February 18, 2011

A Drive Across Central Wisconsin, August 2009

Over the last five years, this column has crisscrossed the Badger State several times. There was the Big Trip of 2005 that covered most of Wisconsin's big markets, a return trip to Madison and Milwaukee in 2007, and the 2009 visit that we've been chronicling for the last few weeks.

In this week's installment, we're starting our drive back to Indiana after a few pleasant days in Minneapolis, and we're doing it on a fairly roundabout route that picks up some territory we missed on those earlier trips. While the first part of the route is quick and direct - I-94 east from the Twin Cities through Eau Claire - we're turning off the interstate about 25 miles east of Eau Claire to try another route across Wisconsin: US 10, which runs west-to-east across the center of the state.

We're going this way for several reasons: first, because US 10 will eventually deposit us in our destination for the night, Appleton - and second, because the highway runs right past one of the most unusual radio studios to be found anywhere.

That magnificent example of spaced-out Sixties architecture is now the studio and office home of the three radio stations licensed to the small town of Neillsville: WCCN (1370), WCCN-FM (107.5) and WPKG (92.7). But that's not how it began...no, this structure started out in Flushing, New York as the Wisconsin state pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair!

Today, this building serves two purposes: the radio station's offices are at the back of the building, and the front...well, that's a gift shop, of all things, selling Wisconsin cheeses and other souvenirs. The gift shop is easy to visit, of course, but it takes a little bit of sweet-talking the office manager to get a quick peek at the more interesting spaces in back...

The three stations here run largely on satellite and automation, or at least that's what they're doing when we pop in at the end of the day. The AM station broadcasts standards, WPKG is hot AC, and WCCN-FM is "Rock 107" - with, I think, a live jock on the air in that studio with the big "WCCN" logo on the carpeted wall.

There are no transmitters at this site, though there is a talking cow in the parking lot. (Sadly, "Chatty Belle" is out of order this warm afternoon, so we don't get to hear her recorded message about Wisconsin's dairy industry.)

The WCCN AM tower is easy to find - from the studio site out on Highway 10, which runs just south of town, we head north on Highway 73 through the center of Neillsville, up to the little AM site that sits near the cemetery. AM 1370 runs 5,000 watts by day, dropping down to 42 watts at night.

The FM stations share a site northwest of Neillsville, and we don't make it up to that site this day, though we'll have to come back and see it sometime.

Instead, we're eastbound again on US 10, where the next community of any size is Marshfield - and where the one station we have time to check out is the local AM signal, 1000-watt WDLB, with a folded unipole antenna strung up on a tallish tower just north of downtown.

(The lone Marshfield-licensed FM station, WYTE 106.5, uses a site near Milladore, shared with religious WGNV 88.5; we drove right near there along US 10 but somehow missed it; maybe next time!)

So from Marshfield, we're off again to a most historic AM site just a few miles to the southeast.

WLBL (930) is licensed to the small town of Auburndale, but it was designed from the beginning to serve a big chunk of central Wisconsin. It started east of here in Waupaca, where it signed on in 1923 as WPAH, operated by the Wisconsin Department of Markets to serve farmers with agricultural information and farm reports.

As so many stations did back then, WPAH moved around in its first few years, becoming WCP and operating out of studios in Stevens Point, then taking its present WLBL calls, which stand for "Wisconsin, Land of Beautiful Lakes."

By 1932, WLBL had a network hookup to WHA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and by 1950 it had become a fulltime relay of WHA, inaugurating what would eventually become today's Wisconsin Public Radio.

("Fulltime" might not be the right word here, actually; as with many early "educational" stations, both WHA and WLBL were relegated to daytime-only status in the late twenties, WHA on 940 and WLBL on 900; they'd eventually move to their present spots on 970 and 930, respectively, in the 1941 NARBA shift.)

The present transmitter site in Auburndale dates to 1937, built by the state with the aim to serve as much of central Wisconsin as possible. With its 5000 daytime watts, WLBL reaches north to Wausau, east to Stevens Point and south to Wisconsin Rapids with a strong signal, and on the radios of the thirties and forties it was surely listenable as far away as Green Bay and Eau Claire. Today, WLBL's daytime AM reach is augmented by FMs around the state, including Wausau-based WLBL-FM on 91.9; the AM, meanwhile, has 70 watts of power at night now in addition to its daytime signal.

(Randall Davidson, who wrote the excellent book 9XM Talking about the history of WHA, has also written a briefer history of WLBL, which you should read here.)

From Auburndale and the WLBL building, the next major city we hit heading east on US 10 is Stevens Point, but there's no need to stop to see the stations there - we did that on Big Trip 2005, on the way south from Wausau, and you can see those pictures here.

We're heading for sunset by this point - it's been a long day of travel coming east from the Twin Cities - but there's time for one more town and one more station before we get to our overnight stop in Neenah, just south of Appleton. That's in Waupaca, about halfway between Stevens Point and the Fox Cities, the town that gave birth to what's now WLBL.

And while that station has been gone from Waupaca for more than eight decades now, but another station has called this small city home since 1956. WDUX signed on here as a 500-watt daytimer on 800, eventually boosting power to 5000 watts by day and adding 500-watt night service. WDUX-FM (92.7) came along in 1967; today, the AM runs country and the FM runs adult contemporary.

From Waupaca, we're off to Neenah and Appleton, another market where we'd pretty much seen everything in 2005 - so next week's installment will instead take us east to the Lake Michigan shoreline and the towns of Manitowoc and Two Rivers. And in the meantime, you can hear some IDs from Neillsville and Marshfield and Auburndale and Waupaca (and Wausau, too) beginning Wednesday on TopHour.com...)

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