March 25, 2011

WEAU-TV, Eau Claire, WI, 1966-2011

We've got a bit of a detour in our planned Tower Site posting schedule this week, thanks to events beyond our control - and indeed, beyond anyone's control.

Late on Tuesday evening, March 22, 2011, the 1,968-foot giant near the small town of Fairchild that was home to WEAU-TV (Channel 13) and WAXX (104.5) in Eau Claire came crashing down, damaging the transmitter building and taking both stations off the air. The exact cause of the collapse, which came during a winter storm that swept across the midwest, remains unknown - but heavy icing is strongly suspected.

(You can read some of WEAU's coverage, with pictures and video, here.)

And as is our tradition here at Site of the Week, when a prominent tower comes down and we have photos of it in our archives, we pay tribute to it by interrupting our schedule for a special feature.

We saw the WEAU-TV tower as part of our Big Trip 2005, the two-week journey that took us all over Wisconsin and Minnesota. You can read our original look at WEAU (published in this space almost exactly five years ago, on March 10, 2006) right here, featuring additional bits of Eau Claire history and more photos.

But the history we're focusing on this week is this particular site, which for 45 years was the tallest structure in the Badger State.

Its history actually dates back more than 45 years, all the way to 1954, when WEAU-TV (Channel 13) signed on from a 500-foot tower behind its studios along the eastern bypass of Eau Claire, the same site where the NBC affiliate's studios are still located today.

(As we explored in the Big Trip, that tower, shown at the bottom of the page, remains in use, but today it's used by ABC affiliate WQOW, channel 18, as well as by public FM station WUEC 89.7.)

In the mostly rural countryside of western Wisconsin, signal reach was everything, and it took WEAU-TV only two years to replace the 500-footer with a 1000-foot tower at the same site, increasing its coverage out into the fringes of the Eau Claire market.

But WEAU had its sights set on something even bigger: covering not only Eau Claire but the next TV city to the south, La Crosse, 70 miles away. To cover both markets took an even taller tower, and in 1966 WEAU joined the exclusive club of a few dozen TV stations around the country operating from the tallest towers then practical. WEAU publicity material from the era boasted of the station's "Tall Tower Territory," and the combination of WEAU's tower in Fairchild, 25 miles southeast of Eau Claire, and the 1,627-foot tower of CBS affiliate WKBT (Channel 8) in Galesville, 20 miles north of La Crosse, created the hybrid "Eau Claire/La Crosse" TV market that still encompasses most of western Wisconsin today.

(The other stations that eventually showed up in the market did not attempt to cover it all from a single site: there are separate transmitters in Eau Claire and La Crosse for ABC affiliates WQOW/WXOW and Fox affiliate WEUX/WLAX, as well as separate Wisconsin Public TV outlets in each city; La Crosse and neighboring La Crescent, Minnesota also receive NBC service from KTTC in nearby Rochester, MN.)

In addition to the WEAU-TV signal, which migrated to channel 39 during the DTV transition before returning to channel 13 in 2009, this tower soon came to boast an FM outlet as well: 100,000-watt WAXX (104.5) is the descendant of one of several FM outlets operated over the years by WEAU. As we explored on that Big Trip visit back in 2005, WEAU began as AM station on 790, which spawned an FM on 94.1. The original WEAU AM/FM were sold off, but WEAU later put another FM on the air at 100.7, then bought WAXX (1150 Chippewa Falls). That second WEAU-FM on 100.7 migrated up the dial to 104.5 when it moved up near the top of the Fairchild tower, and in a complex series of call swaps, it eventually ended up with the WAXX calls.

That brings us to the aftermath of the tower collapse Tuesday night, as broadcasters all over western Wisconsin pitched in to help WEAU and WAXX recover. By Wednesday, WEAU's programming was back on the air in Eau Claire over the 18.3 subchannel of competitor WQOW - presumably a relatively easy task to accomplish, what with WQOW's transmitter site (shown at left) being right there behind the WEAU studios.

(La Crosse viewers briefly saw WEAU as a subchannel on the W50DR digital translator that usually relays KTTC from Rochester; by week's end, it had moved to the 25.2 subchannel of Fox affiliate WLAX.)

WEAU also moved quickly to restore its cable coverage: by early Wednesday, its SD feed was back in place on channel 6 in Eau Claire, and by Thursday it had restored an HD feed to the local cable company, as well as feeds to Dish Network and DirecTV.

As for WAXX, Maverick quickly moved that top-rated country station's format over to one of its other signals in town, displacing the classic rock on "The Big Cheese," WECL (92.9) starting Wednesday morning. As we write this on Friday morning, Maverick - whose own studios sit right behind the WEAU studios, next to that WQOW tower - had a new transmitter on the way from Nautel in Nova Scotia, and was said to be negotiating with tower owners in the area to find a new spot to hang a WAXX antenna for 104.5 until the tower at Fairchild can be rebuilt.

And rebuild the station says it will: even in an era when many stations no longer depend on off-the-air viewing to reach most of their audience, WEAU's "Tall Tower Territory" still includes a fair number of antenna viewers, making construction of a new tall tower at Fairchild (albeit one with a more modern design than the fixed-leg tower that fell) a priority for the NBC affiliate.

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