Let's say you're a hardcore fan of radio transmitters and towers. And let's say you're visiting northeast Indiana for the first time, like my friend Mike Fitzpatrick of NECRAT.us was doing in the summer of 2010.
What's the one thing you've known about Fort Wayne for years? The one site you absolutely, positively must see in town? The first item on your agenda. Well, yeah - of course it's WOWO:
True, the mighty 1190 isn't quite as mighty as it was before that high-profile transaction in the mid-1990s in which WOWO surrendered its class A clear-channel status to allow New York's co-channel WLIB to add night service. But even though WOWO now powers down from 50,000 watts to 9800 watts at sunset, there's not a lot that had changed out here since we last visited back in 1996 (a visit chronicled here on Tower Site of the Week back in 2002.)
Some history, of course (with much, much, much more to be found at the excellent "History of WOWO" website): WOWO signed on back in 1925 from the Main Auto Parts store in downtown Fort Wayne, and by the mid-1930s it had powered up to 10 kilowatts from a new transmitter site northwest of the city at the junction of US 30 and US 33.
That site started off with a "flat-top" wire antenna and, at least judging by the few aerial pictures still extant, eventually went to a non-directional vertical tower. But it suffered from two problems: first, it was in the path of some of the city's early suburban growth, and second, it was in the wrong spot for WOWO's future technical growth.
Before the NARBA frequency shifts of 1941, WOWO had shared its 1160 frequency with Wheeling, West Virginia's WWVA, but NARBA broke up that arrangement, sending WWVA to full-time operation on 1170 and WOWO to full-time operation on 1190. WOWO shared its new frequency with KEX in Portland, Oregon, and in 1944 Westinghouse bought KEX to make it a sister station to WOWO. Under common ownership, both signals made plans to upgrade to 50,000 watts with directional arrays protecting each other's night signal.
For WOWO, that meant a new transmitter site southwest of Fort Wayne, in a prominent spot right on the south side of US 24 near the town of Roanoke, some 15 miles out from downtown Fort Wayne. Three 420-foot towers provided the proper nighttime null to KEX and to a Mexican allocation on 1190, sending a big lobe floating over northeast Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and most of the eastern seaboard as far south as Florida.
The original 1954 transmitter building was fairly compact for its time, a one-story cinderblock building with big windows in front and an even bigger "Westinghouse" sign mounted on the roof to make sure passing drivers knew exactly what they were passing.
Inside the building, the front door opened directly into the main transmitter room, where visitors came face to face with Westinghouse's latest and greatest in AM transmitter technology, a brand-new 50HG-2 transmitter that would serve as the voice of WOWO for 23 years.
Eventually dubbed "George" by WOWO's engineers (after George Westinghouse, of course!), the big beast eventually got some company out here: first, a Cold War-era fallout shelter on the left side of the building, and then in 1977 a big expansion that added a much larger structure (at right in the photo above) to house a new Harris MW-50 transmitter, a new phasor and a generator. (I'm pretty sure it was that 1977 renovation that blocked in the front windows of the original building as well.)
The MW50 was joined much later on by a newer Harris DX50 that serves as WOWO's main transmitter today, and the room remains just as squeaky-clean as it was on the day it opened 35 years ago.
Better yet, old George remained in place in the original building, greeting visitors as they came in the door. Unlike some stations where the old, power-hungry 50HG transmitters were either removed entirely or gutted for parts, WOWO kept George running as a backup transmitter when the new MW50 was installed in 1977. (An earlier 10 kW RCA transmitter that had been installed back behind the 50HG was removed and eventually sold down to Mexico.)
Even today, with the MW50 serving as backup to the DX50, George remains in working condition, complete with a fairly recent refurbishment of the front panels at a local body shop to restore it to its original factory shine. If it's not the only remaining working 50HG out there, it's certainly the best-maintained - and if you're especially lucky when you visit, as we were, you might even get the WOWO engineers to fire it up into the dummy load so you can watch the tubes glowing.
I'm no expert on hollow-state transmitter design (for that, you really need to spend some time over at Jim Hawkins' excellent page describing the details of the 50HG's circuitry), but you don't need to be an expert to appreciate the majesty of the 5736 driver tubes and the mammoth 5671 modulator tubes all aglow. Look carefully at those 5671s and you'll see that while two of them are lit up, there are two more dark ones just behind it. That's because this big beast of a transmitter was its own backup - it's really two 50 kW transmitters in one, and if the FCC allowed it, it could easily have powered up everything at once and become a 100 kW behemoth.
They don't make them like that anymore...
(For a look at the current WOWO studio site, check out this Site of the Week installment from 2011...and remember, you have access to a dozen years' worth of radio history and tours when you become a fybush.com subscriber!)
Thanks to WOWO's Jack Didier for the tour!
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Next week: Jackson and Battle Creek, Michigan, 2010