Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Evansville, Indiana is not a large market - Nielsen ranks it 104th for TV, 163rd for radio. But even a "small" market can offer plenty for the adventurous tower (or studio) hunter to see, and so it was during our summer 2011 visit in the company of Blaine Thompson (from Indiana Radio Watch) and Jake Newkirk (from the now-defunct - sadly - Jake's DTV Blog).
In last week's installment, we showed you the South Central radio facility at 1162 Mount Auburn Road, up on a hill overlooking the west side of Evansville. But while South Central's WIKY was the first station up at Mount Auburn, it didn't have the hilltop to itself for very long. In November 1953, the story of Evansville TV began up here with the debut of WFIE (Channel 62), which commemorated the historic event in its very callsign - "We're First In Evansville!" (Which was only partially true, as we'll see in next week's installment when we cross the Ohio River into nearby Henderson, Kentucky...)
A lot has changed over the years, including WFIE's channel, which changed to 14 in 1961, but 60 years later WFIE remains right here in this building at 1114 Mount Auburn Road, still affiliated with NBC and on only its fourth owner, having passed from the local Fine family to Louisville's WAVE-TV, which in time became Orion Broadcasting and then Cosmos Broadcasting before merging into present-day owner Raycom.
When we visited WFIE in August 2011, it was hardly standing still, though: it had just built a new set and inaugurated the market's first full-HD newscasts from that very studio first used in 1953.
As with so many buildings of that vintage, WFIE's has undergone numerous expansions and renovations over the years. We enter next to the base of a guyed tower that was the original WFIE transmitter tower and enter a small lobby that opens into a long hallway. On the left side is the studio, with the WFIE newsroom off to the right.
The changeover from SD to HD for local production came with a new control room, so new that its predecessor was still in place down the hall, waiting to be ripped out.
You can see from the newsroom picture above that this building has had numerous additions: what was once an outside wall here now looks into a little area that was the temporary studio while the news set was being rebuilt; it's also used as a little digital studio for webcasts and such. Beyond that, there's more newish construction that houses WFIE's administrative and sales offices.
Down the hill from WFIE, two TV stations sat next door to each other on the north side of downtown Evansville when we visited, but it wouldn't stay that way for long. That modern-looking building on Carpenter Street shown above at right was home to the market's lone VHF station: Nexstar's WTVW (Channel 7), which signed on in 1956 as an ABC affiliate, flipped to Fox in 1995, lost Fox and went independent a few months before our 2011 visit - and then ended up duopolized with another station across the river, which we'll see in more detail next week.
WTVW's original home in 1956 was the city landmark right next door on Carpenter street: the historic Willard Carpenter House, built by one of the city's leading philanthropists in 1848-1849. WTVW moved next door to its new building in 1974, and the Carpenter mansion was used as office space until 1985, when it became the new home of Evansville's public broadcaster, WNIN-TV (Channel 9) and WNIN-FM (88.3).
WNIN had started out as a service of the local public schools in 1970, but financial problems took it dark two years later before it was rescued by a community group and returned to the air, adding a radio signal in 1982.
Under WNIN, the Carpenter Mansion has retained much of its original charm. The front door is locked, with the main entrance having been moved around the corner to the side of the new TV studio addition. Turn left from the new main door, though, and you're back in the original mansion, complete with high-ceilinged rooms lining the first-floor hallway that now house the executive offices.
Upstairs, the second floor is mostly devoted to WNIN-TV's technical core, which is very heavily automated. From the digital master control at the back of the second floor, WNIN controls three over-the-air channels, its main 9.1 plus "WNIN Learn" on 9.2 and "WNIN Create" on 9.3. WNIN also holds the contract to produce local-access programming for Evansville and Vanderburgh County, which is switched from a small room just off the main master control that controls remote cameras downtown at the civic center.
WNIN-FM's studios are up on the third floor, looking out through those little windows under the eaves. Here, too, automation helps contribute to a lean operation; when we stop by late in the afternoon, there's not even a live board operator hosting All Things Considered.
(This is, after all, not only a small market, but also a small market where WNIN has competition right across the river in the form of Kentucky-based public radio and TV services from Western Kentucky University and the statewide KET network, respectively.)
We didn't make it out to the east this time to see the transmitters of WTVW or WNIN, which are located out in Chandler not far from the offices and factory of transmitter/tower giant ERI; the towers haven't changed much since we saw it on our 2001 "Big Trip," though the antenna configuration has changed to accommodate WTVW's move to RF channel 28 and WNIN's shift to RF 12.
Careful readers of that 2001 installment might note that while we saw the two-tower array of Evansville's oldest AM, WGBF (1280), we missed out on two more AM sites, an omission we rectified a decade later.
While it began as a rooftop operation from the old YMCA building downtown, WEOA (1400) moved in the late 1960s to its present location, a single stick right at the southern edge of the city, on Weinbach Avenue just north of I-164 and the edge of the Ohio River floodplain. Right after our visit, the urban station added an FM translator, broadcasting from the old WFIE tower next to the studios up on Mount Auburn Road. (Where's WFIE now? We'll see its tower in next week's installment...)
Our final stop for this installment is a few miles north of town out on St. Joseph Avenue, home since the 1940s to Evansville's AM 1330. This station started out as WJPS, named for owner J. Porter Smith, and the 5 kW day/1 kW night DA-N signal was the market's ABC radio affiliate and then became a smokin' top-40 station that boasted massive ratings into the mid-1970s.
After collapsing from a 20 share to under a 1 share in just two years, 1330 went through several calls and formats, becoming WKKR and then finding religion in the 1980s under its current calls WVHI. The paint on the transmitter building has worn away over the years, though, and drivers passing by on St. Joseph once again see the "W J P S - ABC 1330 KC" signage paying tribute to the station's long history.
Thanks to WFIE's Adam Frary and WNIN's David Dial 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 to Henderson, Kentucky and back north, 2011