Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
OK, brutal honesty time: our 2011 visit to Florida certainly didn't need to drag us all the way down the west coast to Fort Myers and Lee County. If you've been following the last few installments of "Big Trip 2011," you know all too well that we rushed past some parts of Tampa and Sarasota where we could easily have used another few days of exploration instead of hauling down I-75 for a 300-mile round trip out of our way.
But there was something a bit more at stake than just radio here: if we were going to find ourselves within a day's drive of Red Sox spring training at the start of the Grapefruit League season, we weren't going to miss the chance to see the Sox take on the Twins in the final Sox season at City of Palms Park...which we did. And the Sox won (not that it mattered), and the game ended in time to give us a few hours of daylight to go see some of the towers that Fort Myers had to offer.
Until I-75 came through in the 1970s to connect southwest Florida to Tampa and Miami, this was a rural, isolated part of the state, so it's no surprise that radio was fairly slow to develop here.
Our first stop is just a half-mile or so south of the ballpark, at the second-oldest AM in town. WMYR (1410) signed on in 1954 and today runs 5000 watts day and night from a three-tower site on Hanson Street. When we visited, WMYR was owned by Starboard Communications out of Wisconsin, running a big-band format called "The Avenue" and simulcasting with WCNZ (1660 Marco Island) down to the south in the Naples market; just a few weeks ago, WMYR and WCNZ flipped to classic country and added an FM translator.
The third AM in town is WCRM (1350), just a few hundred yards east of the WMYR site off Canal Street. It signed on in 1964, and these days it operates in Spanish from the studio and single tower at this site.
Fort Myers' first AM station, way back in 1939, was WINK, and from that small 250-watt AM beginning sprouted a broadcast empire that still dominates the market. The original WINK(AM) began on 1210 and shifted to 1240 in the NARBA moves of 1941. Over the years, the WINK group of stations has shifted around, and the original WINK on 1240 is now part of a "Fox News 92.5" trimulcast - WFSX (1240) here in Fort Myers, WNOG (1270) down in Naples and WFSX-FM (92.5 Estero) bringing the talk format to the FM dial in between.
Why are there two towers out here at the non-directional 1240 site on Rockhill Road, just a few hundred yards east of WCRM? The answer, I think, has to do with an attempt to go directional some years back - and perhaps some kind Tower Site reader can fill us in with a more comprehensive answer.
The current WINK(AM) is "WINK News Radio 1200," a 50 kW (daytime, anyway) facility located way out in a remote part of Cape Coral, northwest of Fort Myers, and we weren't able to get a good picture of that six-tower site - but we did make time to drive by the longtime WINK studios at 2824 Palm Beach Boulevard, just east of downtown Fort Myers.
This studio, which has been heavily renovated over many decades, is home not only to WFSX and WINK(AM) but also to WINK-FM (96.9 Fort Myers) and the big gorilla in the family, CBS affiliate WINK-TV (Channel 11), the market's oldest and biggest TV station. From its 1954 debut (with studio and 300-foot transmitter tower right here) until 1968, WINK was the only TV station serving the viewers of southwest Florida. The end of 1968 brought NBC affiliate WBBH (Channel 20) to the air from a 1000-foot tower in Lehigh Acres, 14 miles east of Fort Myers, and it wasn't until 1974 that the market got full "Big Three" network service with the debut of ABC affiliate WEVU (Channel 26), licensed to Naples and transmitting from a site near the Collier-Lee county line.
WEVU lasted only two decades as a standalone ABC outlet. By 2004, it had become WZVN and had entered one of the first JSAs in the country, combining news staff and studio operations with WBBH at Waterman Broadcasting's studio on Central Avenue in Fort Myers. They've been together ever since at this building, producing local news under both the "NBC 2" and "ABC 7" banners. (Fort Myers-Naples is one of those odd markets where cable penetration was so massive, so early that the UHF stations have never identified as anything other than their cable channels; rare indeed is the Fort Myers viewer who even knows there's a "channel 20" or "channel 26" in town.)
As a small, sleepy market, it took time for Fort Myers to develop anything we'd now recognize as a tower farm. WINK-TV stayed at its short tower at the studio right up until competition from newcomer WBBH loomed; in 1968, it moved to a new site northeast of town, out along state highway 31 in a rural area north of Fort Myers Shores. The current 1519-foot tower at the site has the FM right at the top, and I believe the antenna below that is the WINK-DT (RF 50) antenna.
WINK eventually got company out along Highway 31. In 1982, Tampa's WUSF public radio and TV built relay stations down here, WSFP (90.1) and WSFP-TV (Channel 30), operating from a 989-foot tower about a mile to the north of the WINK site. After a decade and a half under the management of the University of South Florida, the stations got a new parent in 1997 when the new Florida Gulf Coast University took them over. Long before stunned, bracket-busted NCAA basketball fans had ever heard of FGCU, these stations became - and still remain - "WGCU" and "WGCU-TV." (WGCU-TV now operates its digital signal on RF 31.)
WBBH came to the tower farm along 31 in 1983, when it built a 1616-foot tower just north of the WSFP/WGCU site. That tower is now home to both WBBH's digital signal (RF 15) and the digital signal of sister station WZVN, on RF 41.
Two even newer towers sit just west of 31 amidst the horse farms, just south and west of the WINK tower. WXCW (Channel 46/RF 45, "CW6") is the Naples-licensed CW affiliate in the market, now a sister to WINK-TV. It's one of several stations on a 1515-foot American Tower site down at the end of Horseshoe Road, also home to religious WRXY-TV Tice (Channel 49/RF 33), religious WMYE (91.9 Fort Myers) and top-40 "Y100" WZJZ (100.1 Port Charlotte).
Before channel 46 signed on in 1990 (originally as independent WNPL, later as UPN/WB affiliate WTVK), the original independent in the market was WFTX (Channel 36). It signed on in 1985 as a sister to Tampa's WFTS (Channel 28) and joined Fox a year later.
Today, WFTX is owned by Journal Communications and known as "Fox 4" (that cable-channel thing again), operating digitally on RF 35 from a site in the tower farm just north of the WXCW tower. Its studios are in its city of licensed, Cape Coral, across the bridges and a little west of downtown Fort Myers.
There's one more AM signal out amongst the TV towers of the farm: WWCN (770 North Fort Myers) has its four-tower array just a couple of miles west-southwest of the WFTX and WXCW sites; as you can tell by the dusky photos above, we simply ran out of daylight before we could get over there.
That's it for our southwest Florida excursion (with much more, including WWCN and a bunch of FM sites, to see on a future trip, along with the new Red Sox spring training home at JetBlue Park!) From here, we headed back up to Tampa and Orlando (sites we've already included in those installments)...and then north to Ocala and Gainesville, which we'll show you in the next few weeks of Tower Site.
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Next week: Ocala, Florida, 2011