February 22, 2008

Madison and Janesville, Wisconsin

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.

Just like Milwaukee, there were a few loose ends from our 2005 Big Trip to be tied up in the next big market to the west - Madison.

During our 2005 visit, we spent some time with the folks from Entercom's Madison cluster, who were planning to refurbish their studios on the ground floor of an office-park building on Madison's west side.

We also had planned to go north and visit the transmitter of the biggest station in the three-station group, oldies WOLX (94.9 Baraboo), some 30 miles north of town. Those plans were thwarted, however, by painting work being done on the tower, which would have made a visit inadvisable, unless we wanted to return the rental car (beige, as I recall) covered with spatters of orange and white, which we didn't.

So catching up with those visits was at the top of our list of things to do when we pulled into Madison mid-afternoon on a sunny summer Friday. We caught up with Entercom's Chris Tarr (who now oversees both the Madison and Milwaukee clusters) at the studio building, and he took us downstairs to see what had changed since our 2005 visit.

Most notable was the construction of a glassed-in technical core that holds all the STL, processing and automation gear for all three stations, replacing a much more cramped rack room (with all of five racks) that had been built next to the old engineering office. There's more office space both upstairs and down, and the studios have been reworked, too, with new Wheatstone boards replacing the old Radio Systems consoles - and with a nice new space to serve as "Studio M," home to all the great live music heard on AAA station WMMM-FM (105.5 Verona).

(The third station in the cluster, adult hits "Charlie" WCHY 105.1 Waunakee, runs jockless, but still has a full studio here.)

From here, it's into the passenger seat of Chris's truck for the drive north to the WOLX site, almost an hour from Madison on twisty rural roads that pass through small towns such as Prairie du Sac and Sauk City.

This is an old station, and an old site, with a history that goes back to the late 1940s. It was in either 1947 or 1948 (depending on which source you consult) that WIBU (1240 Poynette) added an FM facility here. It was originally WWCF, for William C. Forrest, the station owner, and it kept those calls into the sixties, by which point it was licensed to "Greenfield Township," the tower location. In 1969, new owners changed the station's city of license to the present Baraboo, with new calls WLVE ("Love 94") and new studios in Madison. (It was later WNLT and WILV, before taking its present calls in 1989.)

The transmitter building, which dates back to the forties, was designed to have an engineer living on site - indeed, half of it is still being rented out as an apartment, while the other half houses WOLX's main Continental 816 transmitter, its backup AEL (which still runs, but which is due to be replaced shortly by a new 816HD for digital/analog use), and a National Weather Service transmitter.

The tower does not date to the forties - the original 652' stick here collapsed on December 31, 1996, succumbing to ice buildup after eight days of winter storms. WOLX was back on the air two days later from that short tower shown in the foreground above, and by the spring of 1997 it was back up and running at full power from the new tower shown here.

It's a pretty spot out here in the summertime - a little less so in the winter, when this is a fairly inaccessible area, situated as it is on a fairly steep rise. And from here, WOLX's grandfathered superpower signal - 37 kW/1299', with a center of radiation 2250' above sea level - covers a huge swath of Wisconsin, reaching from the outskirts of Milwaukee up north almost to Wausau.

After a look around the WOLX site, it's back into Chris' truck for the drive back to town, this time via the ferry that carries state route 113 over the very scenic Wisconsin River.

The next morning, we head over to the University of Wisconsin campus for something else that eluded us back in 2005: a chance to see Madison's most famous national radio show being broadcast live. "Whad'Ya Know" originates at Wisconsin Public Radio, and most of its Saturday morning shows come from the Monona Terrace convention center near downtown Madison. This particular Saturday, the convention center is in use, so the show instead comes from a little theater deep in the bowels of Vilas Hall, downstairs from the WPR studios, and host Michael Feldman has fun with the sparse crowd, joking that most of the audience is still finding its way across town from Monona Terrace.

It's a very loose two hours of radio, so loose that - as often happens - Feldman runs out of time for the "Town of the Week" segment that's supposed to close the broadcast - and we have plenty of fun watching from our seats next to the stage and chatting with Feldman after the show.

With a long drive back to Fort Wayne still ahead of us, we also have a few stops left on our Saturday agenda, including our last ones in Wisconsin this trip. That would be in Janesville, halfway between Madison and the Illinois state line, where the Janesville Gazette still operates one of the last grandfathered newspaper/radio combos in the country. Its downtown headquarters also house the studios of WCLO (1230) and WJVL (99.9), and we find the WCLO transmitter on a nicely-groomed piece of land on the south side of town.

(This is a venerable station, dating back to 1930, and this tower looks to have once been home to the FM signal as well as the AM; there's still a five-bay FM antenna on top of the self-supporter, and a big old transmitter building at the base. And dig that funky sculptural work on the front of the newspaper/radio studio building, too!)

In next week's installment, we'll wrap up this trip with a look at the biggest studio complex in Rockford, Illinois - and we have lots of Madison legal IDs for your enjoyment starting Wednesday over at our sister site, Tophour.com, too!

Thanks to Chris Tarr for the tour!

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