Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It's been a brutally cold week here at NERW Central - which makes it all the more delightful to be able to keep bringing you photos and stories from our "Big Trip 2011," the February-March excursion that took us on a huge loop from Jacksonville down to Fort Myers and back.
This week's installment finds us on days two and three of that trip, wherein we began to put some miles behind us as we headed southward down Florida's east coast from Jacksonville to a date with a Space Shuttle launch. But before we could watch the shuttle burst skyward, we had a date with a longtime friend of the column to see his latest broadcast projects.
A fellow veteran of Lowell, Mass. radio (albeit across the street at WLLH/WSSH), Ron Gitschier last made a cameo appearance in this space back in 2004, when he left his Florida home before dawn to meet up with us for a tour of WSB in Atlanta en route back to Massachusetts, only to turn around and zip back to the Jacksonville area to pick up some forgotten packages of citrus for his family before heading north again.
At the time, Ron was working at AM 1570 in Fernandina Beach, just north of Jacksonville, where he was on the air as "Rocky W. Shore" through several incarnations of that small facility. Later, he was both engineering and on the air at a now-defunct low-power FM station south of Jacksonville, WFBO-LP (93.3 Flagler Beach).
By 2011, though, Ron had a new and very exciting gig with a fast-growing broadcast group that was busy putting on new signals in a fast-growing part of Florida. From fewer than 5,000 people in 1970, Flagler County now boasts a population of nearly 100,000, and it's far enough from Jacksonville (an hour or so north) and Daytona Beach (a half hour or so to the south) to sustain its own commercial stations these days.
Enter Flagler County Broadcasting, led by DC communications attorney Gary Smithwick and local GM Jim Martin. In 2007, it acquired the unbuilt construction permit for WAYI (1550 Bunnell), putting the station on the air in 2008 as WNZF, a news-talk outlet with 9500 watts by day and 520 watts at night. The daytime power has since been boosted to 11,000 watts from the two-tower site Ron helped build just on the west side of Bunnell, the county seat.
The compact prefab transmitter building is home to two BE transmitters (one for day, one for night) and a phasor, and if you'd like to see more of it, including a video of the switch from day to night, Mike Fitzpatrick can indulge your needs over at NECRAT.us.
Flagler Broadcasting's next acquisitions were an FM translator for WNZF, W292DE (106.3 Palm Coast), and a full-power class A FM signal. What's now WBHQ (92.7 Beverly Beach) started out up in the Jacksonville area, licensed to Green Cove Springs, but it was shifted southward to Flagler County as part of a sequence of moves that spun it off from the Clear Channel cluster, allowed Clear Channel's signal on 93.3 to upgrade, and allowed another signal on 92.5 to move south from Folkston, Georgia to Jacksonville Beach.
With the move south, the station became adult hits "92.7 the Beach," transmitting from a tower right along US 1 north of Bunnell and west of Palm Coast. When we stopped by in early 2011, Ron had recently lit up the 106.3 translator from this site, and he was busy getting ready to install a second translator here. W265CF (100.9 Palm Coast) is fed from WBHQ's HD3 (WNZF is on the HD2), and it's now "Soft Oldies 100.9." And in 2012, Flagler Broadcasting added a second full-power FM here: WAKX (98.7 Palm Coast) started out as a construction permit (WPLC) obtained at an FCC auction, then sold to Flagler, which put it on the air from the WBHQ site as "Kix Country 98.7."
The studios for all these stations are in a little office center/strip mall on Moody Boulevard east of Bunnell, and that's Ron standing out front in the photo above. (He's on the air as "Ron Charles," serving as news director for all the stations and as morning host for WNZF.) The AM studios are, or at least were, in the front room facing out to the parking lot, with WBHQ's studio/production room and a small newsroom tucked just behind.
How about some noncommercial signals? Flagler County has those, too: WHYZ (91.1 Palm Coast) had just signed on a few months before our visit from its site east of I-95 just south of Bunnell, relaying Orlando-area Christian contemporary WPOZ, a station we'll see in much greater detail in a subsequent installment. And the county's oldest station, WJLH (90.3 Flagler Beach), with a history dating all the way back to 1996, is half of a religious simulcast with WJLU (89.7 New Smyrna Beach), flanking Daytona Beach from both sides.
From the WJLH site on US 1, it's only a short drive south into Ormond Beach, the town just north of Daytona.
Ormond Beach boasts its own AM station, WELE (1380), with a four-tower array along Nova Road (Florida 5A), one of the main north-south arteries in the Daytona area. WELE billed itself as "Goliath Radio" when we were visiting, less for the size of its signal (5000 watts by day, 2500 watts at night) than for the name of the owner's dog, prominently pictured on the sign in front of the building! (It's not a studio, mind you...it's the "doghouse.")
Continuing south on Nova Road takes us into the north side of Daytona Beach itself, and a turn westward on LPGA Boulevard (this is golf country here; there's also a Sam Snead Blvd. not far away!) deposits us at an interesting three-tower site.
Two of the towers here belong to one of Daytona's most venerable AM signals. WNDB (1150 Daytona Beach) is the big news-talker in town, running 1000 watts non-directional by day and 1000 watts into both towers after dark. The third tower, on the west edge of the property, isn't part of the AM array at all: at 350 feet, twice the height of the AM towers, it's home to two FM sister stations. WHOG-FM (95.7 Ormond-by-the-Sea) is on the top bays, WVYB (103.3 Holly Hill) on the lower set.
Since our visit, two more FMs have set their sights on this tower: a new signal, WLOV (99.5 Daytona Beach Shores) signed on from here in 2012, and WKRO (93.1 Edgewater), a sister station to WHOG, WVYB and WNDB, has an application to move here with a new city of license of Port Orange.
WHOG, WVYB, WNDB and WKRO are all owned by Black Crow Broadcasting, which makes its studio hme at 126 West International Speedway Boulevard, the east-west main drag through downtown Daytona Beach, and while we'd have loved to have had a tour, that cluster's engineer was working overnight during our stop-over in the area, trying to fix a problem that had WKRO at reduced power. (That's OK - it gives us a great excuse to return to the area sometime soon.)
WNDB was the second station on the air in Daytona Beach when it signed on in 1947, preceded a dozen years earlier by WMFJ. Now on 1450, with a religious format as a sister to WJLH/WJLU, WMFJ transmits from an antenna skirted on a stubby tower on Root Street along the Halifax River, a few blocks north of the Black Crow studios.
On the west side of downtown Daytona Beach, we see the original studio building of NBC affiliate WESH-TV (Channel 2), which signed on in 1956 as a local TV signal for Volusia County. The lure of the much larger Orlando market to the southwest quickly drew channel 2 that way, and by 1957 WESH was operating from a 1000-foot tower at Orange City, north of Orlando. In the late 1980s, WESH moved most of its studio operations to Orlando, leaving only a small news bureau up here in what's still its city of license.
Continuing south from downtown Daytona Beach, we find the city's third AM station. WROD (1340) signed on a few months after WNDB back in 1947, and its transmitter building (and former studio) on Wilder Boulevard a block east of US 1 is a classic Florida Deco structure that's clearly seen better days. When we visited, WROD was playing a fun classic oldies format, and it added an FM translator at 104.7 from this site not long after our trip.
There's one more AM in the immediate Daytona Beach vicinity: seen above on the page, WPUL (1590 South Daytona) plays black gospel from its site along South Nova Road, running 1000 watts by day and 32 watts at night.
And before we leave Volusia County on our way down to Titusville for the shuttle launch, there's one more AM station to see: WSBB (1230 New Smyrna Beach) derives its callsign from the "World's Safest Bathing Beach," and at one time it made its studio home in that little brick building right next to the tower along the causeway that leads out to that beach. Today, WSBB plays standards from a studio in an office park closer to downtown New Smyrna Beach.
Thanks to Ron Gitschier for the tour!
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Next week: Cocoa and Melbourne, Florida, 2011