April 7, 2006

Towers from the North Country: The Big Trip, 2005

Part IX: Fond du Lac, Oshkosh and the Fox Cities


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 www.tophour.net, 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!)

Our Big Trip in August 2005 took us all over Minnesota and Wisconsin, and by the afternoon of Thursday, August 18, we'd been on the road for an entire week. So it's not that we weren't excited about seeing the sites of Fond du Lac, 60 miles or so north of Milwaukee, but with what looked like a nasty storm approaching, we were inclined to get through town fairly quickly and move on to our final stop for the night in Appleton, 40 miles away at the opposite end of Lake Winnebago.

So the shot above of the studios of WFDL (1170 Waupun), WFDL-FM (97.7 Lomira) and WTCX (96.1 Ripon), at the corner of Main and Western, was taken out of the window of the car. And the shot of the KFIZ (1450)/WFON (107.1) studios was taken the next day, after we'd sorted out some confusion about the difference between "Winnebago Street" and "Winnebago Drive" and returned to find the correct address.

Yes, that's a "K" call on the AM station, more than a hundred miles east of the Mississippi River. WFON was once KFIZ-FM, and at one time, many years ago, there was even a KFIZ-TV, on channel 34, which tried to make a go of it between 1968-1972 but couldn't survive against the big stations to the south in Milwaukee and to the north in Green Bay.

(Today, Fond du Lac again has a TV station, FamilyNet affiliate WWAZ-TV 68, which serves the southern portion of the Green Bay TV market, even though it shares a tower 15 miles south of town with TBN affiliate WWRS 52 Mayville, which claims Milwaukee as its home market.)

The KFIZ tower sits on Scott Street, just west of downtown Fond du Lac, and after getting a quick shot of it, we head north to Oshkosh, 20 miles away, where the rain's already started to fall.

Oshkosh sits on the western shore of Lake Winnebago, and while downtown Oshkosh is a few blocks inland, WOSH (1490) has its tower on Bowen Street, just a couple of blocks from the lake. This building once housed studios for WOSH and its sister FM station, WVBO (103.9 Winneconne), and WVBO's old antenna can still be seen on the tower. (WVBO and WOSH now share studios with the rest of Cumulus' Appleton/Oshkosh cluster in an office building off the US 41 freeway on the west side of Oshkosh.)

As we head north along US 41, we pass two directional arrays alongside the highway - first WVCY (690 Oshkosh), the local outlet for Milwaukee's VCY America network, then the five-tower array for Cumulus' WNAM (1280 Neenah-Menasha), which is shared with WWWX (96.9 Oshkosh). WNAM uses four towers by day (with 5 kW, and a pending CP for 50 kW) and four at night (also 5 kw), in a different configuration.

(This is as good a spot as any to explain the whole "Fox Cities" bit, which is the generic name applied to the communities that line the Fox River from Kaukana down through Appleton and into Neenah and Menasha, where the river empties into Lake Winnebago. The even more generic "Fox River Valley" also encompasses Green Bay and vicinity, 20 miles or so northeast of Appleton. Green Bay and Appleton/Oshkosh are separate radio markets, and each city has its own newspaper - albeit all owned by Gannett - but it's all one big TV market, and many of the radio stations get ratings in both Green Bay and Appleton/Oshkosh.)

As the rain kept falling, we continued north into Appleton, where we hooked up with the only Wisconsinite in our traveling party.

Brian Davis is the founder of and driving force behind tophour.net, the Web's premier (and, frankly, only) source of legal IDs from around the country, and as he's moved from town to town, up and down the dial, he's provided us with interesting tours on Big Trips over the years, including a stop in Dubuque, Iowa on the original Big Trip back in 2001.

Now Brian's APD/afternoons on WKSZ (95.9 De Pere), part of the Woodward Communications family of stations (owned by the company that also owns the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, for those in search of a meaning to all of this.) And while he's taken a few days off to accompany us on parts of the trip, this rainy evening finds us at the Woodward studios off East College Avenue on the east side of Appleton, getting the grand tour.

Woodward operates six stations out of this facility, including market flagships WHBY (1150 Kimberly, news-talk) and WAPL (105.7 Appleton, classic rock), sports WSCO (1570 Appleton), modern rock "Razor" WZOR (94.7 Mishicot), soft AC WECB (104.3 Seymour) and WKSZ, which was then doing hot AC as "Mix" but later flipped to top 40 as "Kiss." (A little oddity here: even though the building's very much in Appleton, the FMs are all Green Bay-market signals, except for WAPL. We'll see next week how WAPL and WKSZ manage to serve both markets from a shared tower site.)

The FM studios are all clustered together in one part of the building, with interesting striped wallpaper that clearly dates the building to 1978, when it was built to replace the original WHBY facility (more about that in a moment); the two AMs are in another part of the building, and there's a well-equipped rack room tying everything together.

After dinner at the Davis home, watching the lightning crash outside as the storm rages (tornadoes spawned from the storm caused serious damage in other parts of the state that night), we call it a night - but Friday morning finds us back at Woodward, bright and early, to get some exterior shots with the sun out and to meet chief engineer Steve Brown, our tour guide for our next adventure, a visit to WHBY's transmitter sites.

(A few more quick notes about this facility: the STL tower out back is also home to WLFM 91.1 Appleton, the Lawrence University-owned affiliate of Wisconsin Public Radio. Not long after our visit, WLFM was sold to Starboard Catholic Radio, which changed the calls to WOVM and now has plans to move the antenna to the towers of WJOK 1050 Kaukauna, Starboard's nearby AM facility.)

WHBY has a fascinating history, well told on the station's own history page. It began its life in 1925 in De Pere, near Green Bay, about 20 miles north of Appleton, owned by St. Norbert College. In the thirties, the Norbertine fathers put WBAY radio (and later WBAY-TV) on the air in Green Bay and moved WHBY south to Appleton, where it settled down on 1230 for many years.

What's now Woodward bought WHBY in 1975. To get beyond the limited signal on 1230, WHBY bought out WYNE (1150 Kimberly) in 1991, moving the WHBY calls down the dial to 1150, which had 5 kilowatts fulltime. The 1 kW signal at 1230 went silent, and has never returned.

The plant south of Appleton, just off US 41 in Neenah, that WHBY inherited on 1150 was fairly new, having been built in 1980 when WYNE went fulltime. (It had gone on the air in 1970 as a daytimer.) The old cart automation shown in the photo above didn't come from WYNE, or from WHBY 1230 - one of Steve's hobbies is restoring old automation equipment, and he's always on the hunt for more. (This Steve Brown, we should note, is no relation to the Steve Brown we met earlier on the Big Trip, in Minneapolis.)

Just south of here, across Highway G, is the relatively new site for WVBO (103.9 Winneconne), just in case you were still wondering where that went after it left the WOSH tower.

But even this site didn't give WHBY quite as much juice as it wanted over the spread-out population centers of the region, and so in 2004 WHBY applied to build a new six-tower site on US 45, a few miles west of its current site. From there, a power increase to 20 kW days and 25 kW nights would push a stronger signal north over Green Bay. When we visited the new site with Steve, the towers were up, the phasor was being dialed in (that's what those Post-It notes were for), and the 3DX25 had been on the air for testing. Not long afterward, the new site went on the air full-time, and we're eager to get back up there to see it in full swing.

And after running back down to Fond du Lac to find that missing studio, followed by lunch in Oshkosh, the rest of this Friday found us heading north again, into Green Bay. We'll show you that part of the trip next week!

Thanks to Brian Davis and Steve Brown at Woodward Communications for the tours!