Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Our recap of Cincinnati transmitter sites in last week's Tower Site of the Week reminded us that deep in our archives were some photos from an earlier Cincinnati visit that had never been featured in this column - and so this week, we jump back to November 2005 to show you our visits to three Clear Channel sites in Cincinnati and vicinity.
Our tour that November day actually started at the WLW transmitter site (it wouldn't be a Cincinnati visit without a stop at Mason, after all), but it continued 12 miles down I-71 south in the Kenwood neighborhood, where US 22/OH 3 (Montgomery Road) crosses the interstate in a sea of office parks and hotels. One of the biggest office buildings in the area is the "Towers at Kenwood," and when we visited in 2005 its sixth floor had just become home to Clear Channel's Cincinnati stations.
Back then, Clear Channel was in the last days of its growth phase, and the Kenwood facility provided a huge amount of space for what had become an eight-station cluster that also provided space for a variety of the company's regional functions. The move to Kenwood combined stations that had been at two separate studio locations: WLW (700), its sister AM stations WKRC (550), WSAI (1360) and WCKY (1530), and FM signals WOFX-FM (92.5) and WEBN (102.7) had been packed in at 1111 St. Gregory Street in the Mount Adams neighborhood just north of downtown, while WVMX (94.1) and WKFS (107.1) were in the WKRC-TV building at 1906 Highland Avenue, a building Clear Channel ended up owning when it bought WKRC-TV in 1996.
In their new Norwood home, the Clear Channel radio stations were able to spread out - and following the company's facility design philosophy, the new complex placed all of the executive offices and sales cubicles together, at the opposite end of the floor from the programming end of the plant.
Building from scratch allowed for a spacious rack room at one end of the studio core, across a hallway from the U-shaped studio hallway that surrounds a central area filled by the WLW newsroom and a performance studio used by the FM stations.
One leg of the "U" belongs to the AM stations: WCKY (then doing progressive talk, now doing sports), WSAI (sports, then and now) and WKRC (mostly syndicated talk). The base of the "U" belongs to "The Big One," featuring two studios and a control room for WLW - and on the afternoon of our visit, we found legendary WLW talk host Bill Cunningham enjoying his new digs.
WEBN, the other truly legendary signal coming from this facility, occupied the other corner at the bottom of the "U," across from the performance studio - and its studio, befitting its heritage as an "anything goes" rock station, was full of goodies, including a hole in the interview table specifically constructed to be equipped with a stripper pole!
Next to WEBN was top-40 "Kiss" WKFS - and then completing the FM leg of the "U" were the studios of WVMX and WOFX-FM. I list those in past tense, because they're no longer at this facility. When Clear Channel went private in 2008, it was forced to sell two of its Cincinnati stations to stay under non-grandfathered market ownership caps, and so 92.5 and 94.1 went to Cumulus, which paired them with its existing cluster of three FMs. By then, 94.1 had changed calls to WNNF, and it's been through a series of formats over the last few years, most recently flipping to country at the start of 2012.
(I haven't been back to the Kenwood studios since 2005, but I'm told the former 92.5/94.1 studio space is now a national monitoring center from which Clear Channel's engineering staff can keep an eye on all of the company's stations around the country and quickly respond to any technical problems; there's even a satellite feed that will allow programming to be provided from Cincinnati if an emergency renders local studios unusable.)
While 92.5 and 94.1 left Clear Channel ownership and the Kenwood studios, they kept one big tie to their former sister stations: a combined transmitter site that is another legacy of the company's very biggest days.
An addition to the back of WKRC-TV's 1906 Highland Avenue building created space not only for a digital TV transmitter for that station, but also for a full master FM facility to house all four of Clear Channel's FM signals as well as WKRQ (101.9), the longtime sister station to WKRC radio and television. Long after it had gone to separate ownership (CBS Radio when we visited in 2005, later Bonneville and now Hubbard), "Q102" maintained its transmitter at the WKRC-TV facility. As for the others, 107.1 was moved in from Milford, 102.7 came here from the nearby WCPO-TV (Channel 9) tower, 94.1 moved here from its original WSAI-FM site over on Price Hill to the west, and 92.5 came over from the WXIX-TV (Channel 19) tower.
The new master FM facility is almost a textbook example of the type: a big room filled with the combiner network, surrounded by individual rooms for each station's transmitter. (Having individual rooms ended up working well when 92.5 and 94.1 split away from Clear Channel, since it made it simple to keep each signal's operations separate.)
The TV station's operations are walled off in a separate room of the addition: when we visited in 2005, WKRC-DT was on its interim UHF channel, 31, using a Thomson transmitter in the addition. WKRC-TV was still very much on the air from its Harris analog transmitter on channel 12 back then, in a transmitter room that had been at the rear of the building before the addition went up. After the transition, WKRC-TV went digital on channel 12, and I have no idea what the configuration looks like here now, which probably means it's time for another visit!
Back to Clear Channel's radio stations we go - and our day under the clouds in Cincinnati included one more AM site we'd long wanted to visit.
WCKY (1530) derives its callsign from its original location - Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. Since about 1938, it's made its home in Villa Hills, Kentucky, on the bluffs just above the river and just east of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport. We've shown you this site once before, back in 2003, but only from the outside - and in 2005, we got to peek inside.
This site has seen a lot of changes over the years: as Jim Hawkins recounts in his page on the site's history, it started out with an RCA 50-D transmitter taking up one wall of the transmitter hall, augmented circa 1948 by a General Electric BT-25A facing the RCA across the hall. The GE remained in the building when we visited in 2005, though not in use; the RCA was long gone, replaced in the late 1960s or 1970s by a Harris MW50.
The new transmitter when we visited in 2005 was a Harris DX50, installed in what had been a spare room down the hall from the old MW50 and the GE. (There was also a 10 kW Continental on hand as an extra spare.)
WCKY has always had a somewhat unusual configuration for an AM operation: it remains on its non-directional daytime facility until sunset at co-channel KFBK in Sacramento, California. The original three-tower array of fat square Blaw-Knox towers was heavily modified in the late 1970s, replacing two of the original towers with three skinnier new towers to create a four-tower night pattern that sends more of WCKY's power over metro Cincinnati to the north, at the expense of some of the southern skywave coverage the original array had provided.
A tornado on March 10, 1986 damaged the remaining 350' Blaw-Knox tower, requiring the addition of a second level of guy wires to torque the tower back to its original position.
And, sadly, the building has been repainted since our visit - so the "WCKY" calls (which had migrated around the dial in the 1990s, moving to 550 and 1360 before coming back to 1530) are no longer prominently displayed on the building back here at the end of Radio Road.
Thanks to then-Clear Channel Cincinnati chief engineer Chris Zerafa and J.T. Anderton for the tours!
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Next week: Greensburg and Columbus, Indiana, 2010