January 21, 2011

Beloit and Madison, Wisconsin, August 2009

August 2009 was a busy month for Tower Site of the Week travel.

We've already shown you some big chunks of the first part of our travels that month - a sun-baked visit to Yuma, Arizona and California's Imperial Valley.

But that was just phase one of a crowded itinerary: no sooner had we made it back from the west coast than we were off again, traveling north and west from our alternate home base in Indiana to make the long drive to Minnesota.

The nominal destination was one of the last Twins games at the Metrodome, but on the way there we picked up plenty of radio and some TV, too.

The first night of the trip found us parked in Beloit, Wisconsin, roughly at the halfway point between Fort Wayne and Minneapolis - and, as it happens, the home of the Twins' single-A farm team, the Snappers. But before making it to the Snappers game, we took a few minutes to swing past the two AM sites in town: WTJK (1380), licensed to South Beloit, Illinois and transmitting from a hard-to-photograph four-tower array tucked between housing developments just south of the state line, and WGEZ (1490), licensed to Beloit itself.

The last time we'd seen WGEZ was back in 2001 on the original "Big Trip," but the tower we saw eight years later was not the same tower; the old self-supporter had given way to a new guyed tower somewhere along the way.

Early the next morning, we were once again back on the road, heading north to Madison to see the inside of a facility we'd seen only from the outside in the past: the big studio building in suburban Madison, Wisconsin that's home to Mid-West Family Broadcasting's largest station cluster.

See the photo above at left? That's what the building on Ray-o-Vac Drive looked like in the summer of 2005, when we first saw it as part of the Big Trip that covered a huge swath of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

At the time, Mid-West Family (which also operates in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Springfield, Illinois, Springfield, Missouri and Benton Harbor, Michigan) had just finished moving its stations into the facility, and that station lineup had shifted somewhat four years later.

Check out that floor mat at the right, seen just inside the door: it was nicely up to date with the latest configuration of signals emanating from this facility.

From top to bottom, that consisted of: country "Q106" (WWQM 106.3 Middletown/WWQN 106.7 Mount Horeb), Spanish "La Movida" WLMV (1480), rocker WJJO (94.1 Watertown), talker WTDY (1670), AC "Magic 98" WMGN (98.1), oldies WHIT (1550) and urban WJQM (93.1 De Forest).

The two-story lobby is large enough to accommodate live performances, and it contains one feature we'd never seen anywhere else: mounted in one corner is a tower segment complete with two FM antenna bays! No, they weren't on the air, but it makes for a neat little engineering display that few non-engineers would even recognize.

Standing at the front door, most of the building to the right is offices: sales, management, promotions and all the other functions that require plenty of people in an eight-station cluster. The studio and technical core of the building is to the left, with all the broadcast studios up on the second floor.

Before we make it up to the second floor, our tour begins on the first floor, where engineering offices surround a well-equipped and very carefully organized tech center that sits directly beneath the studios upstairs. All of the studio racks live here; downstairs in the basement is where the transmission piece of the puzzle is found: audio processing, transmitter remote controls and STLs.

(Most of the rest of the basement belongs to promotions: big storage areas with easy access to the remote vans parked right outside.)

And from there, we can now head upstairs to the studio core. Right at the center of the studio cluster is the newsroom, where multiple workstations look into several air studios: the window on the left looks at the WJJO rock studio, while the one on the right peers into the WTDY talk studio. More windows behind the newsroom look into the studios for WMGN and WWQM - and all of those air studios look out to the hallway that rings the studio core.

A few more studios line the outside walls: one for WJQM, another for the Spanish-language WLMV, and one that was in the process of being rebuilt after having been used for a while for a now-defunct format, the classic hits "Lake" that had been on 93.1 as WHLK back when "Jamz" was on west-side rimshot 106.7, now a WWQM country simulcast.

There are still more studios used for production for the cluster, but with time somewhat short at this point, we're headed out of the building and over to see the Mid-West Family AM sites.

First up: the diplexed site on Syene Road a few miles east of the studios.

This is a fairly old transmitter site: it goes back to the early days of AM 1480, which was known as WISC and later as WISM before becoming WTDY in 1984.

This was originally a three-tower site, and that self-supporter is the last of the original towers standing, though the tower bases survive. And yes, one of those guyed towers looks newer than the others - it replaced a 400-foot tower that was also home to 98.1, originally as WISC-FM and later WISM-FM; as WMGN, it transmits from a new site a few miles to the south, which we didn't have quite enough time to take in this particular morning.

In 1998, WTDY on 1480 spawned an expanded-band sister on 1670, and that's where the WTDY calls and the talk format ended up. 1480, with its directional 5 kW signal - two towers by day, four at night - simulcast with 1670 for a while before going Spanish. It's still on the air largely because the FCC has been so reluctant to actually take any action at all on the expanded-band, allowing a petition for continued dual-signal operation to sit without action and thus holding the five-year simulcast period, which would have silenced 1480 in 2006, in abeyance.

Squeezing two transmitters into this very small metal building wasn't easy, but they did it: right inside the door are both a Continental Power Rock for 1480 and a newer Harris DX10 for 1670, which runs 10 kW by day and 1 kW at night, non-directional.

We'd seen that Syene Road site on our 2005 Big Trip visit, and we saw the AM 1550 site on that trip, too.

It's on Lacy Road, southeast of Madison and not too far east of the 1480/1670 site.

Back in 2005, the calls on 1550 were WTUX, the format was standards and the site (at least judging by our picture from the 2005 trip) was quite overgrown.

Four years later, the grounds had been nicely cleared - and with good reason, because Mid-West Family was busily engaged in a substantial rebuilding of the facility, including new ATUs and a rebuilt ground system.

As cramped as the 1480/1670 site is, the 1550 site had plenty of room to breathe: it had, after all, served as studios for WTUX and WWQM before they moved in with the rest of the cluster at Mid-West Family's former studios on Ski Lane, the ones that immediately preceded the current studios.

And what a view the jock had from the old air studio: it looks out over a beautiful row of Collins transmitters and phasor, and yes, those tubes are aglow because they're still on the air (or at least were at the time; just a few weeks after our visit, they were removed and replaced with a Nautel XR6, which more than makes up in reliability and economy for what it lacks in romance.)

That was about all we had time to see that day in Madison - we had some non-radio tourism on the agenda after lunch, followed by a long drive to Minneapolis punctuated by some small-town radio stops that we'll show you in next week's installment.

It's a good thing we stopped when we did: not long after our visit, our tour guide, Mid-West Family engineer Kevin Trueblood, moved across town to a new job at Wisconsin Public Radio! (And yes, we're already hoping to stop in Madison again sometime soon to see some of WPR's sites with him.)

One more thing: we kick off a new series of TopHour.com audio updates this week, too, so be sure to join us over there on Wednesday to hear a whole pile of legal IDs from Madison and vicinity.

Thanks to Kevin Trueblood for the tour!

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