Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It's a lovely part of Florida's west coast (assuming you stick close to the coast and not to the interminable sprawl along I-75 inland), but it's in just the wrong spot to be a really successful broadcast market of its own. As we showed you in last week's installment, the big TV stations in Tampa, less than an hour to the north, put their towers in just the right spot - the Riverview tower farm south of Tampa - to serve Sarasota fairly well, thus preventing the city from developing as a TV market unto itself. There was, as we've noted earlier, one big exception: channel 10, WTSP-TV, had to put its tower way up to the north of St. Petersburg near Holiday, and that carved out just enough space to the south for Sarasota to develop its own ABC affiliate. WXLT (Channel 40) signed on here in 1971, and it's still here these days as WWSB, transmitting on RF 24 from an 813-foot tower way out to the east of I-75 in Manatee County, a dozen miles or so east of Bradenton.
While WXLT/WWSB has always focused its resources exclusively on the Bradenton/Sarasota area, additional TV signals began to show up here in the following decades that tried to take advantage of the larger "Tampa/St. Petersburg/Sarasota" market designation to serve a wider audience. Bradenton-licensed WFCT (Channel 66) signed on in 1994 as part of Lowell Paxson's infomercial-heavy "InTV" network, one of the ancestors of the later Pax (and present-day ion) networks. Its 5-megawatt signal came from a massive 1,667-foot tower about five miles southeast of the WWSB site, way out in the middle of nowhere in eastern Manatee County. WFCT eventually became WXPX and later moved its digital signal to Riverview, but in the meantime Paxson had been busy buying radio stations - including a Sarasota FM that he repurposed as a greater Tampa Bay signal. The 100-kW FM on 102.5 had been WSAF-FM, WQSR, WAVE-FM and eventually WHVE when Paxson bought it - and he changed the calls to the same ones it's still using today, WHPT.
WHPT has changed formats several times in the years since Paxson owned it; today, it's part of Cox's larger Tampa Bay radio group, with studios in St. Petersburg and its transmitters hanging on as the lone broadcast tenants way out here at the end of this coral-shelled road. It's a nice, clean setup, with a Harris main analog and HD transmitter and a Continental 816 for backup.
As for WWSB, it's moved studio sites over the years; these days, it's in a newish facility on 10th Street just north of downtown Sarasota. (And why is it calling itself "ABC 7"? Because that's where it's found on cable in Sarasota and vicinity - and this is a very heavily cabled area, as you might imagine. As you'll see next week, in our Fort Myers installment, that "ABC 7" branding can cause a bit of confusion south of here, too...)
So if those are the big Sarasota signals that have been hijacked to the bigger Tampa Bay market to the north, what's still left for local listeners?
We start out on City Island, part of the string of more famous keys (including Longboat, Lido and Siesta) that separate mainland Sarasota from the Gulf of Mexico. Out here, we find the remnants of the city's earliest AM station, WSPB. It signed on way back in 1939 as a 250-watter on 1420, moving up the dial to its present home on 1450 in the NARBA shifts of 1941, and it's been on City Island from day one. The current tower is newer (and about 100 feet taller than the original), having been put in place in the 1960s for what started as WSPB-FM on 106.3 and is now WCTQ on 106.5. (Like most of the market's remaining FMs, it's up in Palmetto, near Bradenton, and we'll have to come back and see it on another trip.)
Today, 1450 is oldies WSDV, part of a Clear Channel cluster in town that also includes country WCTQ, soft AC WLTQ (92.1 Venice), rock WTZB (105.9 Englewood) and classic hits WSRZ (107.9 Coral Cove), as well as WSDV simulcast partner WDDV (1320) down the coast in Venice.
A studio building that was once here is gone now - but WSPB has company on this tower these days. WTMY (1280) lost its original tower/studio site out on Hammock Place (east of downtown) a few years back and now diplexes here, with 300 watts by day and 100 watts at night.
Two other AMs are licensed to Sarasota, too: we didn't get to the WLSS (930) four-tower site on Dog Kennel Road east of I-75, where the Salem-owned talker runs its 5 kW day/3 kW night signal. But we did make it to the last remaining AM site in town - sort of.
Remember 102.5 from the top of the page? It started out as WSAF-FM, paired with WSAF (1220), which made its studio and transmitter home just off Beneva Road south of downtown Sarasota. The AM station became WQSA in the 1970s, and the "WQSA 1220" logo is still visible on the old building here on Beneva Road. But the station itself is gone: it became WIBQ and then eventually present-day WSRQ. And here's where things get weird: while the WSRQ AM transmitter has moved - it's operating on a wire under STA from a site on Palmer Boulevard east of I-75, there's an FM translator licensed here for WSRQ. W295BH (106.9) runs from this tower, and I think it's also home to low-power WSLR-LP (96.5) and its translator at 98.9, W255CC.
There's obviously a lot of Sarasota we didn't get to see on this trip, but that's just a reason to go back and bask in the sunshine some more, right? And in the meantime, you can see some of what we missed over on NECRAT.us, which has a comprehensive spin around the Sarasota/Bradenton FM sites...
Thanks to Cox Media Group's Ed Allen for the tour!
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Next week: Fort Myers, Florida, 2011