August 12, 2011
Northampton and Amherst, MA, 2006
One of the fun parts of traveling the world to visit transmitter sites hither and yon is the chance to travel with other tower buffs - and there are few as dedicated to the task as my friend Mike Fitzpatrick, proprietor of the fine collection of tower and antenna photos over at NECRAT.us.
Over the last few years, I've had the pleasure of traveling with Mike on several excursions that you'll soon see documented here on Tower Site of the Week - but before we launch into those later this summer, we'll spend a couple of weeks rectifying a big omission on the site.
In last week's installment, we wrapped up a 2006 visit I made to Springfield - but in going through those pictures, I realized that there were a few more stops on that (somewhat rainy) trip that also hadn't been featured yet on Tower Site of the Week. In addition to seeing plenty of sites in Hampden County, we spent much of a day in Hampshire County just to the north, seeing the sites of Northampton and Amherst.
We start on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, longtime home of public radio station WFCR (88.5). When we stopped by to visit chief engineer Charles Dube in 2006, WFCR was just starting to branch out from the Pioneer Valley to establish more of a home for itself in Springfield, 30 miles to the south. Since our visit, WFCR has been branching out, first with a studio in the WGBY-TV building in downtown Springfield that went in not long after this 2006 trip and more recently with plans to move most of its operations out of this aging plant in a former dorm, Hampshire House, and into a renovated building in downtown Springfield.
So consider this a bit of history: a long 1950s-college-dorm hallway lined with offices on one side and studios on the other: a small production space in "Studio B" and a larger control room in "Studio A," where the station's operators sit with their backs to the racks of equipment that connect these studios to the main WFCR transmitter site on Mount Lincoln, a few miles away to the east.
The compact concrete-block building up here in the middle of a state forest houses two facing rows of transmitters: WFCR's main Broadcast Electronics analog transmitter and the Harris digital transmitter facing it, plus a CCA analog backup. And behind the BE, under a counter, we find a box tucked away with an FM translator in it.
This particular translator was on 97.1 when we took this picture, relaying WPVQ from Turners Falls; it later moved to 96.9 and began relaying Saga's WHMP (1400) from the Horse Mountain site that we're about to see. Meanwhile, a different translator that was once on 105.3 is now up here; after changing frequencies and changed hands, that one's also in Saga's hands, now on 94.3 as W232BW, relaying the HD-2 channel of Saga's WLZX (99.3 Northampton).
There's one more FM signal up here on a separate shorter tower out back: Amherst College's WAMH (89.3) uses the three-bay antenna on that little tower.
The other major FM site in the area is on Horse Mountain, north of Northampton off North Farms Road, and it's there that we peer up through the fog to find a tower laden with lots of cellular and two-way antennas - and two FM stations as well.
This started out as the WHMP-FM (99.3) site, but the Northampton-licensed 99.3 now operates from Saga's Springfield studios (shared with WAQY 102.1) as WLZX, "Lazer 99.3," using the BE transmitter seen at center in the shot at right, backed up by the old CCA above at right.
The newer FM here is WEIB (106.3), which signed on a decade or so ago after many years as an unbuilt construction permit. Its smooth jazz format wasn't unusual back then, but today it stands out as one of the last surviving smooth-jazz stations still on the FM dial, not to mention one of the few independently-owned FM signals still surviving in western Massachusetts.
We didn't get inside WEIB's studios, which are on busy Routes 5/10 right near the Route 9 intersection - but we did get to see the rest of Saga's operations in the region, starting down Route 9 at the oldest site in the market, that of WLZX's sister station WHMP (1400 Northampton).
When WHMP signed on in the 1950s, it not only took over the frequency that had been occupied by WHYN before that Springfield-market signal moved down the dial to 560, it even bought WHYN's tower and moved it here from its previous site in Holyoke! That same venerable tower still stands to this day, tucked in behind a charming little transmitter building that houses two generations of Harris transmitters, an older MW-1 and a newer Gates One that now powers WHMP's kilowatt (augmented by simulcasts in Greenfield on WHMQ 1240, ex-WHAI and in Springfield on WHNP 1600, ex-WIXY/WAQY.)
On to the studios we go - those are in downtown Northampton, just a block or so from the bustling commercial district that always seems to be packed with students from Smith and other nearby schools. While WLZX no longer keeps its main studio here, WHMP still uses Northampton as its hub, running a progressive talk format from the big main studio and adjoining news booth at the center of the building.
After WLZX moved out, Saga moved another station in: the 93.9 facility up in Turners Falls, near Greenfield, swapped calls and formats with Greenfield's WRSI (95.3), and that put WRSI's AAA format on 93.9 and shifted its focus down here to the central Pioneer Valley. The afternoon we stopped by in the company of engineer Howard Frost, there was live music going on in the FM studio, and how often do you see that anymore?
And we close by returning to Amherst and one more AM site: southeast of Amherst on Route 9, WTTT (1430) was once a pretty big commercial player in town, but in the 1990s it spawned an FM, WRNX 100.9, which eventually became a much more profitable venture than its daytime AM sister. Pamal ended up trading WRNX to Clear Channel, which has slowly been migrating its signal southward into Springfield - and that left the AM signal on 1430 behind as something of an afterthought.
Rather than try to program it as a standalone commercial AM, Pamal has leased the 1430 signal (now WPNI) to public stations, first to WFCR, which ran a secondary talk format here - and then when WFCR migrated that format to the much bigger Westfield-licensed WNNZ 640, WPNI ended up simulcasting the folky AAA sound of Boston's WUMB-FM, which it continues to do today.