Roanoke, Virginia

Quick: where can you find a major mountaintop communications site complete with a 200,000 watt FM signal, a swoopy-looking "Star Tower," an AM array with a shopping mall right in the middle of it, and a whole batch of brand-new studios?

If you wouldn't have guessed "Roanoke, Virginia," join the club. To be honest, it was one of those out of the way markets that we'd never given any thought to - until our good friend Mike Ward (who moved there from Sacramento and KFBK a few years back to be news director at WFIR 960) began peppering the in-box with exciting pictures of something called the "Towers Shopping Center."

So we made it a part of our agenda when we toured the Carolinas back in March, and are we ever glad we did!

We pulled into Roanoke at the tail end of a heavy shower that tailed us all the way north up US 52, I-77 and I-81 from the North Carolina line, clearing just long enough for us to make a quick stop alongside I-81 in Blacksburg to see the WFNR (710) three-tower array. From there, it was in to Roanoke in the late afternoon, setting up the VCRs to capture a strange multi-city TV market - Roanoke, although it is a separate radio market, shares a TV market with Lynchburg, 50 miles away on the other side of a range of hills that keeps most of each city's radio signals from penetrating the opposite market.

On the TV dial, CBS and NBC come from Roanoke, via WDBJ (Channel 7) and WSLS (Channel 10) respectively. ABC is Lynchburg's, from WSET (Channel 13), while Fox service is simulcast on transmitters in both cities (WFXR Channel 27 from Roanoke, WJPR Channel 21 from Lynchburg).

All those Roanoke TV signals (and two more: PBS WBRA Channel 15 and Pax WPXR Channel 38) come from the same spot: Poor Mountain, about eight miles southeast of downtown Roanoke and nearly 4000 feet above sea level.

You can get to Poor Mountain in two ways: heading south from US11 up Poor Mountain Road, or north from US211. The route from US11 becomes a bumpy, treacherous rocky dirt road before finally opening up to pavement again at the top of the mountain; we found that out by making the mistake of going up that way! (We went down via the US211 route, which is an easy paved road the whole way. We'll know better next time...or at least pay more attention to the tower-hunters who'd advised us to use the 211 route.)

The most prominent site on the mountain belongs to WDBJ, the dominant CBS affiliate. In addition to a massive brick building (we've seen many stations whose studio buildings are smaller than this), this site is home to the former WDBJ-FM, now WSLQ on 99.1 and cranking out a grandfathered 200 kilowatts from the tower seen at the left in the photo above. Next in line is WDBJ's channel 7 antenna, followed by WDBJ-DT (Channel 18) and the STLs. What a site!

Just east of WDBJ and WSLQ is a rarity in the tower-hunting game: a beautiful swoopy Star tower, a little baby sister to the big Star towers in Washington (WBDC) and Cincinnati (WSTR) that we've seen on previous trips. This tower is home to WPXR, but its new digital service (WPXR-DT 36) needed its own antenna, which ended up on a nondescript self-supporter next door.

Head north and west from WDBJ and you pass public TV WBRA (seen at the left in the photo above, with a panel antenna below for WBRA-DT on channel 3 and a truck outside full of engineers getting ready to put the DTV on the air) and Fox WFXR, followed by WSLC (94.9). Off in the distance at center right on the photo above are the FM towers of WXLK (92.3) and public radio WVTF (89.1), and just to their left, neatly perched on a cliff with its own gated road, NBC affiliate WSLS (Channel 10).

At least, that's how it all looked to us on this gorgeous early spring day - and as beautiful as Poor Mountain was, it was just an appetizer for some of the other goodies awaiting us back down the hill in Roanoke itself (and neighboring Salem).

 

Our first stop was in Salem, home to the big five-tower array of WPLY (610), the signal long known as WSLC (until handing those calls and the country format off to its sister FM on 94.9). Today, WVBB and WSLC are part of the Mel Wheeler broadcast cluster, the largest in town, and 610 is broadcasting Fox's Sports Radio. The urban format of WVBB-FM (97.7) is also heard on WVBE-FM (100.1) over in Lynchburg.

The Wheeler cluster had half its studios here, in a concrete building at the base of the towers (WSLC and rocker WSLQ), and the other half (WVBE, news-talk WFIR and rock WXLK) over on Electric Road, the commercial strip south of Roanoke, but during our visit they were in the process of consolidating all the studios into an expanded facility on Electric Road. (Thanks to Mike for an unusual tour - by the time he showed us around, he was actually an ex-employee, having just finished his last day as WFIR's news director before returning home to some new challenges in Ohio...)

WSLS has its studios downtown, right across the street from a courthouse, which makes for easy access to news conferences (one of which had just wrapped up on the sidewalk next to us!)

WDBJ had just recently made a move of its own, building a snazzy new studio facility just off I-581 near the airport north of downtown. Big signs outside proclaimed it the "WDBJ Digital Broadcast Center" - so of course by the time we pulled up to the old studios, on Colonial Drive off I-581 just south of downtown, we had already dubbed that building the "Analog Broadcast Center." Now sitting vacant, this oh-so-1955 building will soon be demolished in favor of a new CVS.

But you'd be distracted, too, if you were there on Colonial Drive looking at the old WDBJ studios - for right across the street sits a most unusual AM tower site.

WFIR (960) boasts the best AM signal in the market, 5000 watts day and night from two towers in, of all places, the "Towers Shopping Center" (and don't you just love the sign?)

One of WFIR's towers is adjacent to the parking lot, rising from a pit between the parking lot and the access road to the shopping center from Colonial Drive; the other tower actually rises from the middle of the shopping center's two-level building!

The transmitter, we're told, is in a room below the upper level of the shopping center; we can only imagine what the ground system must look like.

Just down Colonial Drive from this wonderful combination of RF and commerce sits the utterly nondescript little brick building that's home to WFXR/WJPR and its sister WB affiliate, cable-only "WBVA" (now also seen on WJPR-DT.) WFXR/WJPR's 10 PM newscast is produced at WSLS, which also rebroadcasts its own newscasts on Pax WPXR.

(In the midst of driving around Roanoke, we'd also seen the tall tower of religious WRIS 1410, whose stick still holds the antenna of its former sister FM on 93.5, now Clear Channel soft AC WSNV 93.5 Salem; the little stick of WGMN 1240, which has a long top-40 legacy as WROV, calls now heard on FM at 96.3; and, from a distance, the towers of WTOY 1480 Salem, doing black gospel without many legal IDs for the incomparable Bishop Willis.)

One more stop takes us out of Roanoke: WWWR (910) does its religious programming from a tall tower in a valley on the east side of town; it's one of several Roanoke AMs with simulcasts (in "3WR"'s case, WNRV 990 Narrows; WGMN simulcasts "Game" sports on WVGM 1320 in Lynchburg; WKBA 1550 in Vinton simulcasts its religious programming on WKPA 1170 in Lynchburg.)

From Roanoke, it's off to Lynchburg for lunch and a quick stop at the studios of WSET (Channel 13); WSET is the old WLVA-TV, and there's still a WLVA radio at 590, but it's lost its tower site and is running at very low power, simulcasting AP news with WOWZ (1280) over in Appomattox. And from there, it's off to a little town called Brookneal and one of the nation's most unusual radio stations...but we'll save that for another week!

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