November 13, 2009

Janesville and Beloit, Wisconsin

(portions originally published Feb. 22, 2008)

Welcome to our new season of Tower Site of the Week - and the latest in a series of TSoTW installments showcasing the images you'll find in the brand-new Tower Site Calendar 2010, arriving any day now in a mailbox near you - especially now that we're caught up on a shipping backlog.

(It's more than just pretty pictures and dates - the modest sum we raise from each year's calendar helps make possible the travel needed to make this feature happen every week on the website...and we're grateful for all your support!)

This week's installment covers a part of the country that doesn't get much attention from tower hunters: the pretty countryside that stretches south from Madison, Wisconsin to Rockford, Illinois along I-90. We'd passed through this area en route from Madison to Fort Wayne in the summer of 2007, a trip we chronicled (with heavy attention to Madison's Entercom stations) last year on Site of the Week, and we'd long ago made a quick pass through Beloit on the original Big Trip of 2001.

The summer of 2009 again found us along I-90, this time stopping for a night in Beloit en route from Fort Wayne to Minneapolis on what turned out to be an action-packed long weekend of travel. We'll show you more of that trip later this winter on Site of the Week, including some nifty Twin Cities visits and some fun small-town Wisconsin radio - but this week we'll focus on that I-90 corridor, which is home to one of the more obscure sites pictured in the new Tower Site Calendar.THC V

We're big fans of picturesque small-town stations, and as soon as we pulled up in front of the self-supporting tower of WCLO (1230) on the southwest side of Janesville on that August afternoon in 2007, we knew this was a potential site to be featured in the calendar.

And that was before we knew much about this fine community station's long history, which started way back in 1925 in Camp Lake, Wisconsin, a resort town 40 miles east of Janesville and about 15 miles inland from the Lake Michigan shore. WCLO was built by Charles Whitmore as a 50-watt daytimer on 1330, to advertise his new Camp Lakes Oaks subdivision. After a few years of shilling for small-town real estate, the bright lights of the (relatively) big town beckoned, and WCLO moved east to Kenosha in 1928, where it shifted dial positions, first to 1320 and then, in the big realignment of November 1928, to 1200.

WCLO didn't last long in Kenosha, either - Harry Bliss of Janesville bought the station and packed it up again, moving it one last time to Janesville, where it became part of the Gazette Printing Company, which also produced the daily Janesville Gazette. A big opening broadcast on August 1, 1930 marked WCLO's arrival in town, and from then until now, it's been an important part of the community.

WCLO changed frequency once more, in 1941, when the nationwide NARBA shift moved it to its present 1230, And it was around that time that the transmitter site moved to Oakhill Avenue from the original longwire antenna on County Road A. Along the way, the Bliss family added an FM signal to the Gazette and WCLO(AM). WCLO-FM signed on in 1947 on 99.9, eventually becoming today's WJVL.

(That looks like an old FM antenna atop the AM tower, but it's not the current WJVL antenna - that's a few miles to the northwest, on a taller tower near Footville that went up in the late eighties; on our next Wisconsin trip, we'll have to head out there to see that, as well as another FM site - Evansville's WWHG 105.9 - that's out that way. There was a TV station out there, too, Janesville-licensed WBUW 57, but the DTV conversion found it moving closer to its target market of Madison, where it operates digitally on channel 32.)

So as it approaches its 85th birthday next summer, WCLO carries on as a community radio station par excellence - and one of the rare radio stations that's still grandfathered under common ownership with a daily newspaper. The Bliss family still owns the paper and the stations, as well as two other AM/FM combos in southeast Wisconsin, WRJN/WEZY in Racine and WBKV/WBWI in West Bend. And check out that funky stonework on the front of the Gazette building, which also houses the WCLO/WJVL studios!

That was Janesville, summer 2007 - and now we flash forward two years and south a dozen miles or so to the border city of Beloit, right on the Illinois state line.

There are two AM stations here, and as we find in an early-evening jaunt to see them, they're both actually located on the Illinois side.

WTJK (1380) is licensed to South Beloit, Illinois, and its four-tower array sits off Rockton Road, a couple of miles west of I-90 and a couple of miles south of the state line.

The Beloit-licensed AM, WGEZ (1490), has its transmitter right on the state line, where State Line Road bends into Manchester Street at Dearborn Street (US 51) - and while we'd seen WGEZ back in 2001, this is a new tower and, if I recall right, a different site from the one we saw on that visit, the old tower having been a self-supporter across US 51.

Why spend a night in Beloit? There are a couple of good reasons on this very pleasant August night: it's a decent halfway point on our drive to the Twin Cities, it provides a chance to see TV and hear radio from both Madison and Rockford, and we can indulge another travel pleasure, since there's minor-league baseball to be had - so we leave you with a couple of scenes from the evening's Midwest League matchup between the Beloit Snappers (single-A affiliate of the Twins) and the Clinton, Iowa River Kings, a game the Snappers won in extra innings.

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