August 17, 2007

The Grand Island Sites, Buffalo, NY

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 two of our upstate mini-trip last September found us in Buffalo, fighting a low cloud ceiling and heavy rain (not the usual fall weather here in western New York, we'd hasten to add) to get Mike to as many sites as we could.

After starting out at the legendary WGR/WKBW site down south in Hamburg, featured here in our last installment, we followed Entercom's engineers north up the Route 5 Skyway and through downtown Buffalo to their other legendary AM site, WBEN (930 Buffalo).

WBEN traces its history back to 1922 and pioneering Lockport station WMAK, though there's some question about whether there's really a continuity of license from WMAK through to the 1930 sign-on under the WBEN calls.

(It's possible, argues Randy Michaels, that the Buffalo Evening News bought WMAK, shut it down, then put WBEN on in its place; there was, in any event, a frequency shuffle that moved Buffalo Broadcasting's WGR from 900 down to WMAK's former 550 spot, installing the new WBEN on 900.)

WBEN's current site on Grand Island was dedicated on Sept. 6, 1941, just a few months after WBEN moved up from 900 to 930 in the NARBA frequency shift. (I'm not clear about where WBEN was before that; possibly at another facility on Grand Island, I'm told.)

[2010 update: please see our Feb. 26, 2010 Site of the Week for clarification of many of these mysteries!]

As remote as this site is today, it must have been truly out of the way back then. While Grand Island is only a few miles north of downtown Buffalo, it wasn't connected by bridge to the mainland until 1935. Even now, much of the island is open parkland and sparsely-scattered residential development; indeed, the WBEN site sits right at the edge of Beaver Island State Park, at the southern tip of Grand Island. Its two fat 475-foot towers can be seen from much of Tonawanda and Kenmore, and even from across the Niagara River in Niagara Falls, Canada.

From this site, WBEN's 5 kW DA-N signal has a water shot south to downtown Buffalo and a pretty clear shot north to Toronto as well. (Collectors of antique radios in this region know that pretty much every radio in the Toronto area from the thirties and forties had buttons for WBEN and WGR, as well as for the major Canadian signals.)

The transmitter building's exterior retains its 1940s character, but today the glass-block entrance is used for storage, so we go in through the garage to find a transmitter room that was heavily renovated in the seventies, when a Rockwell Colllins 820E/F-1 transmitter and phasor were installed in matching cabinets. The Collins is the backup these days, with a Harris DX-10 running at half power as the main.

WBEN isn't Entercom's only tower site on Grand Island these days. A mile and a half or so north of WBEN, we come to 2692 Staley Road, the longtime home of WHLD (1270 Niagara Falls) and its sister FM station on 98.5. The erstwhile WHLD-FM was later known as WZIR ("The Wizard"), then as WRXT, and eventually became "Kiss 98.5," WKSE, in the mid-eighties.

In time, it ended up under separate ownership from the AM station, as the FM became a sister to Price Communications' WWKB (1520) and ultimately to WBEN, WGR and the rest of today's Entercom family.

Its studios moved, first to WWKB's Delaware Avenue facility, and then to Entercom's cluster studio in Amherst, and now only the FM transmitter is left here, the AM having itself departed for Buffalo studios and a Hamburg transmitter site shared with WNED (970) a few years ago.

So most of what we see here on Staley Road is ghosts - the two 421-foot AM towers now silent out back, with only the WKSE antennas mounted on one of them to keep the site alive.

Most of the old WKSE studio space is being used for storage of old antenna bays, consoles and other gear, and over on the WHLD side of the plant, there's not even power these days, hence no photos to show you.

But the WKSE transmitter plant is as fresh as it gets - that's a new BE HD transmitter in the foreground, below.

It's at this point that we say farewell to our accommodating hosts from Entercom and make our way north and east across I-190 to Whitehaven Road, home to the island's tallest towers and most prominent landmarks.

It was out here that Buffalo independent station WUTV (Channel 29) signed on in 1970, the brainchild of polka radio king Stan Jasinski and a group of local investors. It built a small studio that's still here, and a tall tower that's since been rebuilt into a candelabra configuration, rising 1111' and carrying antennas for WUTV, WUTV-DT (Channel 14) and WNYO-DT (Channel 34).

In 1987, when public TV station WNED-TV (Channel 17) added a second service, WNEQ (Channel 23), it built its own site right next door to WUTV, with an 1134' tower that's now one of the tallest in New York State.

It's to that site that we're headed through the rain, to see Clint Soemann, who's the transmitter engineer for WIVB (Channel 4) and now for Channel 23 as well, thanks to WNED's 2001 sale of the station. Today, channel 23 is WNLO, Buffalo's CW affiliate, operating both its analog and DTV signal (on channel 34) from here, in a big addition that was added to the original 1987 building.

WNED continues to operate its analog and DTV (channel 43) signals from the older building, which itself has tons of space for future expansion.

Alas, we have no good pictures to show you of this tower, or of the WUTV stick next door, thanks to all those low clouds. But we're already planning a return visit to Buffalo later this fall, so expect more from the Queen City in the months to come!

Thanks to Entercom's Tom Karvelis and WIVB/WNLO's Clint Soemann for the tours, and to Randy Michaels for some of the historical background!

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