March 17, 2006

Towers from the North Country: The Big Trip, 2005

Part VI: Madison, 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!)

We knew, thanks to one of our traveling partners, Garrett Wollman of the Archives @, that Madison would be a particularly easy market for tower hunting. He had been to Madison the previous October, and his picture gallery from that trip had prompted an e-mail correspondence with the chief engineer at Madison's Entercom stations, about which more in a moment.

If you've been following along our Big Trip route, you know that our approach to Madison on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 16, was from the north on I-90, which gave us the chance to start at a site that Garrett hadn't been to on his 2004 visit. While most of Madison's broadcast activity is clustered tightly on the south and west side of town, Northwestern College's WNWC (1190 Sun Prairie) and Mid-West Family's WHIT-FM (93.1 De Forest) broadcast from Bailey Road in Sun Prairie, a few miles northeast of Madison. We ended up capturing some history here: WNWC was just about to take down its three-tower array here, replacing it with a two-tower array and boosting its power from 1000 to 4800 watts, still daytime-only. Had we arrived a few weeks later, we'd have seen only the middle tower and the adjacent FM stick, which is skirted at two levels to detune it from the AM array.

A quick word here about Madison's unusual geography: the city's downtown sits on a narrow peninsula between Lake Mendota, to the west, and Lake Monona, to the east. The University of Wisconsin sits on the southern shore of Lake Mendota, just southwest of the state capital, which is at the southern end of the peninsula. And on that campus, one of the larger buildings is Vilas Hall, at 821 University Avenue, home to the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.

Allen Rieland, WPR's director of engineering, is happy to show off the radio studios, which fill most of the seventh floor. The heart of the operation is the room called the "Radio Operations Center," or "ROC," from which the programming on WPR's two networks goes out to the many transmitters that carry it around the state. WPR itself doesn't operate those transmitters - some are licensed to the University of Wisconsin itself, while others belong to a state agency called the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board, which has its own separate offices elsewhere in Madison.

WPR, then, focuses pretty much exclusively on the programming side of things, with Madison serving as the hub for both the "Ideas" network (heard locally on WHA 970) and the "News and Classical" network (on WERN 88.7). From the lobby, we can look right into the Ideas studio (which is empty, since the afternoon show originates from WPR's Milwaukee studio) and from there into the News and Classical studio beyond. Those two studios are ringed by a series of news booths and production studios, and more offices then surround the studio core, including the home office for one of our very favorite shows, "Wha'dya Know?" (Sadly, it's on vacation this week, so we don't get the pleasure of a live broadcast...)

Those offices, in turn, lead us back to one more high-ceilinged studio that's used for bigger productions, pledge drives and the like. In the picture here, it's configured with some movable walls to be used for interviews.

From here, we head west to the office parks that ring the West Towne Mall area, where the e-mail exchanges between Garrett and Mike Weber, director of engineering at Entercom Madison, paid off with a very nice visit to the three-station cluster, which is tucked into the lower two floors of a small office building on Ganser Way. The studios are on the ground floor (a bit below ground, actually), with the big gun of the cluster, oldies WOLX (94.9 Baraboo), occupying a place of pride facing the street.

WOLX's studios, in turn, look into "Studio M," a live-performance space used by sister station WMMM-FM (105.5 Verona). "Triple M" has released four "Live from Studio M" CDs featuring some of the station's AAA artists performing here.

On the other side of the floor, there's a newsroom and the studio of the third station in the cluster, WCHY (105.1 Waunakee), which had just recently replaced its classic hits "Buzz" format with adult hits as "Charlie FM," running entirely automated. (When it was still "Buzz," with the WBZU calls, it had carried a morning show produced here in Rochester at sister station WBZA.)

Not long after our visit, Mike left Entercom for a new gig in Sioux Falls, as director of engineering for Backyard Broadcasting there. Perhaps we'll head out there and see those sites more closely someday!

Just down the street from the Entercom studios is the studio of WMSN (Channel 47), Sinclair's Fox affiliate. No "News Central" here, though - this Sinclair station contracts out for its 9 PM news, which comes from crosstown ABC affiliate WKOW (Channel 27).

WKOW and WMSN share something else: just to the west, across the Beltline Highway (US 12/14/18), they're two of the tenants on the Madison Community Tower, a 1423-foot (433.7 m) candelabra that went into service in 1995.

It's owned by the University of Wisconsin, which built it for WHA-TV (Channel 21/DT 20) and WERN (88.7), but it's home to most of the rest of the market's TV activity as well. The west arm of the candelabra (at right in the photo) has WKOW-TV (27) and WKOW-DT (26). The southeast arm (at center) carries a stack with WMSN-DT (11) at top, WISC-DT (50) at center and WMSN (47) at the bottom. The northeast arm (at left) has WISC-TV (3) at the top, with WHA-TV/DT sharing an antenna below.

Lower down on the tower are antennas for WERN, Clear Channel's WIBA-FM (101.5) and W215AQ (90.9), which carries the WPR Ideas network, relaying WHHI (91.3 Highland).

This tower replaced existing towers at the studio sites of WKOW and WISC, as well as a WHA-TV tower that had been near the WKOW site and a WMSN tower that had been on this site.

WISC, the CBS affiliate, is our next stop, and we find it about a mile south of the Beltline on Raymond Road, where the studio building (which was built out here in the seventies to replace an earlier studio on the Beltline) has been built up into what's now the "Morgan Murphy Media Park," home to media ventures that include WISC itself, "UPN14," the DTV subchannel that's also on cable, Madison magazine, a post-production house and so on. The tower to the right of the building was the original channel 3 site in years gone by, though it was shortened dramatically when the Community Tower went up. And across the street, there's a puzzlement: Garrett saw the WNWC-FM (102.5) stick there when he was in town in 2004, but there's no tower there now. It turns out, after some confused moments, that Northwestern College had taken down the WNWC tower, and was in the process of rebuilding it.

Heading back up to Beltline, Rayovac Drive is the site of Madison's newest radio studios, the seven-station facility of Mid-West Family Communications. From this brand-new facility (which, sadly, we didn't tour) comes Spanish WLMV (1480), standards WTUX (1550), talker WTDY (1670), classic hits "Lake" WHIT-FM (93.1 De Forest, later renamed WHLK), rocker WJJO (94.1 Watertown), AC WMGN (98.1) and country WWQM (106.3 Middleton). WWQM has a very short STL shot from here - it transmits from the tall tower of NBC affiliate WMTV a few hundred yards away, where Forward Drive dead-ends at the south side of the Beltline.

WMTV's address used to be simply "Beltline Highway," and I'd bet there was once a driveway right into the property, before the Beltline became a big limited-access highway. The current monster of a candelabra tower (which has WMTV 15, WMTV-DT 19, WB affiliate WBUW 57/DT 32 Janesville, WWQM, WZEE 104.1 and community radio WORT 89.9) went up in early 2004, replacing the original tower. (The new tower is actually owned by WBUW's parent company.)

Just across the Beltline to the north is the WKOW studio building, which has been heavily renovated since the station signed on here in the early fifties. Check out the "ABC" logo in the flower bed on the front lawn! (Most of WKOW's old tower was removed when the Community Tower was finished, but a stub survives and holds the station's weather radar.)

From the WKOW site, we head east along the Beltline and then a bit north on Fish Hatchery Road to Martin Street and the tower of Wisconsin's oldest radio station, WHA (970), which traces its heritage to the early experimentation done at the University under the 9XM calls, beginning in 1917.

The current site dates only to 1973, which I believe was when WHA moved from its studio/transmitter facility at Radio Hall to its current studios in Vilas and its transmitter here in the swamp south of Lake Wingra. From here, WHA runs 5 kilowatts day, 51 watts at night, non-directional.

Head south again on Fish Hatchery Road, and about a mile and a half past the Beltline we come to the home of Clear Channel Madison. This facility was built for WIBA (1310) and WIBA-FM (101.5), and today it's still home to the 1310 transmitter site, with 5 kW non-directional days from that big tower at the north end of the property (which has WIBA-FM auxiliary bays up top) and 5 kW DA-night from all three towers. The former transmitter building has been expanded to house studios for talker WIBA, rocker WIBA-FM, sports WTSO (1070), progressive talk WXXM (92.1 Sun Prairie), modern rock WMAD (96.3 Sauk City, which flipped to country a few months later) and top 40 WZEE (104.1). The lightning bolts above the doorway (look carefully at the decorative stone panels to the left and right of the Clear Channel logo) are a nice Deco touch here!

About a mile east of WIBA, we find the four-tower site of WTUX, with the former studios of WTUX/WWQM out front on Lacy Road.

At this point, we jump a bit out of the chronological order of our story, moving ahead to Wednesday morning and one quick stop on the way out of town to the east - on East Tower Road near McFarland, just off US 51 southeast of Madison, here's the six-tower site of WTSO. This venerable site was built for what was then WKOW radio just after World War II, and it's all chronicled very extensively on WKOW's excellent history site. In any case, today WTSO runs 10 kW days from two of these towers and 5 kW at night from all six.

Back we go, briefly, to Tuesday night and our final tower stop before dinner - on Syene Road just south of the intersection of the Beltline and US 12, we find the five towers of WLMV (1480), which uses two of them by day and four at night for its 5 kW signal. WLMV begat expanded-band outlet WTDY (1670) a few years back, and it uses this site as well for its 10 kW day/1 kW night signal. At some point very soon, either WLMV or WTDY will have to go dark, and it's likely the WLMV license that will be surrendered, which will be bad news for Madison's Hispanic community, for which "La Movida" is the only full-time Spanish signal.

(1480 was the old WISC radio, later WISM, and its sister FM on 98.1, which began on the self-supporter here before moving to a much taller tower a few miles away, was WISC-FM and WISM-FM before becoming WMGN. And yes, that means that the WISM calls have been used on 98.1 in both Madison and Eau Claire. Weird!)

Just north of here on Syene are the offices of WBUW, whose news originates down the Beltline at WMTV.

Here's the spot where our chronology falls apart completely: after dinner on Tuesday and the quick stop at WTSO on Wednesday morning, our merry band headed off to Milwaukee, which will be the focus of our next two installments here at Site of the Week. From there, it was Appleton and Green Bay and Wausau - but on Saturday, we returned to Madison for the afternoon to attend the big DX convention, where a good time was had by all.

After the get-together, held on the shores of Lake Mendota at Burrows Park, we still had a bit of time to explore some corners of Madison that we'd missed on the earlier part of the trip.

We couldn't leave town without adding another state capital photo to the collection, for one thing, and so here's the capital building right at the center of town. That's the "Forward" statue on the steps there, and that's also Wisconsin's state motto (and the name of the company that owns WMTV, which may explain the "Forward Drive" address of the studios, too...)

A few blocks east of the capital, the Monona Terrace convention center sits on the shore of Lake Monona, and we stop by just to see where "Whad'ya Know" would be originating if it were in town, which it wasn't that particular Saturday. (That's also where we shot this week's front-page image, if you're curious about it.)

Just a few blocks to the south, community radio WORT (89.9) has its studios in a well-painted building at 118 S. Bedford Street. Somewhere around here as well, though we didn't find it, is the studio of UW student station WSUM (91.7), which came on the air in 2002 from a tower far to the southwest, which was the only place it could be fully spaced.

Total elapsed Madison tower-hunting time? All of about five hours, including the tours. Like Garrett said, it's an easy city to visit. (It looks like it would also be a pretty nice place to live, come to think of it!)

Thanks to Allen Rieland and Mike Weber for the tours!