June 25 - July 2, 2004

WCTM, Eaton, Ohio, R.I.P.

This week, we present an encore of a feature that originally appeared here on December 5, 2002. Sadly, it's now a little bit of history. At 5:15 on the afternoon of June 24, 2004, Stan Coning signed WCTM off the air for the last time, ending not only the story of this little Ohio AM station but also the era of commercial beautiful music on American radio. There's unlikely to ever again be a station like WCTM, and we wish Stan (who turned 81 last week) all the best in his retirement.

Next week, we'll offer another encore presentation, this time of a station that's alive and well and very close to your editor's heart (and even closer to his radios); we'll get back on schedule with our look at the roof of the Prudential Tower on July 9, when we return from two weeks of intensive site-gathering for future editions.

If you've ever driven I-70 between Dayton and Indianapolis during daylight hours on any day but a Sunday, your radio dial might have drifted across the 1130 spot on the AM dial just as you approach the state line. And if it did, you're likely to have heard something long gone from the radio spectrum in most of the rest of the country: honest-to-Drake-Chenault beautiful music, mixed with the occasional standard being played right from a dusty LP.

Just when you think that's enough to merit pulling off the highway and listening for a bit, the station gets even more unusual: a computerized voice announcing the time and temperature, and then - every fifteen minutes or so - a soft-spoken announcer who tells you you're listening to "WCTM Eaton, Radio Ranch 1130."

At this point, if you're anything like the radio obsessives who usually visit this page each week, you've pulled off the highway completely and headed south into Eaton to find out the story behind this very unusual little radio station.

That's just what we did a few weeks ago - except that in our case, the original encounter with WCTM took place months ago, when our colleague Clarke Ingram took an interest in WCTM after learning that its owner, Stanley Coning, had taken ill and the station had gone off the air. When Coning recovered from open-heart surgery and returned WCTM to the air in early September, Clarke was there rolling tape on the event. And when he learned that Coning was to be honored by the Eaton community choir the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a return trip was clearly in order.

From Eaton High School, where the concert took place, you can look a block west to US 127 and see an unusual eight-bay FM antenna, mounted on a tower with the "WCTM" calls prominently displayed. This was the original WCTM, 92.9 FM, which Coning and three partners put on the air from this site back in 1959.

In the early seventies, Coning sold WCTM-FM to Great Trails Broadcasting, which changed the calls to WJAI and then, a decade later, to WGTZ. The format changed from beautiful music to top 40 as "Z93," and the station's focus changed from Eaton to Dayton, 25 miles to the east, with the legal ID cleverly couched as "WGTZ, Eaton Dayton alive!" (Say it out loud and it makes sense...)

But all along, Coning wanted back on the air. (This is, after all, a man who was kicked out of high school in the thirties for paying more attention to radio magazines than to his schoolwork. Sound familiar?) His original intention was to build WCTM as an AM station, but the scarcity of available frequencies led him to build the FM first, despite the lack of listeners on that band, and worry about the AM later.

After selling the FM, Coning (which rhymes with "awning") turned all his attention to getting an AM daytime license, a process which took more than a decade of fighting off 14 other applicants and culminated in a license for 250 watts, daytime-only, from a three-tower site east of Eaton along US 35 near West Alexandria.

With the help of engineer John Baumann from Dayton, Coning turned the site of a former drive-in theater into an AM station, modifying three towers of different sizes so they matched each other, burying his own radials (260 of them!), and building a studio in a prefab garage building next to the middle tower.

When WCTM signed on at 1130 in 1981, it picked right up where WCTM-FM had left off a decade earlier: same beautiful music, same reel-to-reel automation, same Stan Coning. And time pretty much stood still out here for the next two decades. Coning's wife passed away in 1989, and after that the station pretty much became his life, signing on at 7 or 7:30 each morning and signing off at 5 each afternoon, except on Sunday when the station was silent.

In recent years, the station had fallen into some disarray, with piles of tapes and paper filling most of the available space in the building. Then Coning suffered a series of heart attacks and a car accident, leaving WCTM off the air for much of 2002.

Many thought they'd heard the last of WCTM, but they underestimated Stan Coning and his friends in the radio community. Several volunteers are helping him clean out the studio (a recent triumph was the excavation of the studio turntables, allowing Stan to supplement the beautiful music reels with LP cuts), maintain the equipment (a Nautel transmitter now powers WCTM in place of the antique Collins tube gear) and spruce up the grounds (recent months saw Coning and volunteer Grant Wadsworth cutting down the brush that had taken over much of the transmitter site).

WCTM's 250 watts do surprisingly well, covering most of the Dayton market to the east and reaching west beyond Richmond, Indiana halfway to Indianapolis. And the audio quality is remarkably good, considering that most of the beautiful music tapes WCTM plays are original from the late sixties and early seventies.

At the age of 79, Stan Coning is still living his dream, running his very own radio station just the way he wants to, six days a week, every week of the year. We should all be so lucky!

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