Tower Site Calendar now available!


June 12-26, 2003

Asheville and Western North Carolina

In last week's recap of our March visit to the Carolinas, we found ourselves crossing the South Carolina-North Carolina border on US 25, heading for a rendezvous with one of our favorite radio stations anywhere.

If you're a fan - as we are - of AAA and Americana music, you just might have heard of WNCW (88.7) in Spindale, North Carolina. In just a decade and a half on the air, the radio station of Isothermal Community College has become one of the flagships of the genre, blanketing western North Carolina and portions of four adjacent states with a nonstop AAA format from a transmitter adjacent to the highest point in the East (don't worry - we'll get there) and several translators.

We've long admired WNCW from afar, thanks to its Webcast, the occasional traded aircheck and loving mentions of the station in albums by artists like Asheville native David Wilcox - so it was a thrill to stop by for a visit, made doubly so when it turned out that several of the staffers were loyal NorthEast Radio Watch readers!

Alas, WNCW is having a rough go of it. First, the station was singled out by the FCC a couple of years ago for an investigation of underwriting announcements that promoted a concert WNCW was sponsoring (with a commercial promoter). That led to an FCC admonishment, which included some rather fanciful logic about what would have happened if WNCW had been using that event to try to boost membership. The whole thing seemed rather flimsy to us (especially considering some of the out-and-out commercials we've heard on less responsible noncomms), but it was one strike against the station nonetheless. Then came the realization that WNCW's translator in Charlotte (W264AF on 100.7), some 90 miles away, was threatened by Susquehanna's proposed move-in of WABZ (100.9 Albemarle NC) to suburban Indian Trail. A listeners' group in Charlotte ( was formed to try to oppose the move-in, but of course translators are a secondary service, and the likelihood of saving WNCW's service to Charlotte seems dim at best. (The Web site hasn't been updated in months...)

And then, as we were doing some research for this week's column, we found that "Save WNCW" has been joined by "Preserve WNCW" (, a new listeners' group that's trying to make sure WNCW doesn't disappear completely.

It seems that the trustees of Isothermal Community College may not fully appreciate the value of their radio station; between the "WNCW Case" at the FCC and some unfortunate staffing issues, the college appears to think that running a radio station may be taking up too much of its time - and just may be contemplating selling WNCW.

Who buys noncommercial licenses - especially ones that cover huge chunks of a state? Hint: they usually don't program AAA music on them. And as you'll see in a bit, it's not as though there's any shortage of religion on the dial in WNCW's coverage area.

In any case, this is one nice facility: you can see the air studio above, and just down the hallway (in a space originally meant to be a TV studio, next to a room that's used as a Rutherford County bureau for Asheville's WLOS-TV) is a huge room for live performances and recording. (WNCW also does a lot of ISDN remotes from Asheville, an hour or so away, for artists who are traveling through the area but don't have the time to make the shlep to Spindale.)

So we're certainly glad we saw WNCW when we did, and we hope the Isothermal folks wake up to the value of their asset. (Data point: while Garrett Wollman and your editor are hardly your traditional tourists, the fact remains that we made western North Carolina a destination on this trip, spending money on hotels and meals, in part because of the image of the region WNCW has given us over the years.)

WNCW isn't the only radio station in town, of course; in fact, there are four AMs in "Greater Spindale."

WWOL (780) in Forest City has the biggest signal, 10 daytime kilowatts from a single tower next to that pretty building. WCAB (590) in Rutherfordton does talk and country; WAGY (1320) in Forest City plays classic country, and WGMA (1520) in Spindale is black gospel. (We missed getting a WGMA legal, for some reason...)

Like all the AMs in this rocky region, they're all fairly small-coverage signals.

(WTPT 93.3 is licensed to Forest City as well, but it's a big C that serves the greater Spartanburg/Asheville/Greenville market.)

From the Spindale area, we head back toward Asheville, taking advantage of the recently-upgraded US 64 expressway to get us back to Tryon City (home of 1160 WJFJ) and into Hendersonville, home to WTZQ (1600), which simulcasts Asheville's WISE (1310), and a nice local station, WHKP (1450).

WHKP has a very pretty building just east of downtown Hendersonville, a pleasant-looking little town indeed.

(Later that night, we'd find out that a fellow member of the National Radio Club lives in Hendersonville and might have arranged a tour of WHKP if only we'd known in time; another reason to go back, I suppose...)

From Hendersonville we catch I-26 north (well, west) toward Asheville, hopping off a few exits early amidst surprisingly heavy late-afternoon traffic to see the new studios of ABC affiliate WLOS (Channel 13), which we locate in a business park just off the interstate.

WLOS, as we mentioned last week, is the only "big three" affiliate in the Asheville/Greenville/Spartanburg market that's located in North Carolina, and its newscasts tend to focus very heavily on that side of the market, a division the ratings reflect. (Fox affiliate WHNS is licensed to Asheville but operates from studios near Greenville, S.C.; UPN affiliate WASV, also licensed to Asheville, is operated by WSPA-TV in Spartanburg.) WLOS also operates WB affiliate WBSC (Channel 40), licensed to far-away Anderson, S.C., from here.

We have just enough time before sunset to scope out Asheville's AM sites, though the sun is in the wrong position to photograph most of them, forcing a return sweep early the following morning.

WWNC (570) is probably the most impressive, with four widely-spaced towers (so wide we couldn't get them into a single frame, hence the photomontage above) on a hillside west of downtown Asheville. This is also the studio site for the rest of Clear Channel's cluster, including WPEK (880, which picked up the classic country that WWNC just dropped last year for news-talk) and WKSF ("Kiss Country" 99.9).

That 99.9 facility was WLOS-FM in years gone by, and just a short drive north from WWNC takes us to the original WLOS(AM), the facility on 1380 that's now religious WKJV. Today, 1380 runs 25 kilowatts by day from these four towers - and look at that on the one closest to us: the original batwings of WLOS-TV, back before it moved to Mount Pisgah and attained regional coverage.

(The WLOS-TV studios were, for many years, on Macon Avenue north of downtown Asheville, in a rustic complex that's now a very fancy private resort.)

Not far from the old WLOS-TV studios are the three towers of WISE (1310), overlooking the French Broad River (go ahead, make the jokes - we did, too). WISE's studios are here, too, along with those of WOXL (96.5 Biltmore Forest).

There's a long story surrounding that 96.5 - it was originally given to Zeb Lee, a veteran Asheville broadcaster who sold his WSKY (1230) in order to get 96.5 on the air. As WZLS ("Zeb Lee's Station"), 96.5 operated with a nifty eclectic format for a few years, beginning in 1994 - but a license challenge (too complex to get into here; suffice it to say it had to do with a federal court ruling that struck down much of the FCC's ability to give preferences to established local operators like the Lee family) eventually put 96.5 in the hands of an out-of-town operator, who signed 96.5 on as WZRQ in June 1997.

WZLS, however, didn't sign off - at least not right away - and for 22 hours, both 96.5 signals fought each other in the airwaves over Asheville until Lee, then 86, tearfully pulled the plug. Zeb Lee died not much later, and if you don't believe that losing his radio station killed him, you've probably never been bit hard by the radio bug yourself.

Amazingly, WZLS then returned to the air in the fall of 1998, when a federal appeals court ruled in the Lee family's favor; a year later, though, the FCC was cleared to put 96.5 up for auction to the highest bidder - and the Lees couldn't compete in that arena. In February 2002, WZLS was again ordered off the air, and 96.5 ended up in the hands of "Liberty Productions," who signed the frequency back on with stunting (which we heard in March 2002, when we passed through Asheville quickly at sunset, our only previous stop here)

In any event, 96.5 flipped to oldies as WOXL a few weeks after that, and now it's just another jukebox, more or less.

(You can read the Lee family's whole story at WZLS' still-extant Web site,

WSKY's single tower is nearby as well, in a hilly neighborhood just west of downtown Asheville. Downtown, we drive by the studios of public radio WCQS (88.1), which handles NPR news and classical music for the region; heading out of town to the east, we also pass the tower of daytimer WPEK (880).

The next stop on our agenda is supposed to be the highest point east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell, 6,684 feet above sea level. We turn on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which leads to the state road that's paved almost all the way to the summit - and after half an hour of driving, discover that the road is still closed because of snow, about 15 miles short of the summit access! (They could have signed it when we got on, but oh well...and in any case, a few weeks later Asheville and vicinity made the national news with a huge mid-April snowstorm.)

Not to be denied, we detour about 70 miles around the mountain, north to Burnsville, south on NC 80 to the Parkway and then west again on the Parkway, until we're finally within sight of the mountain and its transmitters.

Mount Mitchell - or rather, Clingman's Peak just adjacent to the summit - has an important role in early FM history.

In the summer of 1941, Mount Mitchell Broadcasters built the road up here and put W41MM on the air, cranking out 50,000 watts on 44.1 megacycles from 6,885 feet above sea level. (Think that thing carried? It's reported to have hit seven states in its regular service area...)

W41MM was licensed to Winston-Salem, 105 miles away, and was operated by remote telephone line from there.

In later years, W41MM became WMIT, moved to 97.3 and then to 106.9 - where it ran, for a time, 325 kilowatts from this high perch! Today, WMIT runs just 35 kw, albeit at 948 meters above average terrain. It's owned, as it has been for years, by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (they also own WFGW 1010 in nearby Black Mountain, where WMIT's studios are located), and it still goes for miles and miles and miles. In the photo at right, WMIT uses the six bays on the left-hand tower; the taller one in the middle is WNCW, running a directional 17 kw (protecting adjacent-channel stations in the Triad) from 923 meters above average terrain.

Alas, this telephoto shot is as close as we got; the road up Clingman's Peak is gated, and it's private property beyond there. (Maybe next time...)

Our next overnight destination was the Triad, the fast-growing Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point area in central North Carolina, but once we'd wound our way back down the Parkway to I-40, we first had to pass through a region known optimistically as "the Unifour."

At least, that's what they call it at WHKY in Hickory, the locally-owned broadcaster (still owned by the Long family, which put it on the air in 1939) that operates news-talk AM 1290 and independent WHKY-TV 14.

The TV station is home to "The Unifour Tonight," a funky, very low-budget local news show that we immediately fell in love with. (You would, too, if you saw the two bookcases and carved wood "TV 14" sign that make up the set...)

Before getting to Hickory, we passed through Marion, Morganton and Valdese, each with their local AMs; once in Hickory, we drove around what seemed to be a very confusing tangle of local streets until we finally found our way to WHKY-TV (whose tall tower was easily visible most of the time) and the brick studio building at its base.

The AM was doing lots of local news; somehow, we managed to fail to record it - and several other AMs in the region. We'd love to arrange a trade with any readers who are in, or traveling to, the Unifour - let us know!

Hickory's two FM allocations, at 95.7 and 102.9, have long since been swept away to serve Charlotte (which WHKY-TV reaches as well, thanks to the magic of cable must-carry); 102.9 is the old WHKY-FM, while 95.7 is paired with WIRC (630), which was doing a country format from its single tower, east of town near the four-tower WHKY 1290 array.

WHKY holds a construction permit to boost its daytime power from 5 kilowatts to 25 kw (which may already be on through an STA), and an application to go to 50; in the poor conductivity region of western North Carolina, it needs it!


And from Hickory, it was a quick drive east on I-40 through Statesville (another town whose FM signals now serve Charlotte to the south) and into the Triad. Next week: Lexington, our encounter with the High Point Police, a visit with Jackson Armstrong and much more!

Want to see more neat sticks all year round? Nashville's WSM (at right) is one of the more than a dozen Tower Site images featured in the 2003 Tower Site Calendar, still available from Tower Site of the Week and

If you liked last year's edition, you'll love this one: higher-quality images (in addition to WSM, this year's edition includes Providence's WHJJ; Mount Mansfield, Vermont; Buffalo's WBEN; KOMA in Oklahoma City; WTIC, Hartford; Brookmans Park, England; WPAT, Paterson; Four Times Square, New York; WIBC in Indianapolis; WWVA in Wheeling, W.V.; WGN Chicago and more), more dates in radio history, a convenient hole for hanging - and we'll even make sure all the dates fall on the right days!

This year's edition is still available in limited quantities! And this year, you can order with your Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express by using the handy link below!

Better yet, here's an incentive to make your 2003 NERW/Site of the Week subscription pledge right now: support NERW/ at the $60 level or higher, and you'll get this lovely calendar for free! How can you go wrong? (Click here to visit our Support page, where you can make your NERW contribution with a major credit card...)

 Click here to order your 2003 Tower Site Calendar by credit card!

You can also order by mail; just send a check for $16 per calendar (NYS residents add 8% sales tax), shipping included, to Scott Fybush, 92 Bonnie Brae Ave., Rochester NY 14618.

Thanks for your support!