The World-Famous Tower Site Calendar 2007

December 29, 2006

WHBC, Canton, OH

Regular readers of Tower Site of the Week know that I have a thing for Art Deco radio buildings. Call it nostalgia for a Golden Age of radio that was gone before I ever came on the scene, or just simply a soft spot for studio doors with round windows in them, but there's something about classic radio and Art Deco architecture that just seems to go right together.

So why did it take me so long to get inside the studio building of WHBC (1480) and WHBC-FM (94.1) in Canton, Ohio? I first saw the outside of the building a decade or so ago, and it was obvious even then that this was as classic as a radio station building gets, from the illuminated calls over the doors to the relief sculptures (each portraying a different attribute of broadcasting - "learning," "swift communication," "dissemination of news and information," "truth," "comedy and drama," and "music") between the glass-block windows to the - can it be? - big main studio visible right through the plate glass windows from the main entrance.

It took another visit to Canton, on the way to the National Radio Club's convention in Akron this past September, to finally get me inside that main entrance. And when I finally did, my jaw dropped right down into the green carpeting. Curvy wooden paneling? Check. Big glass window into the studio? Check. Fancy lighting? Yup. Heavy studio doors with round windows? Oh yeah.

Short of 30 Rock and what's left of Columbia Square in Hollywood, this may well be the best-preserved bit of "Radio Deco" in existence, right down to the mirrored lights next to the fancy paneled doors (with - yes! - round windows) that lead to the bathrooms on either side of the lobby.

Ah yes...the lobby, with its big oval recessed lighting above, its leather-covered waiting area, and that window, with a live jock behind it and a brass railing in front of it to allow visitors to stand there and watch radio being made. (Live. 24 hours a day. On AM. With music, and news updates four times an hour.)

And as we pay our respects to the architectural firm of Albrecht and Wilhelm, of Massillon, Ohio, for this little gem of a building, let's flash back to 1936 or so for some history of this wonderful small-city station. WHBC was already 11 years old then, and making the transition from church ownership (it was the first Catholic station in the country) to newspaper ownership, in the hands of the Brush-Moore Newspaper Company, which owned the Canton Repository.

Brush-Moore only owned the station for three years, but that was long enough: they were the owners who built this building, on a piece of land at 550 S. Market Street, adjacent to the Repository offices. When it was built, WHBC was operating with just 250 watts on 1200 - so, yes, all this was for a 250-watt radio station.

"All this," at the time, included not only the studio behind the glass (which I think was actually designated "Studio C"), but also a master control room behind Studio C and, flanking that studio on both sides of the lobby, performance studios with adjacent viewing areas for spectators and sponsors. (We'll revisit those in a bit.)

In 1939, WHBC was sold to the Ohio Broadcasting Company, which was owned by the Vodrey and Boyd families. The Vodrey family, under the reorganized name of "Beaverkettle Company," owned the station until 2000, when it was sold to present owner NextMedia.

WHBC grew quickly in the forties, moving to 1230 in 1941 with the NARBA shuffle, then to 1480 on June 4, 1944, taking the frequency vacated by WGAR in Cleveland when it moved to 1220. The move took WHBC to 5 kilowatts fulltime - and indeed, it would remain the only fulltime AM station in Canton for many decades.

WHBC-FM came along on 94.1 in 1948 (some sources say 1947), and today, as "Mix 94.1," it occupies what I think was "Studio B," to the right of the AM air studio. The old viewing gallery for that studio is now a production room. On the other side of the AM air studio is the former Studio A, which is now the WHBC newsroom. Its former viewing gallery, now walled-off, is the general manager's office, right off the lobby.

Amidst all the Deco detail, there's plenty of modern technology, too. Where the old master control used to sit, and later the FM automation, there's now a rack full of ENCO automation and other contemporary equipment, the handiwork of chief engineer Bill Glasser. He came to WHBC in 1966, so he was actually the guy who installed a lot of the gear that came out when the ENCO went in. And before he takes a well-deserved retirement in February, he gave us a tour of the WHBC transmitter site (well, one of them, anyway) - which is where we'll head in next week's installment.

Thanks to Bill Glasser for the visit!

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