Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
This is the time of year we find ourselves longing for a Florida vacation...but with no such trip in the offing right now, we hope you're at least enjoying our ongoing virtual Sunshine State trip here on Site of the Week. We've spent the last couple of installments working our way around Orlando, including last week's whirlwind swing past many of the market's north-side AM facilities.
One of the reasons we could see so much of Orlando in such a short time was that we weren't doing the driving or navigating for a lot of it. That's thanks to the good folks at WPOZ (88.3 Union Park), better known to Orlando-area listeners as "Z88.3." In three decades on the air, "Z" has shot to some of the highest ratings of any noncommercial station anywhere, thanks to a high-energy contemporary Christian format with top-notch production values and constant attention to engineering quality as well. WPOZ's founder, Jim Hoge, had been wanting to show us Orlando since a chance meeting on the floor of a long-ago NAB Show in Las Vegas, and his engineering director, Randy Woods, graciously volunteered to play tour guide for our busy day around town.
The Z88.3 studios are in an office park in Altamonte Springs, just west of I-4, and they're a showplace: a big air studio looks out into the lobby, with two production studios immediately adjacent - and just across the hall is a glassed-in rack room showing off Randy's hard work on establishing a bulletproof network linking the studios to the multiple transmitter sites for WPOZ itself and its simulcast stations around central Florida, including the one we showed you in our Flagler County visit. (Not long after we visited, Z lit up several powerful translators relaying its new HD-2 and HD-3 formats, Christian urban contemporary "Hot 95.9" and Christian rock "106.3 the Rock.")
One more cool thing about the Z facility: in addition to the main building, there's a second building in back that houses some auxiliary offices and storage - and a big meeting room designed mainly to provide a convenient space for SBE chapter meetings for the region!
Orlando's unusual, even in Florida, for having so little broadcast to be seen downtown. The lone exception is the studio for Cox-owned ABC affiliate WFTV (Channel 9), located at 490 E. South Street right alongside the 408 freeway near its junction with I-4. In recent years, WFTV has added its own duopoly partner, independent WRDQ (Channel 27), also located here.
That leaves one prominent TV studio still unseen, but we're saving that for next week, along with our exciting visit to the Bithlo/Christmas tower farm where WFTV and most of the rest of the Orlando TVs are now located. Bithlo, far to the east of Orlando, is one of the three very remote sites we mentioned at the start of last week's column. Way up north, halfway to Daytona up I-4, is another smaller tower farm at Orange City that was the former home of WESH's channel 2 analog facility and is still home to several FMs. We didn't see that one at all, but Mike Fitzpatrick made it there on his Orlando trip and it's on NECRAT, along with the even more remote WCFB 94.5 site nearby.
And then there's the third "way out there" site. West of the Western Beltway tollway (FL 429) out in the farmland at the edge of the metro, 15 miles and a world away from downtown, is an imposing seven-tower array shared by Clear Channel's two AMs in the market, WFLF (540 Pine Hills) and WYGM (740 Orlando). These stations each have impressive histories of their own: 740 came first, as daytimer WORZ, back in 1947. It remained at its original three-tower site on Old Winter Garden Road until the early 1990s, becoming WKIS for quite a few years doing AC and then news-talk, and then later WWNZ under Lowell Paxson's ownership. By then, it was running 5000 watts by day and 1000 watts at night from the Winter Garden site, but it jumped to 50,000 watts day and night when it moved way out here. Today, it's in its second incarnation as an all-sports station.
The second station out here has an even more complex story. WGTO (540 Haines City) signed on in 1955 from what was then a very remote area halfway between Tampa and Orlando. Its 10,000-watt signal was designed to provide broad regional coverage from the "Gulf to Okeechobee," taking in the Tampa Bay area, Orlando and most of the rest of central Florida along the way. Owner Hubbard Broadcasting moved WGTO's studios to the Cypress Gardens amusement park (now Legoland Florida) south of Winter Haven in the late 1950s and eventually added a sister TV station, WTOG (Channel 44) in St. Petersburg a decade later.
Hubbard sold off the station in 1986 and subsequent owners began aiming it more at Orlando and less at the west coast. Relicensed to Pine Hills under new owner Lowell Paxson, 540 became all-sports WWZN, later taking the WQTM calls that eventually moved to 740. Under Clear Channel, 540 took new calls WFLF - but you'll rarely hear those on the air, because 540 is now branded as "WFLA," a sister talker to the real WFLA on 970 down the road in Tampa.
Along the way, 540 moved its transmitter site twice, leaving its original 1955 site in Haines City (which appears from satellite imagery to still have its transmitter building standing out on "WGTO Tower Road" near Gum Lake, just south of present day I-4) and moving first to a site southwest of Orlando, about 15 miles due west of Disney World, and then, in 2008, to a diplex with 740. That required the addition of a seventh tower and a second half to the transmitter building, which now boasts a pair of main Harris 3DX50s, a pair of backup DX50s and impressively huge phasors for both big AMs, not to mention a monster generator to keep it all running just in case.
And for all that AM effort, what does WFLF call itself these days? It's now going by "NewsTalk 104.5 WFLA," using the frequency of its 221-watt translator on the north side of the market instead of its big 50,000-watt AM outlet. Go figure...
Thanks to Clear Channel's Mike Spry and WPOZ's Jim Hoge, Randy Woods and staff for the tours!
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Next week: Orlando, 2011 (part 4)