October 21, 2011

WKJG 1380, Fort Wayne, Indiana

It's Tower Site Calendar time - and that means the next few installments of Tower Site of the Week will be devoted to the sites you'll find depicted in the brand-new 2012 edition, now available for immediate shipping. In this week's installment, it's the November 2012 page - the unusual five-tower array of Fort Wayne, Indiana's WKJG (1380).

Site of the Week readers know that we spend a lot of time in norfheast Indiana, what with our in-laws being there and all - yet somehow, we've never done a proper feature on Fort Wayne's "other" AM stations, the ones that have perpetually lived in the shadow of market giant WOWO (1190). But there's a lot that's interesting in the history surrounding WKJG, and as you'll see, WOWO comes into the picture here anyway.

The history: WKJG was the first fulltime AM to sign on in Fort Wayne after World War II, when changes in FCC rules and the maturation of directional AM technology allowed for a flood of new signals on the so-called "regional" (class III) channels such as 1380. When it debuted on November 15, 1947, WKJG joined a roster that already included WOWO and its former sister station, WGL.

(WGL, which we'll feature in more detail sometime later on, had been paired with WOWO from the late 1920s until the end of duopoly in the 1940s. Westinghouse sold WGL to TV inventor Philo Farnsworth, and the station later ended up in the hands of the News-Sentinel, the afternoon paper. Along the way, it also took advantage of the postwar AM upgrades to go from a "graveyard" facility on 1450 to a regional channel, 1250, opening 1450 to be used again by another new Fort Wayne signal, WANE, later known as WLYV.)

The new WKJG also had a newspaper connection: it belonged to the morning paper, the Journal Gazette, whose publisher, William Kunkel, gave his initials and the newspaper's to the new station, which established studios on the city's south side at 3802 South Calhoun Street and a transmitter facility out at the southern edge of town just off US 27/33, the main highway heading south from Fort Wayne.

The site was fairly complex, by 1947 standards: five towers, four of them 198' tall in a line and a fifth, 371' tall, set off at a dogleg. The new WKJG was (and still is) the second most powerful signal in town, running 5000 watts day and night, using the tall tower and two of the short ones by day and all four of the short towers at night. Both the day and night patterns put a similar and fairly broad lobe north-northwest over the city of Fort Wayne; by day, there's a similar lobe pointing south-southeast, and both patterns have deep nulls to the east-northeast and west-southwest, protecting signals that at the time would have included WSPD 1370 in Toledo and KWK 1380 in St. Louis.

As exciting as the venture into radio must have been for WKJG, there were soon even bigger projects on the horizon. In 1953, WKJG-TV (Channel 33) signed on as Fort Wayne's first TV station, operating from studios and transmitter facilities on Fort Wayne's northwest side. By 1957, the radio and TV stations had come under new ownership headed by the Dille family of Elkhart, publishers of the Elkhart Truth, putting WKJG at the core of what would eventually come to be known as Federated Media, which still owns the station today.

The WKJG calls left radio in 1971 when the Dilles sold WKJG-TV; AM 1380 became top-40 WMEE, while its relatively new FM sister on 97.3 became WMEF. Seven years later, the WMEE calls and top-40 format moved to the FM, flipping the AM to country and western as WQHK. By then, the studios had moved from the WKJG-TV building on West State Boulevard down to the transmitter site south of Fort Wayne at 2915 Maples Road, where they remain today in a facility that's grown in stages from the original little transmitter building of 1947.

The first addition pushed straight forward from the old transmitter room, with studios for the AM and FM stations along a hallway that led to the transmitter room from a new front lobby and office area, and it served WMEE and WQHK for more than two decades.

Then things changed very dramatically in the 1990s as a second FM signal joined the cluster. Initially an LMA, WQHK-FM (105.1 Decatur) was the result of a complex move-in that transformed a small-town class A 20 miles south of Fort Wayne (the former WQTZ 92.7) into a full-market B1. As country "K105," WQHK-FM soon shot to number one in the ratings and stayed there. And then came an even bigger bombshell: the high-profile sale of WOWO from Price Communications to New York's Inner City Broadcasting, which never operated WOWO, instead arranging for it to be downgraded to 9800 watts at night...and sold to Federated to become a new sister station to WMEE, WQHK and WQHK-FM.

That meant a move for WOWO, which left its downtown studios and famed fire escape to move to an expanded Maples Road facility. The old studio space near the transmitters (and much of the transmitter room itself) was converted to sales space, with a new lobby and conference room at the front of the building and a new addition along the north side of the building. That new addition was - and still is - the studio space: a long line of studios for WOWO news, WOWO talk, K105, WMEE and two production rooms, with another studio across the hall at the back of the building for AM 1380. The AM station slid through several calls and formats in the 1990s: standards "Radio Hollywood" WHWD, One-on-One Sports WONO, and then ESPN Radio - and in November 2003, the original calls returned when WKJG-TV became WISE-TV, allowing 1380 to once again be WKJG(AM).

(Federated now owns two more stations in town: rockers WFWI 92.3 - "the Fort" - and WBYR 98.9 - "the Bear" - operate from a separate studio north of downtown. That building is known within the cluster as "FedMed North," which makes this...yup, "FedMed South.")

So with all that history under our belt, shall we take a tour of the present-day facility?

The most recent change at Maples Road came just a few years ago, when the cubicles in the old transmitter building were replaced with a spacious new rack room for all the stations, turning the space in front of the 1380 transmitter into a hallway with a big window looking into the new tech center, shown at the top of the page. WKJG's main transmitter is the little Harris SX5 shown above at center; the RCA next to it is an aux, and behind it there's a locked room that's home to the open-frame phasor.

The studio cluster along the north side of the hallway hasn't changed much since the new addition went up: the WOWO newsroom anchors the northwest corner of the building, with a window looking into the WOWO air studio. Because of the proximity to the WKJG array, the addition was built with lots of shielding, including fairly heavy copper screening in the windows that look out to the AM towers.

(Speaking of the 1380 towers: that tall "tower #5" may have been the original home of WKJG-FM on 97.3, though I'm not certain of that. It may also have been used for a brief earlier incarnation of WKJG-FM on 106.1 in the 1950s. I do know with some certainty that it was the home of another new FM signal not owned by Federated Media, WJFX 107.9 New Haven, from its debut in 1990 until it moved to a taller tower nearby in 2000.)

Ironically, while the studios for WOWO, K105 and WMEE all look out to the AM array (as do the two production studios down at the end of the hall, which boast serial numbers one and two of the venerable Pacific Recorders BMX console), the actual WKJG studio across the hallway doesn't look out to the 1380 towers. Instead, it faces the back parking lot, where the wooden steps down from the back door are now designated as the current incarnation of the famed "WOWO Fire Escape."

Thanks to Blaine Thompson of Indiana RadioWatch for the tour!

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