Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Our recap of the first of two "Big Trips" of 2011, a 10-day jaunt around central and northern Florida, is almost over - but we still have two fun days of tower-hunting to tell you about, from a corner of the Sunshine State that isn't always on the tourist maps.
If you're heading from Orlando (where we dropped off traveling partner Garrett Wollman) to Jacksonville (where we were due to fly home a day and a half later), the quick route is back up I-4 to Daytona and then I-95 up the coast. But we'd already seen (and showed you) most of what there was to see along that routing...so instead, we went inland, up Florida's Turnpike and US 301 to Ocala, Florida's horse capital and the home base of Broadcasters General Store and our good friend Lee Freshwater...who was as excited to spend a day playing tour guide as we were to be guided.
From Lee's home base (and DX shack) near downtown, we got a nice clean signal of the local LPFM, WITG-LP (104.7), playing a great lineup of oldies - and we saw why when we set out through the historic downtown, spotting the WITG two-bay antenna atop one of the tallest of the historic downtown buildings, right under the "Ocala" sign.
Our first studio stop of the morning came a few minutes later, out Silver Springs Boulevard to the east of downtown. Nestled snugly in the first-floor window of a two-story office building (the "Cascades Office Complex," named for the waterfall out front), we found the youngest of the three AM signals that have served Ocala over the years. WOCA (1370) signed on in 1957 as WHYS and was later known as WKOS and then WWKE before taking its present identity in 1983. Now under the ownership of the Martone family (Generations Broadcasting), WOCA is the region's news-talk station, and we find a live, local talk show going on right inside that front window.
This isn't really AM radio country; WOCA draws much of its listenership from its relatively new FM translator, which was on 96.7 when we visited and has since shifted to 96.3.
A word here, before we continue, about the local radio and TV markets: for radio, Ocala is paired with Gainesville, 30 miles to the north, in one of those pairings that works better on paper than it does in the real world. Even augmented by FM translators, the AMs in Ocala don't get into Gainesville, and the reverse is true as well, and even the smaller FMs in each city struggle to be heard across the entire market. What's more, the Ocala market can hear at least some of the big FMs from Orlando, 75 miles or so to the southeast, while Gainesville can hear at least some of Jacksonville on FM. And then there's TV: Ocala is part of the very large Orlando TV market, even though the Orlando stations rarely bother to cover news up here - but Gainesville, as we'll see in our next installment, has its own tiny TV market.
There's one TV station licensed to Ocala: WOGX (Channel 51) has a studio out along I-75, from which it serves Ocala (and thus the northernmost chunk of the Orlando market) and the Gainesville market as well. Since 1996, WOGX has been a sister station to Orlando Fox affiliate WOFL (Channel 35), and since 2002 the stations have been Fox O&Os. WOGX runs a somewhat separate lineup of syndicated shows, but at news time it simulcasts WOFL's newscasts with local ads for Ocala/Gainesville. The WOGX tower is out along Highway 316 northwest of Ocala, and we didn't get out there on this trip, mainly because we had more studios and towers to go see right in Ocala.
Two of Ocala's big FM stations are both owned by Asterisk Communications, and they share a studio in an office park west of downtown on SW 7th Street. WMFQ (92.9) was doing "Big Oldies" when we visited in early 2011, but flipped to hot AC as "Q92.9" just a few months later, while sister station WTRS (102.3 Dunellon) just down the hall was and still is "Thunder Country." WMFQ started out in 1977 at 92.7 as a sister station to 1370 (then WWKE) but split away from that AM signal in the 1980s. WMFQ started out in 1977 at 92.7 as a sister station to 1370 (then WWKE) but split away from that AM signal in the 1980s. WTRS started out in 1969 way out to the west of Ocala, serving rural west central Florida as a sister to WTRS (920) before gradually upgrading to reach Ocala as well.
(The third big Ocala-based FM is competitor WOGK (93.7), "K Country." WOGK is the oldest FM in town, dating back to its 1960 debut as WMOP-FM; it later became WFUZ and WMMZ then took the WOGK ID in 1994.)
Both the WOGK and WMFQ sites are pretty remote: WOGK's 100 kW facility is located way out to the northeast of Ocala, while WMFQ is out to the southwest, and with a packed day of sites to see, we skipped both - but we did make it to another Ocala FM site.
As for WTRS, it's been upgraded to a 50 kW C2 signal from the site shown above (and below), just off state highway 328 on the way from Ocala west to Dunnellon.
WTRS also does country, as "Thunder Country 102.3."
Back to the AM dial we go before we leave Ocala, for a look at the two remaining AM sites in town.
WMOP (900) was the second AM to come on the air in town, back in 1953, and soon settled on a country format that it would use for more than four decades until the rise of FM finally forced a format flip in 1996.
In recent years, WMOP has been part of an ESPN Radio combination with Gainesville signals. When we visited in 2011, its Gainesville partner was WGGG (1230), but it has since moved the ESPN affiliation there to the University of Florida-owned commercial AM, WRUF (850), a much larger signal that gives the 850-900 pairing a nice reach over most of the Arbitron market, aided by FM translator W261BA (100.1). The WMOP AM facility, running 2700 watts by day and 23 big watts, is north of downtown at NE 49th Street and Jacksonville Road.
As for WOCA, we find its tower (5000 watts day, 33 watts night) at Martin Luther King Blvd (NW 16th Ave) and NW 14th Street, and that's also where the translator on 96.7 (now 96.3) is located.
So if WMOP came second and WOCA came third, what came first? That would be WTMC (1290), which signed on in 1938 with a callsign meaning "Welcome to Marion County." Over the years, WTMC worked its way up to 5 kW daytime, 1 kW at night, directional from a three-tower site out on NW 10th Street just east of I-75 - but then came a hurricane in 2004 that damaged the site and silenced the station (by then renamed WCFI). The towers came down in 2005 and the license was deleted in 2008, ending the story of the oldest AM in Ocala and leaving us nothing to show you of that pioneering AM, alas.
Thanks to Lee Freshwater for the tours!
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And don’t miss a batch of Ocala IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Gainesville, 2011