June 29, 2007

A Day in Syracuse, NY (Part I)

Over the last seven years of Tower Site of the Week, we've taken you (virtually speaking) all over the world in search of interesting broadcast facilities - everywhere from Bonaire to Paris to Tijuana, with "guest episodes" from Nome and American Samoa, too.

Amidst the thrills of seeing Walla Walla or Dubuque, though, we tend to forget about all the nifty broadcast facilities closer to our base in western New York. So when our colleague Mike Fitzpatrick called up last summer and mentioned he was interested in spending a few days visiting Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester, it was all the excuse we needed to finally get around to showing you some of the sites in our neighborhood.

Day one of our upstate tour found us in Syracuse, just about an hour and a half east of home, starting our day at the studios of public broadcaster WCNY in a former industrial building in suburban Liverpool.

WCNY has been here since day one - 1965 for WCNY-TV on Channel 24, 1971 for WCNY-FM (91.3) - but the building has undergone a renovation in the last few years for all the new digital services that WCNY offers. There's a new digital control room for the multiplex of DTV services on WCNY-DT, and a new studio for "Classic FM" as well. (The FM service is now heard not only on WCNY-FM but on relay stations WUNY 89.5 Utica and WJNY 90.9 Watertown.)

Down the hall from the new FM studio, there's an older studio that's used for Read-Out, the radio reading service that WCNY broadcasts over a subcarrier - and out in the front hallway, there's a nice display of historical materials from the station's early days.

We'll come back to WCNY later on in our tour, as we visit its transmitter sites, but our next stop takes us around to the east side of Syracuse, just off I-481 on Andrews Road, for a look at an AM facility that's seen a lot of changes in its six decades. WNDR (1260) signed on here in 1946. Back then, "Wonder Radio" had both its studio and transmitter at this site, with a four-tower, 5000-watt directional signal that was the city's fourth. WNDR joined veterans WSYR and WFBL and relative newcomer WAGE on the Salt City's airwaves, and within a few years it had become one of two top-40 competitors in a heated battle for young listeners. (The other was WOLF, which we'll feature in a Site of the Week all its own someday.)

WNDR eventually acquired an FM signal (the former beautiful-music WDDS 93.1, about which more in a moment) and moved its studios away from here. In 1989, the WNDR calls vanished from 1260 as the station became "W-News" WNSS, and those calls are still on the station in its present incarnation as "ESPN Radio 1260."

Along the way, the transmitter site on Andrews Road changed dramatically, too. The old studio/transmitter building (there are great pictures on this tribute page) came down, with only a low wall now marking its former site. The transmitters - a new Harris DAX and a venerable Gates BC-5HA - and phasor now live in a concrete-block building. As for the four towers, they're new, too. A windstorm in September 1998 took down two of the four towers, leaving the station operating at 5000 watts day, 1000 watts night, non-directional until new towers could be built. (In the process of rebuilding the array, the two remaining 1946 towers were replaced as well.)

Under current owner Citadel, WNSS now has three FM sister stations, and our tour guide Alan "Whiz" Jurison takes us to two of them. First up is WAQX (95.7 DeWitt), a station that's grown dramatically since its debut in 1978. Back then, "95X" was a class A signal on 95.3, and it took years of comparative hearings before the license was finally awarded to a local group that included Craig Fox, who'd go on to own WOLF and other stations in the market.

A sequence of moves in the late eighties, made possible by the new FM rules that created intermediate classes of signals including the 25 kW "B1" category (including an upgrade of then-WKAL-FM in Rome from 95.9A to 96.1B1) allowed 95X to get a big boost in its signal. It moved from 95.3 to 95.7 and its present 25 kW/300' B1 facility.

Those are some unusual transmitters hiding in the quonset hut next to the tower above the quarry here on the south edge of DeWitt. (The tower is a landmark for drivers on I-481, near its southern junction with I-81). That's an AEL transmitter on the left, above (and not even the only one we'll see this day), and a CCA tucked away to the right. This tower also supports a bunch of LPTVs, many of them owned by Craig Fox, and a translator on 95.3 that relays Fox's WVOA (103.9 Mexico).

From 95X, we head for the hills that rise up south of Syracuse, providing a natural high spot for the city's TV signals and many of its FMs as well. The easternmost of the major FM/TV sites here is on Sevier Road in the town of Pompey.

On the north side of the road, a quonset hut similar to WAQX's was home to WDDS (93.1), a beautiful music station co-owned with Rochester's WVOR (100.5) and Buffalo's WBUF (92.9). WDDS - the calls were a backhand reference to the "dentist office music" the station played - was grandfathered in at 97 kW, and under today's calls of WNTQ and today's top 40 "93Q" format, it's still a grandfathered superpower class B, one of two in town.

The quonset hut is gone, having been replaced a few years ago by a proper concrete-block building, and the original self-supporting tower, though it still stands, has been supplanted by a guyed tower next door. (Note that while the new tower is considerably taller than the old one, the antenna center of radiation hasn't changed.) The tower on the right side of the picture is a rental facility unrelated to WNTQ.

There are three transmitters in the building when we visit - the old AEL shown above, which is an aux, a Continental 831G (not shown) that's about to be retired to aux duty, and a brand-new Harris HT-HD+ that's about to become the new main.

Across the street, two brick buildings flank the tallest tower up here, the 964-foot structure that went up in 1962 for Syracuse's new ABC affiliate, WNYS-TV 9. It came on the air after WHEN-TV, the city's first station, moved from channel 8 to channel 5, clearing the way for a third VHF signal in town.

Three years after WNYS signed on, it gained a tenant on its tower. WCNY-TV made its 1965 debut from a side-mounted antenna on the WNYS tower, with its transmitter in the building on the left side of the photo above.

(WCNY-FM built a tower of its own, and its three-bay antenna is still there on the little stick that's dwarfed by the Channel 9 tower next door.)

Channel 9 saw plenty of growth over the years, changing calls to WIXT in the seventies, moving out of the shopping-mall basement where it began its life and into a new studio building in East Syracuse in the eighties, and eventually being sold to Clear Channel. A few years ago, it changed calls once more, becoming WSYR-TV to match sister station WSYR (570) - and we'll explain in next week's edition just why that was so confusing.

And as Channel 9 prepared to launch its DTV signal, it ended up reclaiming the tower space that had been occupied by WCNY-TV, which moved west from here to a new master antenna site that we'll examine in next week's edition as well.

So today, that big Channel 9 tower is home to just two signals - the analog channel 9 signal and WSYR-DT on channel 17, operating from a side-mounted antenna for the moment. (That will likely change in 2009, when WSYR gives up channel 9.)

Inside the Channel 9 building, we find the only two transmitters the analog signal has used in its 45 years on the air - the massive original RCA at the rear of the building, and the newer Harris TV-10H that will carry Channel 9 to its sunset in a year and a half.

Tucked in next to the RCA in a back room is the Harris DiamondCD transmitter for WSYR-DT. It'll be pretty lonely here after 2009, I suppose!

Next door, the old Channel 24 transmitter has been cleared out of the WCNY building, leaving behind a pretty lonely space of its own, with just the two WCNY-FM transmitters (a newer Harris HT 20CD and an old Gates FM 20H3 for aux use) and a rack of STL and processing gear to keep the place humming.

In next week's installment, we'll head west to Sentinel Heights to see where WCNY-TV went, why channel 9's new calls are confusing, and we'll see some cool history, too. See you then!

Thanks to WCNY's Terry Long, John Duffy and Pete McElvein, WSYR-TV's John King and Citadel's Alan Jurison and Dave Edwards for the tours!

The Tower Site Calendar 2007 is sold out! But we still have other back issues and more goodies availale at the Fybush.com Store - and check back soon for your first chance to order Tower Site Calendar 2008!