April 15, 2011

WSBT's Old Studios, South Bend, IN

As long-time readers of this column well know, the Hoosier State has effectively become our second home, what with our several visits a year to see the in-laws in Fort Wayne. Those visits tend to give your editor ample jumping-off time to explore far beyond northeast Indiana - and sometimes, they give us a chance to see certain stations multiple times.

Over the last three years or so, in fact, we've been to South Bend's WSBT no fewer than three times, watching as one of the nation's last remaining AM-FM-TV combos (with a co-owned newspaper, the South Bend Tribune, to boot!) has relocated from aging downtown studios to a palatial facility out in the suburbs.

In this week's installment, we cover the "before" piece - a June 2008 visit to 300 West Jefferson Boulevard, the longtime home of the WSBT stations until their 2009 move out to suburban Mishawaka.

You can't quite read the stone there in the wall next to the old front door, but it proudly proclaims that the building went up in 1955, when WSBT-TV signed on at channel 52 (soon moving to 22), joining WSBT (960) and WSBT-FM (101.5) at what was then a state-of-the-art broadcast facility.

By the time we showed up half a century later, though, the state of the art had changed, so our visit was really a look back at what was about to become history. And WSBT cares deeply about its long history: in the lobby, just beyond the huge wooden doors leading to the TV studios, a glass case held memorabilia going back to the radio station's earliest days in the 1920s. (What's on that pillar next to the stairs? Drawings of the new building, which was then under construction...)

The radio stations - WSBT (960) with a news-talk format, WNSN ("Sunny 101.5"), the former WSBT-FM doing AC, and studios for WHFB-FM (99.9 Benton Harbor, operated by WSBT owner Schurz Communications under an LMA) - were all tucked away in a first-floor corner, sharing space that was really designed for just one radio station, with offices tucked away in every available space.

Schurz is big on synergy among its operations, so it was also rather inconvenient to have to go upstairs to have to find the newsroom for WSBT-TV, itself far too cramped for the station's current needs.

Like its radio stations, the TV station had grown into every available nook and cranny of the building, with the production control room at a distance from the newsroom and the big TV studio.

And in good 1950s fashion, that TV studio had windows up above so that master control, reached by several flights of stairs past an old-school rack room, could look down into the studio.

The whole thing was impressive for 1955, to be sure - but WSBT chose to start fresh with a move to a brand-new facility, which we'll see in next week's installment.

But before we leave, we have to tell you what became of 300 West Jefferson: after WSBT moved out, the building was gutted and reborn, becoming a new state-of-the-art (2010 style) home to South Bend's public TV station, WNIT. We haven't been inside to see the finished product, but we'll surely be back in South Bend again sometime soon for another visit.

Thanks to WSBT's Jim Roberts for the tours!

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