January 28, 2011

A Drive Up Wisconsin's I-94, August 2009

In last week's installment of Tower Site of the Week, we showed you the first part of what turned out to be one of our longer days on the road during the summer of 2009.

We began that day in Beloit, Wisconsin, then pointed the NERW-mobile north up I-39/I-90 to spend a few hours poking around Madison.

By lunchtime, though, we were already on our way back out of the state capital, headed west to the small town of Spring Green and some wonderful non-radio tourism at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's fascinating home and studio.

It's highly recommended - but it has nothing to do with radio, and you're here for radio, right?

So were we - and the drive from Spring Green north and west to our eventual destination that night, the Twin Cities, took us back along a route we'd traveled once before. Big Trip 2005 took us in the other direction, from the Cities through Eau Claire and eventually down to Madison, and in the rush of trying to see a whole bunch of studios and towers in Wisconsin's bigger cities, we zoomed right past some of the smaller towns along (and just off) I-94.

This time around, with a little more time to spare on the drive, we were determined to catch up with some of the smaller stations we'd heard, but not seen, on that 2005 trip.

From Spring Green, the route up to the Twin Cities follows state highways north to get to the interstate, and before we get there we pass through the town of Reedsburg, which is home to one AM station, WRDB on 1400, and two FMs, WBDL 102.9 and WNFM 104.9.

The three stations are all owned by Magnum Communications, a small group that also owns stations in Tomah, Waunakee, Wisconsin Dells and Portage, and they share the studio building at the WRDB transmitter site just west of downtown Reedsburg on Wisconsin 33.

WRDB (which does standards) dates back to 1953, country WNFM started out as WRDB-FM in 1967, and AC WBDL ("B102.9") was dropped in much later, signing on in 1997. The FMs share a tower a couple of miles north of town, but our route keeps going west on 33, then north on Wisconsin 58, which meets I-94 in another small town, Mauston, about 15 miles north of Reedsburg.

Mauston has just two stations, the AM/FM combo of WRJC (1270) and WRJC-FM (92.1), and they operate from a studio on Fairway Lane, alongside I-94 north of Mauston.

The calls stand for "Radio Juneau County," the adult standards AM (500 watts by day, 27 watts at night) dates to 1962, and its adult contemporary FM counterpart signed on in 1976. The AM tower is right next to those Fairway Lane studios (yes, there's a golf course around the corner), and the studios in turn look to have been built inside of a fairly sizable house, garage and all.

We didn't make it over to the FM tower, a few miles west of Mauston, but if we had, we'd have seen an extra FM antenna: like so many small-town AMs these days, WRJC now has an FM simulcast of its AM, W225BF (92.9), and when we pass by they're busily engaged in the "WRJC Shopping Show," heard every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning.

It's a quick 20-mile ride up I-90/94 to the next sizable town, Tomah, which sits right at the junction where 90 (coming east from South Dakota across southern Minnesota) meets up with 94, heading east and a bit south from its long run through North Dakota and the Twin Cities.

(Digressing to roadgeekdom for a moment, I'm quite sure there's no other pair of interstates that converge and then separate again as often as 90 and 94 do; they part ways in Montana, rejoin here at Tomah, split again in Madison, where 90 heads south for Rockford and 94 east for Milwaukee, rejoin in Chicago, then split again for good in northern Indiana.)

In any event, Tomah is home to two FMs and an AM, but with darkness now approaching, we have time only for the AM entry, WTMB (1460), which sits near the county fairgrounds just southeast of downtown.

We've got time for one more stop before nightfall, and that's 30 miles north of Tomah along I-94 in Black River Falls, where WWIS (1260) and WWIS-FM (99.7) share a small building at the base of a tall tower on Town Creek Road, just west of the highway and just north of the town itself. The AM (580 watts day, 33 watts at night, adult contemporary) signed on back in 1958, while the FM (a 25-kw/328' C3 classic country outlet) is another fairly recent drop-in, circa 1991.

We close this installment with an accidental picture: after a few days in the Twin Cities (you'll see those pictures next week), we headed east again, stopping for gas on the south side of Eau Claire, a market we'd covered quite comprehensively back on Big Trip 2005. So we hadn't intended to make any broadcast stops in Eau Claire on the 2009 trip...but the gas station where we tanked up just happened to be right next door to the studios of ABC affiliate WQOW (Channel 18), and we couldn't resist a picture.

Join us here again next Friday for a visit to Minnesota Public Radio, and more Twin Cities fun - and don't forget to join us at our new sister site, TopHour.com, starting Wednesday to hear audio from the stations pictured here and many more!

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