February 29, 2008

WROK/WZOK, Rockford, IL

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.

Our last stop on the trip brought us full circle to one of the early stops on the original Big Trip back in 2001 - the Cumulus Broadcasting cluster on the east side of Rockford.

Our stop here in 2001 was very brief - just long enough to snap a few pictures of the buildings and the three-tower array, and to try to tape some legal IDs, which were pretty much swamped out by the near field of the two stations that transmit here: WROK (1440 Rockford) and WZOK (97.5 Rockford).

We didn't give much further thought to this particular site on Brendenwood Road after that, until it developed a New England connection a year or so ago: longtime New Hampshire Public Radio chief engineer John Huntley moved to the Rockford area for family reasons, and soon signed on as chief engineer of this cluster, which was all the excuse we needed to stop by for a visit on a very sunny Saturday afternoon in early August.

WROK, the lone AM in the cluster, is a very old station, with a history that stretches back to October 1923 and the debut of KFLV, started by the local Swedish Evangelical Mission Church to broadcast its services.

KFLV apparently operated with only limited hours through its first decade, changing calls to WROK in 1933 and falling under the ownership of the Rockford Star and Register-Republic, with studios in the Rockford News Tower downtown. Around 1936, WROK increased its power from 500 watts (sharing its 1410 frequency with WHBL in distant Sheboygan, Wisconsin) to 1000 watts day, 500 watts night, non-directional, and in 1949 it added an FM signal on 97.5. (Along the way, WROK was home to a young DJ named Herb Oscar Anderson, who came south from WCLO in Janesville, Wisconsin, and who'd soon move on to much bigger things at WABC in New York, of course...)

In 1963, the newspapers sold WROK/WROK-FM to Vernon Nolte, whose claim to fame was having secured the original patent for the concept of a cart machine, which he later sold to Gates Radio, using that money to buy the radio stations.

Under Nolte, the stations moved from the News Tower to a new building at the transmitter site on the east side of town, then identified as "1100 Tamarack Lane." (Today, Tamarack dead-ends at the back of the site, now reached from a driveway on Brendenwood Road to the north.)

Nolte raised the day power at WROK to 5000 watts, building a three-tower directional array. At night, WROK remained at 500 watts, non-directional - and that power level would actually decrease in 1985, when the old array was replaced by a new three-tower array at the same site. The big difference in the new array was the center tower, raised to 438 feet to allow the FM signal (by then operating as rocker WZOK) to increase its height above average terrain from 295' to 452'. That new center tower is segmented, by means of skirted elements, and it's efficient enough that it allowed WROK to reduce its non-directional night power from 500 watts to 270 watts.

(Why didn't WROK go directional at night, especially since this array would seem to be more or less in the right spot to null co-channel signals in places such as Green Bay and Quincy? That's a mystery I can't answer.)

In any event, the 1963 building, seen in the shadows at right in the wide view above, is now used solely for the transmitters; the rest of the building, which once served as studios and offices for WROK and WZOK, is now used for storage.

The transmitter room is arranged in a sort of an L, with a row of transmitters that includes a still-working Collins 20V3 for backup AM use, a Rockwell Collins Power Rock that's still the main, an older Collins aux for the FM, and a BE FM20B as the main WZOK FM transmitter.

Everything else in the cluster is now next door in a much larger building that went up in the mid-nineties, as ownership of the stations transferred from Nolte to Connoisseur Communications. In addition to news-talk WROK and top-40 WZOK, Connoisseur added two more stations: country WXXQ (98.5 Freeport) and oldies WKMQ (96.7 Loves Park), which eventually morphed into classic rock "Eagle" WKGL-FM under the current Cumulus ownership.

The studio-office complex is nicely laid out, with separate pods of studios for each station. WROK is in the corner nearest the towers, with a control room in the corner of the building and a talk studio looking out on the towers.

A long hallway along the back of the building leads past separate suites for each of the FM stations, each including a jock lounge, a news booth, production space and the main air studio. There's also a big rack room on the west side of the building, facing the towers, that houses all the Scott Studios servers for the automation system, as well as adjoining engineering offices.

It's a nice plant, and we're heartened to see a bunch of live jocks on the air, interacting with the community, on this Saturday afternoon.

That's it for our August adventures in the midwest - except for a bunch of Rockford legal IDs, coming next Wednesday for your enjoyment over at our sister site, Tophour.com. Join us next week right here as we bow to popular pressure from some of our Big Apple friends and get caught up on some long-promised station visits in and around New York City - and then, sometime in April, we'll launch into the recap of Big Trip 2007, which took us all over Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon!

Thanks to John Huntley for the tour!

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