March 10, 2006

Towers from the North Country: The Big Trip, 2005

Part V: Eau Claire, Wisconsin


Once every year or so, your editor gets together with other similarly radio-crazed folk for an event that's become known as "The Big Trip" - a week (or more) of dawn-to-dusk (and sometimes beyond) traveling in search of interesting new sites to showcase here on Tower Site of the Week, in the Tower Site Calendar, and so on. It's a chance for us to meet people we've only corresponded with via e-mail, and to gather airchecks and legal IDs for our new content partners at, too. (In our version of a sitcom crossover episode, we're posting the legal IDs from each Friday's Tower Site installment the following Wednesday on Tophour - check it out!)

The fifth day of our 2005 Minnesota-Wisconsin trip, Monday, August 15, was spent mostly in the Twin Cities, as we showed you in last week's installment. We could easily have spent one more night there and headed off to our next major destination, Madison, in the morning. But that's not our style on trips like this - at least not when there's a market in between that's full of towers to see and stations to aircheck.

In this case, that market was Eau Claire, about 90 miles east of St. Paul. Heading into the trip, "about 90 miles east of St. Paul" was pretty much all we knew about the market before we pulled into town late on that Monday afternoon. But a scan of our maps showed that most of the interesting studio and tower sites in town were all in a pretty compact area, and so we set out with a couple of hours of daylight remaining to see what we could see about filling in some of the blank spots on our mental map of western Wisconsin.

Our first stop was 1907 S. Hastings Way, out along the city's eastern bypass, where the map showed something interesting - the studio of Eau Claire's NBC affiliate, WEAU-TV (Channel 13), right next to the tower of the ABC affiliate, WQOW (Channel 18).

There's an explanation, though it took us a little while to figure it out: this tower, just under a thousand feet tall, was originally the WEAU-TV tower. It went up in 1956, replacing a 500-footer that was built in 1954 when the station first went on the air. And while WEAU-TV covered the Eau Claire area just fine from this site, the western Wisconsin TV market ended up being defined as including not only Eau Claire but also La Crosse, a smaller city 70 miles or so to the south. So in the sixties, WEAU-TV built a new 2000-foot tower in Fairchild, Wisconsin, about 30 miles south of Eau Claire, leaving this stick available for WQOW, which didn't need to reach La Crosse, since it has a separate sister station, WXOW-TV 19, down there. (It's not clear to me whether WEAU still owns the tower; it's registered to the DC law firm of Womble, Carlyle.)

In any case, the tower remains an Eau Claire landmark, serving also as the transmitter site of public radio WUEC (89.7) - and it backs up not only to the WEAU studios but also to the studios of Maverick Media's Eau Claire radio cluster. That cluster includes the former WEAU AM and FM facilities, which may at least partially explain what it's doing back here - or that may just be a coincidence. (More on the history of WEAU radio in a bit...)

There's one more item of note before we move on from WEAU: this is the tower that found its way into bird-kill lore as the site where "30,000 birds" were allegedly killed in one night when they flew into the stick. While it's true that this site was the subject of extensive tower-kill studies in the fifties and sixties, tower expert (and Eau Claire native) Fred Baumgartner knocked the "30,000 birds" myth down quite nicely in a Radio World article a few years back that's well worth reading.

In any case, we're soon headed north along the US 53 bypass, then east to the corner of Tower Drive and Black Avenue, to the tower site of the original WEAU(AM), a 5,000-watter on 790.

This is a most unusual site, we soon find out, because it's divided in half by Black Avenue. On the west side are two of the WAYY night towers, one guyed and one self-supporting - and on the east side the tall guyed tower that's used for WAYY's nondirectional daytime operation and for sister station WIAL (94.1), the original WEAU-FM from 1948. Here's where things get really confusing, so hang on tight: WEAU sold these radio stations in 1959, at which point they became WEAQ(AM) and WIAL(FM). They eventually ended up with a studio facility on Tower Drive, which now sits vacant except, presumably, for the transmitters, which feed long runs of transmission line that go out back to the two WAYY night towers and through a culvert beneath Black Avenue to emerge on the other side for the WAYY/WIAL shared tower.

But WEAU didn't get out of the radio business. It promptly applied for a new FM frequency, 100.7, which signed on as WEAU-FM - and then in 1963, it purchased WAXX (1150) in nearby Chippewa Falls. The 1150 tower sits just a mile or so north of the 790 site, just across the line in Chippewa County. Today, it's that 1150 facility that has the WEAQ calls, having come under common ownership with 790 back in 1996. By then, WAXX on 1150 had long since been sold away separately from WEAU-TV - and had itself changed calls to WAYY. So now it's WAYY doing news-talk on 790 and WEAQ with sports on 1150, both under Maverick Media ownership. (The rest of the cluster includes hot AC "I-94" WIAL, country WAXX on 104.5, classic rock WECL 92.9 Elk Mound, and rimshot modern rocker "Carp" WDRK Cornell on 99.9.)

1150 runs a big 5,000 watts nondirectional during the day, but drops all the way down to 46 watts at night. It had to be a daytimer when it signed on in 1954, thanks to WISN over in Milwaukee sharing the 1150 frequency. Could it have done something more at night when WISN moved to 1130 a few years later? We'll never know; today the frequency is shared with WHBY over in the Appleton market, which we'll see later on in our trip.

There's another AM station just around the corner from 1150, at the intersection of CTH OO and CTH P (CTH stands for "County Trunk Highway," one of those only-in-Wisconsin things.)

WOGO (680 Hallie) was a latecomer to the market, having come on the air in the eighties. It runs 2500 watts by day and 500 watts at night from this array of four very skinny towers (look very carefully on the left side of the picture to see the other two), carrying a conservative talk format that's paired with religious FM station WWIB (103.7 Hallie). We pass their studios, right on the side of US 53, as we head back to the south across the Eau Claire County line to catch a few more sites before nightfall.

The setting sun's just in the perfectly wrong position for our attempt to get a nice picture of the Clear Channel Eau Claire facility, west of downtown on Cameron Street, home to the transmitter and studios for sports WBIZ (1400), and to the studios for top 40 WBIZ-FM (100.7), AC WISM (98.1 Altoona), talk WMEQ (880 Menomonie), classic rock WMEQ-FM (92.1 Menomonie), country WDRB (95.3 Bloomer) and classic country WATQ (106.7 Chetek).

Heading back to our hotel along the US 12 bypass south of town, we make one last stop for the night, to see the building that's home to Wisconsin Public Broadcasting's Eau Claire satellite studios. Both of Wisconsin Public Radio's networks are represented here - "News and Classical" on WUEC (89.7) and "Ideas" on WHWC (88.3 Menomonie), and Wisconsin Public TV has WHWC-TV (Channel 28).

(Completing the TV dial, CBS arrives from La Crosse-based WKBT Channel 8, which we'll see in our very last installment, and Fox is on a two-station simulcast of WEUX 48 Chippewa Falls/Eau Claire and WLAX 25 La Crosse. We don't make it to the channel 48 site, which is up to the northwest of town in Chippewa County, nor do we make it to several other FM sites up that way, including that of all-polka WCFW 105.7 Chippewa Falls.)

The next morning, we finish up our Eau Claire AMs on the south side of town, where WDVM (1050) and WISM (98.1) share a tower on Mitchell Avenue. WDVM was WECL for many years; today, it's Eau Claire's outlet for the Starboard Catholic radio network, running a kilowatt by day and 500 watts at night. (It also went through an all-comedy phase at one point, if memory serves.)

Just off I-94, which skirts Eau Claire to the south, the WQOW studios sit in a nice-looking facility on route 93. (Again, unfortunately, the sun was just in the wrong spot for this picture!)

From here, we head way off to the southeast, following US 12 for 30 miles or so to Fairchild and the tallest tower in Wisconsin, the 2000-foot stick of WEAU-TV. The tower sits a couple of miles north of Fairchild along CTH H, on a well-groomed piece of land with a very nice looking transmitter building in front of it.

The tower is so tall, in fact, that I have the back of the camera pretty much parallel to the ground as I lean back to take the wide shot.

Looking at the closeup image (with my zoom fully engaged), we see the channel 13 antenna all the way at the top, the WEAU-DT 39 antenna on the side just below it, and the huge WAXX (104.5) antenna just below that.

If you've been paying careful attention here, you may be slightly puzzled, and with good reason - after all, when WEAU sold its original FM on 94.1, they then applied for a new WEAU-FM on 100.7, right?

Yes - but then, when the new tower was built, WEAU moved the frequency of its FM facility again, taking it to 104.5 as a full class C, running 85 kW from 549 meters above average terrain. (The 100.7 frequency found a new life in 1967 as WBIZ-FM, remaining at the old WEAU tower behind the studios for a while before moving to its current site up to the north of town.)

Somewhere along the way, WEAU-FM on 104.5 became WAXX-FM (remember that WEAU also owned WAXX radio in Chippewa Falls), and the AM side became WAYY, and the rest is history, more or less - as is our visit to Eau Claire.

After another hour or so on the road, passing up (at least this trip) the chance to stop at stations in small towns such as Black River Falls and Mauston, it's time to stop for lunch, and for that, the tourist town of Wisconsin Dells is ideally suited.

The Dells is home to WDLS (900), which does a live and local mix of AC and tourist information from a storefront studio right on Broadway, amidst all the amusement arcades and candy shops and water parks that make Wisconsin Dells what it is.

(The town happens to be the water park capital of the world, with 18 indoor water parks alone, plus several outdoor parks that are nice and busy on this warm summer Tuesday.)

And after lunch, it's on to Madison - but that's a Tower Site of the Week we'll get to next week.