survives today as Entercom’s WBZA; in 1987 it moved from the Chili tower to the WRMM-FM tower on Rochester’s west side.)
More than six decades later, the WHAM transmitter site doesn’t look all that different today from its early days. The 1948 Blaw-Knox tower still stands, as does the two-story transmitter building, now somewhat concealed by trees.
Sadly, I never made it inside to see the original transmitter here, a mighty Westinghouse 50-HG that filled up most of the second floor, across from a row of small rooms that provided offices and, if needed, sleeping quarters for the engineering staff. The transformers and blowers were down on the ground floor, and the FM transmitter had a building of its own out by the tower.
By the time I made it inside the building in 2004 (remarkably, the only time I’ve ever been inside!), the Westinghouse had recently been removed, hauled out through a roll-up door at the front of the second floor. The Harris MW50 that had supplanted the Westinghouse was still in place, and in the big space where the 50HG once sat, a new Harris DX50 filled up just a fraction of the floor. (I believe even that transmitter has since been replaced with an even newer model.)
Across from the DX50 sat a Harris MW10B for backup use, as well as several racks of STL and processing gear, and at least back then it was all analog.
A few years after that 2004 visit, WHAM went through a fairly extensive zoning process to win permission to erect a shorter backup tower on the site. The tower was approved, but was never built, and WHAM remains one of a very small handful of former class I-A clears without a backup tower facility.)
Since we don’t have much more to show you from the transmitter site, how about some studio photos? The capsule history on that end goes like this: in 1956, Stromberg-Carlson sold WHAM radio and WHFM to Riggs & Greene, then to Christal, which sold the stations again a few years later to William Rust. The radio stations initially stayed put at Rochester Radio City, leasing space from their former TV sister, which was renamed WROC-TV, but a change of ownership on the TV side in 1962 moved a different radio station (the former WVET 1280, now WHTK and a sister station to WHAM) into Radio City. That finally forced WHAM/WHFM to find a new home at 350 East Avenue, where they’d remain for the next quarter of a century. (That’s the building shown near the top of this page, circa 1985, and that ugly brown Chevy in the foreground of the picture would become the first NERW-mobile a few years later, bent steering rack and all.)
1985 was also the year that Rust sold the stations to separate owners. WHFM became country WZKC and moved from 344 East Avenue to the former Sears building on Monroe Avenue; WHAM went to the local Lincoln Group, which soon relocated it from East Avenue to the second floor of the Euclid Building at Midtown Plaza, alongside new sister station WVOR (100.5) and what would soon become an even bigger cluster of stations under Jacor and then Clear Channel.
Over the years, the coming and going of signals at the Euclid Building moved WHAM around the second floor. Its studios moved from a spot adjacent to the newsroom (later used by “Kiss” WKGS-FM) to a larger space adjacent to the airstaff bullpen down the hall (later used by “Fox” WFXF) to a new room carved out of production space on the north side of the building, and it’s that final set of Euclid Building studios shown above, circa 2006.
And WHAM might still be there today, but for a minor complication: Midtown Plaza is no more. In July 2008, the retail part of the plaza closed, and for several months the radio stations were all by themselves in the vacant Midtown complex before moving across Chestnut Street to the 16th and 17th floors of the HSBC Building.
That space had a radio history of its own: it had been occupied by the CBS Radio cluster in town until CBS exited the market, selling off its stations to Entercom, which then spun several signals to Stephens Media, which remained in the CBS space at HSBC until a 2009 move to downtown Rochester’s First Federal Plaza.
When Clear Channel moved in, it gutted the space: CBS had gone with a cluster approach that put each station’s sales and marketing staffs next to air studios on each corner of the 17th floor, but the Clear Channel mindset called for all the studios to be together in one space, with all the sales and marketing combined in another space. As it turned out, that meant the 17th floor would be entirely office space, while all the studios and the engineering facilities went downstairs on 16, expanding an area that CBS had used for production rooms.
The two biggest stations in the cluster anchor each end of the studio row, which runs along the south side of the 16th floor: on one end is the big studio used by WFXF’s morning show, featuring Brother Wease and a large rotating cast. (Wease, ironically, has worked in this building before: when CBS owned WCMF 96.5, Wease held court from a large corner studio upstairs on 17, above what’s now the WHAM studio and in a space now occupied by Clear Channel’s market manager.)
Studios for the other signals in the cluster – “Kiss” WKGS, “Drive” WDVI and sports-talk WHTK – line the south wall across from a bullpen workspace that leads to the WHAM studios at the far end of the floor.
The current WHAM layout forms an “L” shape around the southeast corner of the building, with a newsroom on one side, a big air studio/control room on the corner and a smaller talk studio adjoining.
It’s a long way from 1922 and the Eastman Theatre in every way but geography: from WHAM’s lofty 21st century perch, it’s just a few blocks up Chestnut Street to the station’s birthplace nine decades ago, a history we hope the station will be marking on the air as it gets ready for next year’s big anniversary.
Use coupon code “TRANSMITTER” at checkout for discount pricing during the Thanksgiving weekend, from November 25-28!
Next week: The TV towers of South Bend, Indiana