February 8, 2008

From Downtown Milwaukee to Watertown, via WSSP

It's a new year here at Tower Site of the Week, and a new set of travel pictures to start us off. In August 2007, your editor and Mrs. Editor spent a few days traveling from her native Fort Wayne to Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and then back to Fort Wayne via Rockford, Illinois, and along the way we had a chance to see some very significant broadcast sites.

One big goal of the trip was to pick up some loose ends from one of the more enjoyable stops we've made in recent years. Our 2005 Big Trip (featured here on Site of the Week in two installments, here and here, in 2006, and subsequently in a later piece for Radio World, where we used to have a column) included about a day and a half in Milwaukee, which was not nearly enough time to see all the broadcast history that the Brew City had to offer. And even though the main purpose of our Milwaukee stop this time wasn't radio-related, we still managed to work in a few of the sites we'd missed the last time out.

This week, we finish our "catch-up" visit to Milwaukee with a few sites that we'd seen briefly in 2005, but which deserved a bit more attention this time around.

We'll start in downtown Milwaukee, at the hotel variously known over the years as the Schroeder, Sheraton Schroeder, Marc Plaza and now the Hilton Milwaukee City Center.

Built in 1928, this venerable lodging institution has its own history page - yet it somehow omits the fascinating story behind that big tower up on the roof. So we'll reciprocate by ignoring the 500 luxurious guest rooms down below, and focus all our attention on the steel upstairs.

This was the birthplace of television in Milwaukee, home to the Milwaukee Journal's early TV experiments under the W9XD callsign through much of the 1930s.

It was also the birthplace of UHF television in Milwaukee, the very spot from which WCAN-TV (Channel 25) made its debut on September 7, 1953. (Read all about it at Dick Golembiewski's outstanding Milwaukee TV History page.) WCAN-TV lasted less than a year and a half, as CBS bought its license and studios and moved its programming over to WXIX-TV (Channel 19).

The Schroeder rooftop wouldn't stay dark for long - CBS sold WXIX-TV (by then on channel 18) to Cream City Broadcasting (WMIL radio), which moved it to the Schroeder as an independent station in 1959. WXIX became WVTV in the mid-sixties, moving its studios from a cramped space at the top of the Schroeder to a new building at 35th and Capitol not long afterward.

The rooftop tower remained WVTV's transmitter site until 1981, when it built the tower on Humboldt Avenue that we showed you last week.

But the hotel (by then the Marc Plaza) didn't stay dark for long that time, either - an LPTV signal on channel 8 came on the air here in 1985, followed in 1988 by the debut of independent WDJT, channel 58, with both studios and transmitter at the hotel. (It would later become the city's CBS affiliate, and in 1996 would move to a new tall tower near the WISN-TV tower north of downtown.)

Today, this site is home to only that LPTV, now on channel 7 as WMKE-CA - but oh, the history!

There's history, too, just down West Wisconsin Avenue at the 24-story Wisconsin Tower. This Art Deco tower was, for many years, the home to one of the city's major FM rock outlets - "93QFM," WQFM (93.3), with studios in the penthouse and the transmitter right up there on the roof. There are some great stories about the old penthouse studios at the "Halcyon Daze" 93QFM blog, and no mention, oddly enough, of the QFM days over at the real estate site that's trying to sell the penthouse as a luxury apartment.

But even before WQFM was here, this space was home to much earlier FM experimentation: the Journal's experimental W9XAO started out on the 22nd floor in 1939. It soon became W55M and was moved to its own facility in Richfield, but the 22nd floor space was later used by two other FM stations, the short-lived first incarnation of WISN-FM (102.9) in the early fifties and then WFMR (96.5, now WKLH) later in the fifties.

Back to the Schroeder/Marc Plaza/Marriott for just a moment: it turns out that long before that self-supporting tower was installed on the roof of the hotel (which had to be specially reinforced for the purpose), it was purchased for a different purpose: it was intended to be the tower of WMAW-FM (102.1), sister station to WMAW (1250), and was supposed to have been installed at the AM transmitter site in Hales Corners, a few miles west of downtown. Tower footings were poured, but the station never erected the tower. It operated WMAW-FM for just a few days from a temporary antenna aimed out a second-floor window, then shut it down for good. WMAW(AM) became WCAN, and when WCAN-TV came along in 1953, the never-erected WMAW-FM tower was ready and waiting to be moved downtown, where it still sits today.

Meanwhile out at Hales Corners, WCAN's seven-tower facility on 1250 became WEMP in 1955, as the owners of WEMP (1340) bought out what was left of WCAN after the TV station went dark. (WEMP's former 1340 facility became WRIT - and its tower was topped by the antenna of WOKY-TV 19, later WXIX-TV, which would eventually move to the Schroeder, which just continues to prove that everything in Milwaukee broadcast history seems to be connected, somehow.)

The seven-tower (four night, four day, one in common) WEMP array was replaced by the current array of five tall towers (two day, four night, one in common) in the early sixties, and WEMP-FM (99.1) came along around the same time - and they're still there, now owned by Entercom as sports WSSP (1250) and AC WMYX (99.1).

We recapped most of that history, and showed you the studio building that's now at the Hales Corners site (also home to WXSS 103.7 Wauwatosa), back in our 2005 Big Trip profiles. But between then and our 2007 visit, some things had changed inside the old transmitter building. Gone was the Harris SX-5 that was WSSP's main transmitter, and in its place chief engineer Chris Tarr has installed a spiffy new Nautel XR6, joined at the end of the row of transmitters by a new Nautel V10 for WMYX's HD. Thankfully, the old RCA BTA-5T remains in place as WSSP's auxiliary transmitter.

We'll catch up with Chris again next week at the other cluster he oversees, Entercom's Madison group, but on the way there we stop at an AM site that won't be an AM site much longer. WTTN (1580 Watertown) holds a CP to move from its current city of license, 30 miles or so east of Madison, to Columbus, 20 miles northeast of Madison. That move will allow owner Craig Karmazin (Good Karma Broadcasting) to move his Madison-market FM sports station, WTLX (100.5 Columbus) to Monona, Wisconsin, giving it a much better Madison signal. For now, though, WTTN uses this very tall (470') tower, with 1000 watts by day and just one watt at night.

We'll move on to Madison in next week's installment - and we have plenty more Milwaukee legal IDs for your enjoyment over at our sister site, Tophour.com, too!

Thanks to Chris Tarr for the tour, and to Dick "Nitelinger" Golembiewski and Al Hajny for historical information!

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