Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we left off last week, we were telling you about the unusual spread of broadcast outlets at the University of Florida in Gainesville: its students operate commercially-licensed WRUF 850 and WRUF-FM 103.7, doing sports and country, respectively, but it also has professionally-run public outlets WUFT-TV and WUFT-FM and a low-power TV license, WRUF-LD (RF 5/virtual 10) to boot.
As we kick off this final installment of our Florida trip, we’re heading from the WRUF-FM/WUFT site on the northwest side of town back down I-75 to the southwest side of town and Gainesville’s oldest radio station.
WRUF (850) has been in town since 1928, when the university bought a license that had been iu use over in St. Petersburg. It settled down on 830 at first, moving to 850 in the 1941 NARBA shift, and soon afterward jumped to 5000 watts in power and relocated from the university campus to a then-remote rural area west of town.
Today, that stretch of SW 75th Street is known as “Tower Road,” and it runs on the west side of the four-tower AM 850 array in what’s now a suburban area just west of I-75.
The transmitter building out here is a Quonset hut, and I’ll bet there’s plenty of history inside.
(By way of programming, WRUF’s AM facility had just recently flipped to all-sports when we visited in 2011; it’s now part of an ESPN simulcast with Ocala’s WMOP 900, with University of Florida students providing local sports updates.)
Follow Tower Road south from the WRUF site and turn eastward on SW 24th Avenue and you’ll come to Gainesville’s second-oldest FM. WYKS (105.3) started out in 1970 as WGVL on 105.5 and spent most of the 1970s as a progressive rocker before becoming “Kiss” in 1981. It moved down the dial to 105.3 in 1995 to allow a big upgrade for the 105.5 signal in New Port Richey, down in the Tampa Bay area, but WYKS remained a class A signal all along.
At this point, let’s jump over to the east side of town to see Gainesville’s other AMs and a couple more FMs:
At 1230 NE Waldo Road, the main drag heading out of town (as Florida 24) to the northeast, we find the mortal remains of Gainesville’s second AM. The city of Gainesville put WGGG (1230) on the air in 1948 from this lovely Art Deco facility. The tower out back supposedly came from the University of Florida campus, where it had been one of the two original support towers for the WRUF longwire antenna; in later years, it was painted in Florida Gators orange and green, and the peeling remains of that paint job are still barely visible here.
WGGG led the market into the 1970s, but was overtaken by FM and fell on hard times; by the late 1980s, it had abandoned this facility and now transmits from a short tower hidden deep in the trees in a suburban area on the west side of town, where we looked for it but couldn’t see it in the woods. In 2011, WGGG was simulcasting ESPN Radio with WMOP down in Ocala; after ESPN moved to WRUF, I’m not sure what WGGG is doing these days, if it’s on the air at all.
Head south from the old WGGG site down Waldo Road and it turns into SE 11th Street, and eventually brings us to the tower that’s home to Gainesville’s 100.9 FM signal. Today it’s known as WXJZ and is part of the Asterisk Communications family – but it started out in the early 1980s as beautiful music WMFM. It later became WYGC, simulcasting Asterisk’s country WTRS from Dunnellon/Ocala, before swapping calls and formats with smooth jazz WXJZ 104.9 out in High Springs.
Also out this way, pretty far out on the southeast edge of town on SE 27th Street, is a diplexed AM site: WDVH (980) and WTMN (1430). WDVH traces its history back to 1954, when it signed on out here as a 5,000-watt daytimer, later adding 170 watts at night. It changed calls for a time in the 1980s, but reclaimed its heritage identity a few years later, and when we came to town in 2011 it was doing classic country, simulcasting with WDVH-FM (101.7 Trenton) way out to the west of Gainesville.
Another AM station came on here as a very late-to-the-game daytimer, probably one of the very last daytimers ever to be licensed: WTMN (1430) signed on in 1988 as a 2500-watt signal diplexed with WDVH, later powering up to 10,000 watts. WTMN, WDVH and a passel of outlying FM signals ended up in the hands of New York-based Pamal Communications, which sold them to a new owner in 2012.
We couldn’t get to the tower of Gainesville’s final AM, WAJD (1390), back in a stand of trees behind a residential area east of town, so we finish up our look at Gainesville up on the north side of town, on NW 93rd Avenue just off NW 13th Street (US 441/FL 20). This location was the original WGFL (Channel 53) studio and analog transmitter site, and while WGFL has moved, the tower is now home to Asterisk’s WBXY (99.5 La Crosse).
There’s a lot more for us to see if we ever make it back to Gainesville: there are several outlying FM sites we didn’t make it to, not to mention the WUFT and WRUF studios on the University of Florida campus and the studios of several commercial clusters in town.
But with a plane to catch 75 miles away in Jacksonville, we had to say farewell to Gator Town and make our way up US 301 to the northeast – and we had to do it without speeding, since that stretch of road connecting Gainesville to Jacksonville contains two of the best-known speed traps in the country, the small towns of Waldo and Starke.
Starke, at least, also includes a nifty radio facility. “You should go see WEAG while you’re passing through,” was the repeated advice we got on the way out of Gainesville (right before “and watch your speed in Waldo!”)
Why was it so important to stop in and see this little simulcast country combo, which included kilowatt fulltimer WEAG (1490) and FM sister WEAG-FM (106.3)? Because these stations, deep in the heart of Florida, have some interesting roots up on NERW’s home turf: after starting out as AM standalone WRJR in the fifties, 1490 became WPXE and then spawned WPXE-FM in the seventies.
In 1984, Philadelphia broadcaster Ben Dickerson moved down here and bought WPXE/WPXE-FM, relaunching them as “The Eagle,” WEAG, in the mold of Philly top-40 flamethrower WEGX (106.1). Over the years, it morphed into AC and then to the country format it was running when we stopped by.
And are we ever glad we did! Not only did we enjoy a nice visit with Ben and some great stories about his days at legendary Philadelphia stations such as WCAU…we also found out that right before we walked in, morning man/GM Chuck Kramer (another northeast radio veteran) had been telling Ben about the Tower Site Calendar. Needless to say, we all had plenty to talk about while touring WEAG’s studio/transmitter facility, and Ben and Chuck ended up with some new decorations on the wall before we pointed the rental car (slowly!) up the road to Jacksonville and home.
(One follow-up here: late last year, the WEAG AM license was returned to the FCC, so now “Eagle Country” is flying FM-only in Starke.)
Thanks to Lee Freshwater and WEAG’s Chuck Kramer and Ben Dickerson for the tours!
It’s 2013! Do you have your Tower Site Calendar 2013 yet? We’ve still got some left, and they’re shipping right away from the all new Fybush.com store! Order now and your wall can be festooned with Florida and much more all through 2013. (We’ve also got the very last FM Atlas copies available for sale, and the new edition of the National Radio Club’s AM Log.)
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And don’t miss a batch of Gainesville IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: RTE Radio Center, Dublin, Ireland, 2011