April 21, 2006

Towers from the North Country: The Big Trip, 2005

Part XI: Wausau, 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 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 on the evening of Friday, August 19, it found us pulling into the city of Wausau, the commercial hub of north central Wisconsin.

After a quick stop at the hotel to set up the VCRs for the local news (including the very small-town newscast of NBC affiliate WJFW 12 from Rhinelander, 60 miles north of Wausau), we set off to find the big TV and FM facility in town.

That would be Rib Mountain, which looms above town from across the Wisconsin River to the southwest. At 1924 feet (640 feet above the valley), Rib Mountain has been home to Wausau TV for half a century, beginning in 1954 with the debut of WSAU-TV (now CBS affiliate WSAW-TV) on channel 7. In 1965, WAOW (Channel 9) signed on here, as a satellite to Madison ABC affiliate WKOW-TV (Channel 27), and in 1976, Wisconsin Public TV put WHRM-TV (Channel 20) on the air, with the calls standing for "Rib Mountain."

In 2000, the current 649-foot candelabra tower went up here as a master site for all three TVs (plus WSAW-DT 40, WAOW-DT 29 and WHRM-DT 24), incorporating a ten-bay master antenna for Wisconsin Public Radio's WHRM (90.9) and Midwest Communications' top 40 WIFC (95.5) and country WDEZ (101.9). Further down on the tower, a single bay is home to a share-time FM signal on 91.9, occupied on weekdays and Sunday evenings by Wisconsin Public Radio's "Ideas Network" WLBL-FM and on weekday evenings and weekends by WXPW, the Wausau relay of Rhinelander public station WXPR. (Ideas is also heard in the area on WLBL 930 Auburndale, south of Wausau.)

Rib Mountain is also a state park (and thus one of the few places where you have to pay admission to get up to the tower), and the tower sits right next to an observation deck that offers panoramic views of the Wisconsin River valley below.

Descending from Rib Mountain, our next stop is across the river in Rothschild, south of Wausau, where we find the five-tower array of WSAU (550).

WSAU began at 1370 on the dial as a sister station to Milwaukee's WTMJ, moving to 1400 in 1941.

In the late fifties, WSAU bought the facilities of Wausau's WOSA 550, which had started up north in Merrill as WLIN, owned by longtime Congressman Alvin E. O'Konski. (O'Konski would later put channel 12 on the air as WAEO, which would later be renamed WJFW for Dr. Jasper F. Williams, whose Seaway Communications bought the station in 1979, and who was killed in a plane crash in 1984.)

The 1400 facility was transferred to new owners and became WRIG, and WSAU settled in for a long and successful life on 550, initially with 5 kW day and night and more recently with 15 kW days, 20 kW nights. The fifth tower here was built in 2003 to allow for the daytime power increase. (WSAU had been nondirectional during the day until the power increase.)

We head back up to downtown Wausau via Grand Avenue, which carries US 51 in from the south. At 1908 Grand is the newish-looking (or at least very recently renovated) WAOW studio, while the studios of WSAW-TV (which changed calls from WSAU-TV after a 1981 sale) are at 1114 Grand.

Northeast of downtown on Wausau Avenue, we find the tower and studio of sports talker WXCO (1230), along with the studios of sister station WLRK (107.9), which would be sold off separately a few months later. Just north of downtown, on Third Street, we find the studios of Fox affiliate WFXS (Channel 55, licensed to nearby Wittenberg) in front of an enormous warehouse building. (The "Fox 55" sign alone looks to be about eight feet tall!)

We finish off the evening in downtown Wausau, which is a most pleasant surprise. This small city (about 38,000 people) has retained a most vibrant downtown core, with shops, restaurants, and lots of people out and about on this warm summer's evening. (Just as on the previous Friday night in Duluth, there's a big blues festival in town, which may explain some of the crowds.)

We drive by the Midwest Communications studios on Scott Street, home to WSAU, WRIG, WIFC, WDEZ and oldies simulcast WOFM (94.7 Mosinee)/WIZD (99.9 Rudolph), and then set out to find a Wausau icon, the train station that graced the hometown insurance company's advertising for so many years. Right alongside the Scott Street bridge, on the banks of the Wisconsin River, we find the old Chicago and Northwestern station, take some pictures, and call it a night.

But the next morning, we discover that Wausau in fact had multiple train stations - and while the view of the Wausau skyline used in the ads was the view from the C&NW station, the building itself was actually the Milwaukee Road station, on the east side of downtown. But before we can get there the next morning, we stop at yet another Wausau train station, shown below at left. This one's a replica, built a few years back by Wausau Insurance as a conference center on their office park campus in the hills west of Wausau, complete with a very short section of train track running from nowhere to nowhere in front of the building.

Enough of that - back to radio we go, even as we head south out of town on I-39. Remember WRIG, the station that replaced WSAU on 1400 in the fifties? After many years on 1400, WRIG moved down the dial to 1390 in the late eighties, changing its city of license to suburban Schofield and building a five-tower array right alongside I-39. It now runs 5 kW day and night, using the four in-line towers at night and two towers by day, with a CP to go to 10 kW days, 7200 watts at night.

Thirty miles south of Wausau, we make a stop in Stevens Point to see the tower of WSPT (1010)/WSPT-FM (97.9) and the WSPT studio building, right on US 51 (Division Street) on the north side of town - and from there, it's off to the annual DX Get-Together down in Madison, and then to our very last stop on the Big Trip, in La Crosse. Join us next week for the exciting conclusion!

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