Site of the Week 12/23/11: WLBC, Muncie, Indiana

Guest episodes of Tower Site of the Week are rare events: with all the traveling your editor does, we can almost always find interesting photos to show you that we’ve taken ourselves.

But from time to time, there’s something going on that we just can’t get to see in person: maybe it’s the broadcast facilities of American Samoa or Nome, Alaska, or maybe it’s a tower that’s coming down in a hurry at a time when we can’t travel.

That’s what happened this month in Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State University is in the process of dismantling the tower on East 29th Street that was the analog home of what’s now public television station WIPB (Channel 49).

WLBC in the snow, 2002

...and on a nicer day in 2006

This is a fascinating site with a long history, and luckily for us, our friend and colleague Blaine Thompson of Indiana RadioWatch has some pictures to share with us.

Base of the TV tower

The building in 2011

There are – well, there were - three stations operating from this low-slung building on what used to be Indiana State Route 35, and over the years they’ve all carried the legacy callsign of WLBC. That call dates back to November 1926, when Don Burton put the AM station on the air from his father’s house on South Jefferson Street. Over the decades that followed, WLBC moved several times before ending up in the Anthony Building downtown, where it was operating on 1310 from a rooftop antenna, with the usual 250 watts day, 100 watts at night used by the “graveyard” stations of the era. 1941 found WLBC moving to 1340 and relocating to this site on 29th Street, where it was joined in 1947 by an FM facility (WMUN 104.1) and then in 1953 by WLBC-TV on Channel 49.

WXFN, WLBC-FM and WIPB's towers

The WLBC-FM studio

WIPB's analog tower

WIPB's digital tower

WLBC-TV was one of those interesting early small-market UHF outlets that tried hard to succeed. Muncie is just far enough from Indianapolis (about 60 miles), Dayton (about 80 miles) and Fort Wayne (about 75 miles) that early TV viewers had to put up fairly large antennas to receive pictures in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the city was just big enough (59,000 or so people in 1950) to make a TV station a potentially viable proposition.

So Burton added on to his radio building and put up a 500-foot self-supporting tower out front.

Channel 49 had a somewhat better signal than many of the channel 73s and other such questionable facilities that died quick deaths in UHF’s early days, and WLBC-TV managed to make a tenuous go of it as a little local station, picking and choosing among NBC, CBS and ABC programming as it tried to draw local viewers away from the big-city Indianapolis signals down the road. (Eventually, WLBC-TV settled down as a primary NBC affiliate.)

WLBC-TV hung on all the way to October 1971, when Burton finally sold the signal to a community group, Eastern Indiana Community Television, which was trying to put an educational TV station on the air. Renamed WIPB-TV, the station kept its analog transmitter at the WLBC facility, though the studios eventually moved to Ball State University, which bought the WIPB licensed from EICT. Meanwhile, WLBC(AM) eventually became WXFN, now a 1000-watt sports station, while WMUN became top-40 giant WLBC-FM, building a separate guyed tower behind the building in the 1990s when it put up a new antenna.

WIPB stopped using the original Channel 49 tower in 2009, when its analog operations ended; its DTV tower (it’s on RF 23) is at a separate site to the south.

By the end of January, the old WLBC-TV tower will be completely dismantled…but now at least you can say you’ve seen a little bit of early UHF-TV history before it’s all gone!

Thanks to Blaine Thompson for the photos!

It’s not too late to order the all-new Tower Site Calendar 2012, available now from the all new Fybush.com store!

Next week: Northwest Arkansas and vicinity

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