Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of the real pleasures of traveling the country is the increasingly rare chance to see a locally-owned cluster of stations that's doing everything right. Our July 2011 visit to Evansville, Indiana (which started with last week's look at two nifty college stations and another top-notch cluster just outside the market) took us to one of those rare gems.
What's even more remarkable is that the station at the core of this cluster has been at this same location, under the same family ownership, all the way back to 1948. That's when John A. Engelbrecht put WIKY on the air as a daytimer at 820 on the dial, Evansville's third radio station. The new station operated from the pre-Civil War Cutler Mansion on a hill at 1162 Mount Auburn Road, overlooking the west side of Evansville, with studios in the basement and the Engelbrechts living upstairs. In 1953, WIKY-FM (104.1) joined its AM sister to provide full-time service, and over the decades that followed, WIKY took its place as the full-service leader in town.
Plenty changed here over the years: in 1981, the Engelbrechts bought longtime, full-time AM competitor WROZ (1400, ex-WEOA), which in those one-to-an-owner days meant that the AM 820 signal had to be spun off. As we saw last week, 820 moved out to the University of Southern Indiana to make room for the new AM on the hill. But no sooner had WROZ moved in than disaster struck: a fire just after Christmas in 1981 ripped through the building, knocking WIKY off the air until an emergency studio could be rigged up in a mobile unit outside.
The Engelbrechts rebuilt on the ruins of the old mansion, creating a modern studio facility on the footprint of the original building, and over the years it came to be home to many more stations. On the AM side, 1400 became WJPS, then went back to its old WEOA calls before being sold off. On the FM side, the Engelbrechts' South Central Communications added WJPS-FM (93.5 Chandler), a drop-in signal that had been on the air only a year or so when it joined this cluster in 1995. Another new drop-in, WABX (107.5 Evansville), signed on from here in 1997, joined in 2001 by a rimshot to the east. WYXY (107.1 Boonville) was the longtime WBNL-FM, sister to WBNL (1540 Boonville, which stayed in independent hands). South Central completed its cluster with a big 2002 purchase, picking up top-40 giant WSTO (96.1 Owensboro KY) out of the breakup of the Brill Media cluster and moving it from Brill's new downtown studios up here to Mount Auburn.
As the flagship station of the cluster, WIKY gets to have its studio in a place of pride, behind windows right off the main lobby. Leading back from the WIKY studio, there's a long hallway with a nice conference room (including some details salvaged from the 1981 fire) heading back to the other stations' studios.
Each of the stations in the building has its own studio pod, most of them in nice bay windows poking out from the main structure in homage to the design of the original mansion. Country "Wolf" WLFW (93.5) is in a back corner, while top-40 WSTO (96.1) looks out to the north. Classic rock WABX (107.5), which draws its callsign and format from the Detroit station (now WYCD on 99.5) that was a big rocker in the 1970s, has a glassed-in studio on the south side of the building, and 107.1, now "Jack FM" WEJK, is all automated and doesn't have its own studio.
Upstairs, this is a big building with plenty of office space for sales and management staff. There's a sizable newsroom for the cluster, especially for WIKY, which has long taken advantage of the absence of many big news-talk competitors to focus on putting the "service" into full-service radio.
All that emphasis on local news works - just look at WIKY's NAB Crystal Radio Award and the 17.7 share it pulled in the most recent book, keeping it solidly at #1. (Three of the top four stations in town are in this building, in fact!)
The reconstruction of the mansion preserved one neat feature of the 1850 original: a big upstairs space that runs the width of the building with large windows on each end.
It's lined with historic photos of WIKY, including the newspaper front pages from the 1981 fire - and from the south-facing window, it also boasts an impressive view outside to the WIKY tower, just down the slope across the parking lot from the studio.
This 583-foot structure dates to 1983, when it replaced an earlier self-supporter that had been the original WIKY(AM) tower way back when. (You can still see the base of the old self-supporter surrounding the bottom of the current tower.)
Inside the transmitter building, which adjoins the garage for South Central's promotional vehicles, we find more than just WIKY itself. In addition to WIKY's Harris transmitters at one end, WABX is here as well, with its class A signal coming from a Harris Z-series transmitter tucked in behind WIKY.
And when we visited in 2011 (accompanied, we should note, not only by Blaine Thompson of Indiana Radio Watch but also by local media blogger Jake Newkirk, whose outstanding Jake's DTV Blog just recently closed down), there was low-power TV here as well: WJPS-LP (Channel 4), WIKY-LP (Channel 5) and WAZE-LP (Channel 17) were the market's CW outlets, but financial problems caused them to shut down right around the time of our visit.
We didn't get a chance to see the other FM transmitter sites: WSTO is on a tall tower off to the south in the Kentucky hills, WLFW is on the WTVW (Channel 7) tower to the east in Chandler and WEJK is a few miles east of that, south of Boonville.
We'll see much more Evansville TV next week, but let's get back to radio and see what became of the rest of the Brill cluster that we'd visited in its impressive industrial-chic downtown digs back in 2001?
While WSTO went to South Central up the hill, the other Brill stations ended up in the hands of Regent Communications, which also picked up the Clear Channel cluster we'd visited in 2001. All of those Regent stations combined into a new facility on the south edge of downtown Evansville a few years back, in a former car dealership next to the city's new ice arena (go, Evansville IceMen!) and soon afterward became part of Townsquare Media.
From Brill, Regent/Townsquare inherited the market's top country station, WKDQ (99.5 Henderson KY), which is the top-rated piece of the current Evansville cluster. (The other Brill-to-Townsquare stations in the area are over in Owensboro, Kentucky, where country WBKR 92.5 and talk WOMI 1490 operate from their own studios.)
Everything else in this big cluster, with studios arrayed all along the western wall, came from Clear Channel in 2004: talk WGBF (1280 Evansville), the market's oldest station; rock WGBF-FM (103.1 Henderson KY); classic hits WJLT (105.3 Evansville) and top-40 WDKS (106.1 Newburgh).
Townsquare's facility is built around a central core of sales and programming cubicles, with production studios off one side, programmers' offices lining the south wall and the air studios along the east wall, starting with the paired studio/news office for WGBF (1280) and then WKDQ, with the additional FMs and the rack room down a hall leading off from the north side of the core.
We didn't get to see any transmitters for this cluster, either, but that's only because we had much more to pack into our busy day in Evansville, as you'll see next week when we take you inside most of the market's TV stations...
Thanks to WIKY's Mark Elliott and Townsquare's LaDonne Craig for the tours!
But the wait is over. The Tower Site Calendar, 2014 edition, has gone to press, and you can be the first to reserve your very own. We expect delivery at the end of the month, and we'll send them right off to their loving homes, spiral bound, shrink wrapped and best of all, with a convenient hole for hanging!
This year’s gorgeous electronic pinups include the iconic towers of Catalina Island, a combiner system in St. Louis, the twin towers of KNRS in Salt Lake City, a historic rooftop site in Jamestown, New York and many more!
If you want a tower calendar on your wall NOW, you can pick up the current edition for just $5 with your 2014 order!
Click here to order your new calendar!
Then check out our store page for our other great merchandise, including the last-ever FM Atlas, the new NRC AM Log and a model of the KSAN tower.
And don’t miss a big batch of Evansville IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Evansville, Indiana TV, 2011