July 18-25, 2001

The Big Travelogue: Part One

There's nothing like a good road trip to get a feel for the state of radio these days. From June 23 until July 7, your editor (accompanied by Boston Radio Archives creator Garrett Wollman) hit the road to see what's on - and in - the air across a broad swath of mid-America.

For the next few installments of Site of the Week, we'll be recapping the many highlights of what we like to think of as The Big Trip, 2001 edition. Come along...

Friday, June 22 - Call it the "pre-show" if you will, as Garrett travels from his home near Boston to NERW Central in Rochester, stopping off at several sites we've already documented here on Site of the Week (Smith Hill in Utica) and a few that are due for SotW treatment soon (Sentinel Heights in Syracuse, WSYR and WHEN).

Pulling into Greater Rochester in the late afternoon, we meet in Perinton to show Garrett some of the Rochester-area sites he hasn't seen: the new WVOR/WNVE antenna atop Baker Hill, the WBEE-FM (and, someday, WBBF-FM) tower in Penfield and the AM sites in Brighton. A send-off dinner with other local radio fans follows, and then a good night's sleep to prepare for the long road ahead.

Saturday, June 23 - On the road, traversing US 20A through Wyoming County (a new one for Garrett, and we're counting on this trip) en route to the southern suburbs of Buffalo. The plates on the rental car read "3232 KB," and that's all the excuse we need to take Garrett to "KB."

The picture at the top of the page tells the story: this six-tower site on Big Tree Road in Hamburg is the old WKBW, now WWKB, and once again co-owned with WGR (550), its diplex partner at the site. Note the old lettering on the building: "WKBW INC." and "ABC"!

Another stop at the WNED (970) five-tower array down the road, now with WHLD (1270 Niagara Falls) diplexing, and we're off to Erie for wings and an impromptu stop at a WRKT (100.9) remote, ironically enough within sight of the big TV towers just down Peach Street.

(That's WQLN-TV/FM and WFXP on the left side of the picture, WSEE-TV near the right, and WJET-TV just on the right edge of the frame...)

Cleveland, a couple of hours later, finds us parked outside a fast-food place taping a whole slew of legal IDs in preparation for the big changes we know are coming in a week's time. This is our last chance to hear classical WCLV (95.5) on that big signal - it's selling its facility to Salem, which will flip it to "Fish" WFHM. In the process, Clear Channel will get Salem's 98.1 in Canton (WHK-FM), move its CHR WKDD there from 96.5 Akron, and move its CHR "Kiss" WAKS to 96.5 from 104.9 out west in Lorain. WCLV will then end up on 104.9.

But wait - there's more! WCLV will also get the AM 1420 signal that's now doing religious talk for Salem as "WHK." That format will move to what's now all-sports WKNR (1220), while WKNR's sports talk will move to what's now standards WRMR (850). But to keep the WHK three-letter call from disappearing, Salem has temporarily moved it to AM 1000 in Parma, ex-WCCD. So "WCCD" on 1000 is slipping a "WHK Parma-Cleveland" legal in every hour, while 1420 is legally WHKK for the moment.

Tape having been rolled and the "before" calls documented, it's off to the Ohio Turnpike (who was James Shocknessy, anyway?) and across the Indiana border to our overnight stop in Fort Wayne (with a couple of quick station tours first...)

Sunday, June 24 - We leave Fort Wayne by way of Roanoke and the WOWO site (which we'll visit for a Site of the Week of its own sometime this fall). An hour or so away is Goshen and WKAM (1460), with two towers, and then Elkhart just up the road.

South of Elkhart are the studios of Fox 28, WSJV-TV (formerly an ABC affiliate), and around the corner, the four AM towers and big FM tower of religious WFRN ("Your Friend.")

Another twenty minutes or so of driving and we're in the southern outskirts of South Bend, beginning our tower hunt with religious WHME-TV (Channel 46). From there, we look to the west to see another cluster of tall towers: most of the TV in the market.

Two adjacent towers carry the signals of WSJV, PBS outlet WNIT (Channel 34), ABC low-power WBND-LP (Channel 58), its WB counterpart on channel 69, and NPR outlet WVPE (88.1).

A couple of miles away on Ironwood Road is the big grouping of towers. Look at the photo to the right: it contains pretty much every type of broadcast tower to be found by the average tower-hunter. On the left (the west side), we see the four towers WSBT (960) uses for its night pattern. In the middle, the tall tower carries CBS affiliate WSBT-TV (Channel 22), its DTV counterpart, and its FM sister, WNSN (101.5).

On the right: the self-supporter that's part of the daytime array for WSBT(AM) and also carries the original WSBT-TV antenna from its early days on channel 34. (Every South Bend TV station has changed channels at least once, it seems...)

You can't fault the signage here: there's no doubt whatsoever about where we're standing, what it is, and who to contact if there's any problem with it.

You also can't fault the building itself, seen below: a beautiful example of the classic Art Deco Transmitter style.

It looks big enough to accomodate a studio, though there's none here; just down Ironwood, though, is the studio of Lester Sumrall's LeSea Broadcasting group of stations: WHME -TV, WHME-FM, WGTC-FM and shortwave WHRI, part of his World Harvest Ministries group of shortwave outlets around the world.

And as we're admiring all this transmitter glory, the phone rings and we finally make contact with the chief engineer of WNDU-TV (Channel 16), George Molnar.

George offers to come down and show off his facility, and we're glad to wait around for a few minutes for the privilege.

WNDU's calls stand for "Notre Dame University," which has owned the station since its inception in the fifties. And while its transmitter has always been on Ironwood Road, everything else about the station has changed dramatically.

Well, nearly everything - the statue you see at the left is a plaster replica of the cast-aluminum statue of Our Lady Notre Dame that was first placed atop the original WNDU-TV tower when it signed on.

George tells us Father Edmund P. Joyce, the executive vice president of the university, climbed up the 500-foot tower to bless the statue when it first went up there in July 1955. When the new, taller tower went up in 1969, the statue was brought down to the base for Father Joyce to bless (he was then 54), and when the statue was repaired and plated in 1993, George took it to Father Joyce in his campus office for another blessing!

WNDU recently completed a massive renovation of its site, linking its original 1955 transmitter building, at the base of the original tower, with the 1960s-vintage building at the base of the newer tower.

The new design put a wall around the two older buildings and a new transmitter building between them, providing plenty of room for WNDU's conversion to digital television.

WNDU was an early DTV convert, one of the smallest-market stations to make its move so quickly, and that extra older tower came in handy. The original WNDU-TV antenna came down, and in its place went a broadband antenna that can serve both as a backup for channel 16 NTSC and as a primary for WNDU-DT, channel 42. (It's actually even more broadband than that; it was designed for WNDU-DT's original allocation on channel 65!)

With the new antenna came a new Comark digital transmitter, with four modules that can each handle NTSC or DTV. At the moment, three of the modules handle channel 16 duties, with the other one being used for WNDU-DT. When it comes time to maximize the DTV signal, the "borrowed" module will be returned from analog use to digital.

Meanwhile, WNDU's site is home to two more stations. In the 1969-vintage building, along with a backup WNDU-TV transmitter and an old RCA transmitter that's on the verge of being dismantled, sits the transmitter for the former WNDU-FM (92.9). Notre Dame sold its radio operations a couple of years ago, and "U93" kept its name and CHR format but changed calls to WNDV-FM. (Its AM outlet on 1490 simulcasts, also as WNDV, with a self-supporting tower within sight of Notre Dame's football stadium.)

In the back building, George shows us the room where WNDV-FM's new transmitter will soon be installed, along with the ancient FM transmitter that was the first WNDU-FM unit decades ago.

This building is also home to WSND-FM (88.9), the classical station that's operated by Notre Dame students, as well as an FBI two-way transmitter.

There's still more to see here - a hefty generator setup, a huge new garage where WNDU can work on its satellite trucks in the winter without braving the elements, and that old tower beacon mounted on a three-foot tower inside the front door (it works!) But downtown South Bend calls (as does lunch), so we head off to see WSBT's studios (across the street from parent South Bend Tribune), little noncomm WUBS (89.7), and the WNDU studio complex at the edge of the Notre Dame Campus.

Michigan lies just a few miles to the north, and we obligingly cross the line to see Niles and WNIL (1290) and WAOR (95.3).

And from there, we begin our assault on the Windy City.

I-80 is choked with traffic, so we detour through downtown Gary, Indiana to reach the four towers at the bottom of Chicago's AM dial.

WIND (560) isn't named for the "WINDy City," you know; its calls stem from "INDiana," where it was first licensed and where its transmitter still sits.

What you see here is about as much as we were able to see; a busy rail line sits between the nearest public road and the site itself. Look very carefully here and you can just make out the capacitance hats that crown each of the four towers at the WIND site. The transmitter building and an STL tower sit out of frame to the left.

An hour later, and some Sunday-evening traffic, and we've arrived in downtown Chicago for dinner.

Monday, June 24 - If the game is "Tower Hunters vs. Chicago," we're winning. Traffic is surprisingly light as we wind our way through the streets of the North Side, admiring the 60s-vintage studios of WGN-TV, then moving over to West Belmont Avenue for a brush with radio history.

The 1240 kHz frequency in Chicago was one of the last share-time operations in the country, with ethnic stations WSBC, WCRW and WEDC each trading off short airshifts during the course of a day. 4949 W. Belmont was the home of WSBC's studios and antenna, as well as its FM sister, WXRT (93.1).

Much has changed here in recent years: WSBC consolidated its hold on 1240 by purchasing WEDC, which had itself bought WCRW a few years earlier. Diamond Broadcasting, which owned WSBC and WXRT, added a third station when it bought then-silent AM 820 in the late eighties, turning it into WSCR, "The Score." (In the process, 820 having lost its old night site out in the suburbs, that facility became a daytimer, diplexed off the WSBC tower on Belmont.) Infinity then bought Diamond, moving WSCR to the 1160 facility that used to be WJJD and selling off the 820 and 1240 licenses.

And then, of course, Infinity killed off what was left of WMAQ radio and moved WSCR one last time last summer, placing it on WMAQ's old 670 kHz signal with a mighty 50 kW signal that would remain audible for almost our entire trip.

We hear that WSCR's studios will eventually move from Belmont downtown to the NBC Tower digs that WMAQ used to occupy, but for now the Score still sits in the old WSBC facility - apparently with a good view of the street, since one of the Score producers comes outside to say hello when he sees us taking pictures!

(One more irony: that 820 facility, still transmitting from the Belmont tower, is today WCSN, the Chicago home of Score competitor Sporting News Radio!)

A few blocks away on Milwaukee Avenue, we see the earthly remains of the other 1240 signals. WEDC's tudios were here, and both it and WCRW used this tower, which still stands next to a used-car lot. Will it ever be used for anything else? We don't know...

From here, it's off to the suburbs and a face-to-steel encounter with Chicago's big AM signals. Join us in this space next week for Part Two, as we visit WGN, WBBM, WLS and more...