Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
What's the shortest radio visit we've ever made to a major market? It happened in August 2011 - just an hour or so spent at one studio complex while we were on the way from our alternate home base of Fort Wayne to a non-radio event in Chicago. As regular Site of the Week readers well know, Fort Wayne is a fantastic summer base of operation for us: it's just a few hours' drive to a whole slew of medium and big markets, including Chicago, just three hours or so down US 30 (and even quicker when we drop the car in northwest Indiana and take the train the rest of the way!)
From Millennium Station, it's an even quicker El ride to one of the legendary sites of Chicago broadcasting. The Merchandise Mart, on the banks of the Chicago River, has been home to radio since it was built in 1930. Back then, the 19th floor of this massive building was outfitted by NBC as its midwestern studio center, home to Red Network outlet WMAQ and Blue Network outlet WENR.
When television came to Chicago, the Merchandise Mart studios were refitted for TV, becoming home to NBC O&O WNBQ (Channel 5, later WMAQ-TV) as well as to WMAQ (670) and WMAQ-FM (101.1). NBC stayed put at the top of the "Mart" until 1990, when WMAQ-TV moved downriver to the new NBC Tower near Lake Michigan, joined by WMAQ(AM), which leased space in the new NBC Tower even though it was no longer owned by NBC. (You can learn a lot about the NBC Merchandise Mart operation from Chicago TV historian Rich Samuels, who's lovingly chronicled that story here.)
But while Westinghouse got WMAQ(AM), its sister FM station, by then WKQX, went to Emmis. And Emmis stayed put in the Merchandise Mart, moving downstairs from the old NBC space to a new space on the western end of the second floor, with studio windows looking out into one of the big marble corridors that run the length of this huge building.
In 2004, Emmis added a second Chicago FM, trading its Phoenix stations to Bonneville in exchange for WLUP-FM (97.9), which moved to the Merchandise Mart from its longtime home uptown at the John Hancock Center, which is also where its transmitter is located.
And just a few months before our visit, Emmis sold WKQX and WLUP (along with WRXP in New York) to Randy Michaels' Merlin Media, which was just settling in when we stopped by in August. Merlin mostly left WLUP's rock format alone, including the "Lava Lamp Love Lounge" live performance studio that anchors one end of the studio hallway that runs parallel to the Merch Mart's main corridor. WLUP's air studio is also along that line of studios visible from the main corridor - and next to it is what used to be the "Q101" modern rock studio.
But when we stopped by for our quick visit in August, "Q101" was history, having given way to the Chicago incarnation of Merlin's "FM News" operation. Known then as WWWN (and later as WIQI), "FM News 101.1" faced the same problem pretty much any new all-newser does when it tries to start up in an existing studio facility: the physical needs of an all-news operation are very, very different from any other radio format. "FM News" did the best it could: along one of the exterior walls of the studio complex, Merlin ripped out some existing programming offices and opened up a few walls to create a newsroom, down a hall and around a corner from the old music studio that was pressed into service as the all-news air studio. (It could have been worse: in New York, where Merlin rented space from Emmis for its "FM News 101.9" WEMP, the newsroom ended up at the other end of the complex from the air studio.)
You already know how this story ends: "FM News" lasted less than a year after this visit, and by the summer of 2012 WIQI had dropped news and gone to adult hits as "i101," still using the old Q101 studio here. In the meantime, Merlin revived WKQX, putting the calls and the old "Q" modern rock format on the "Franken-FM' formerly known as WLFM-LP (Channel 6), now branded "Q87.7."
Posting these 2011 pictures reminds us we have some even older Chicago studio shots that haven't made it to Site of the Week yet; we'll have to rectify that soon - and we're overdue for another Chicago visit to catch up on what's changed since our last big round of tours there!
Thanks to Randy Michaels for the tour!
But the wait is over. The Tower Site Calendar, 2014 edition, is now shipping!
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 Chicago IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Dayton, Ohio