September 4-11, 2003

The AM Stations of Flint, Michigan

It's been more than four years since we rolled through Flint, Michigan - at the time no more than an afterthought on a weeklong trip that took the intrepid tower-hunting team of your editor and Boston's Garrett Wollman up to Sudbury and North Bay, Ontario, into the studios of the legendary CKLW and down to the magnificent WJR site south of Detroit.

At the time, we thought the dead AM facilities we were chasing were stations like Sudbury's CHNO 550 (still on the air in July 1999, but now gone), Sarnia's CKTY 1110 (just silenced that summer) and Leamington's CHYR 710/730 (already gone then, but with one tower still holding CHYR-FM).

Little did we know as we drove around the cluster of AM towers southeast of Flint that within a few years one would be history and another would be heading for the (figurative) showers.

Speaking of showers, did we ever get pelted with rain as we headed from the border crossing at Port Huron over to Flint! A sudden summer storm forced us to seek shelter under an overpass on I-69 - and just look at the water that collected in the parking lot of WWCK (1570/105.5) by the time we made it over there late in the afternoon. At the time, WWCK was simulcasting its top 40 format on AM and FM from this facility just east of downtown on Lapeer Road (backing up to I-69); today, AM 1570 does ABC's "Rejoice" black gospel format. (Nearby, but not shown here, is the two-tower site of WFLT 1420, also programming black gospel.)

Head south on Dort Highway (M-54) from WWCK and within a few miles, you'll be in Burton, Michigan, where three AM sites are lined up in close proximity along a stretch of Burton Road barely a mile long.

First up, if you're heading east on Burton from Dort, is a three-tower site that belongs to WTRX (1330), which runs 5000 watts by day and 1000 watts at night from those old self-supporters. WTRX was then doing a sports format simulcast with WMAX (1440) over in Bay City; today, WTRX is still all-sports, but WMAX has gone to Catholic religious programming.

Next up, just south of Burton on a little road that leads back to the Flint Rifle & Pistol Club and the F.O.P. Lodge, is another three-tower site. These three monopoles belong to WFNT (1470), another 5000/1000 watt operation that programs ABC's "Stardust" satellite format.

The building at the base of the towers, which you can just make out in the shadows there, is also the studio complex for Regent's Flint cluster, which included AC "Cars 108" WCRZ (107.9 Flint), rock "Banana 101" WWBN (101.5 Tuscola) and has since added two more stations.

And just east of WFNT and the Regent complex, at the corner of Bristol and Howe Road, are the three towers of WFDF (910), yet another 5000/1000 watt operation that was doing news/talk for Cumulus (and enjoying a heritage that dated back to 1922) when we stopped by.

Little could we have guessed how much WFDF would change in the ensuing four years: it was sold to ABC about a year ago, and that meant the start of a process that will end with WFDF far away from the city where it got its start.

There hasn't been a window open for major AM changes since ABC bought WFDF, so any changes thus far have required that the station remain licensed to Flint - but it's amazing what creative engineers can still work out within those limitations. You see, at the same time ABC bought WFDF, it picked up daytimer WFRO (900) down in Fremont, Ohio, thus giving it the opportunity to eliminate the major obstacle to a southward move for the station. A few months later, ABC applied to build a new eight-tower array for WFDF more than 50 miles away from its current site. The new site would be located near the Monroe/Wayne county line, south of Detroit, blasting a very directional 50 kilowatts back north at Flint (and over most of Detroit) during the day; night operation would stay in Flint, at least until an AM window opens up to allow a city of license change. Did we mention that WFDF changed format to Radio Disney along the way?

At this writing, the WFDF move remains on hold thanks to neighborhood opposition to the new eight-tower site, but we suspect it'll get done eventually, relegating these three towers to the history books.

But by the time WFDF finds its way to the history books, it'll have company. Within the last few days, wrecking crews have been hard at work just a couple of miles south of Burton Road, taking down a site that brought top 40 music to Flint for many years.

The four-tower facility on South Center Road in Grand Blanc began its life on April 27, 1947 as WTCB, but most people in Flint still remember AM 600 by the calls it took a year later: WTAC, "The Auto City." It's hard to see in this picture (the sun was right in my eyes!), but WTAC had four self-supporting towers in an oblong configuration here, behind a brick studio building that began life as a private home and was later expanded.

For a few years, WTAC begat WTAC-TV, which operated on channel 16 from a studio building on Lapeer Road. As with so many UHF stations of the era, it was a financial failure, signing off midway through the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. WTAC eventually sold its TV studios to the new WJRT-TV 12, a late VHF drop-in that came on the air in 1958 (and is still there, albeit with some renovations that were just getting underway in the summer of 1999.)

When we visited AM 600 in 1999, it had recently changed calls to WSNL and was running a religious format, still with a blowtorch of a signal from that old site. The land under those four towers was evidently valuable for more than just AM radio, though; this week's news brought word that WSNL has sold the site and taken down three of the four towers. It'll use the fourth with lower power (the four towers ran 1000 watts day, 500 watts night) until a new transmitter site can be built southwest of Flint next spring. The studio building will meet the wrecking ball next week, as station operations have moved to 5210 S. Saginaw Street.

Wish we had better pictures of the old site...

Some late-breaking tower news: On Thursday afternoon, the 950-foot WAAY-TV (Channel 31) tower on Monte Sano Road, overlooking Huntsville, Alabama, collapsed, killing three members of the SpectraSite crew working on it.

The tower was built in 1977, and was being modified for the addition of WAAY-DT (Channel 32).

We visited WAAY as part of our Huntsville visit in March 2002; for some reason, we didn't show the WAAY-TV tower as part of our page on the visit.

This is what it looked like; our condolences to the family and friends of the workers killed in today's tower fall.

(That's WAAY's old tower at right; it was being used as an auxiliary tower while DTV work was progressing on the main tower - the analog antenna and "top cap" of the tower were being removed - and was back in service on channel 31 later in the evening.)

Tower Site Calendar 2004 is NOW AVAILABLE! Click here for advance ordering information!

Scheduling Note: We've already been knocked off schedule this summer by a blackout - but be prepared for another brief hiatus in Tower Site of the Week updates sometime in the next couple of weeks. With the impending arrival of Baby Fybush any day now, we may miss a week sometime in September - so if there's no Site on Sept. 11 or 18, you'll be able to guess why. Thanks for your patience! (And yes, Baby Fybush will get to take her first tower trip this fall, stopping in Toledo en route to the grandparents in the midwest...at which point we'll keep going to the Windy City to get some more exciting sites for your enjoyment. Stay tuned!)