Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
There are some parts of Indiana that we get to visit with almost shocking regularity. (Hi there, Indianapolis and South Bend!) But from north to south, Indiana’s a surprisingly large state, and with the in-laws way up in the northeast corner, it’s not often that we find ourselves 300-plus miles away in the state’s southwestern hills. In fact, we hadn’t been down in the Evansville area since the original “Big Trip” of 2001, when we spent a day or so visiting several studios and transmitter sites. By the time the summer of 2011 rolled around, many Evansville stations had moved, and it was well past time to catch up on what had relocated and to see a few sites we’d missed on that mad 14-day dash around the middle of the country.
One town we missed on the 2001 trip was Jasper, Indiana. An hour or so northeast of Evansville (and about as far southwest of Bloomington), Jasper might be best known to buyers of remanufactured engines and transmissions. But although we drive by Jasper Engine & Transmission on our way south down Route 231 from the quaint downtown, we’re not after a four-speed automatic this time.
Instead, our destination is about half a mile south on a frontage road along 231. “Witz Road” is where we find the studios and transmitters for WITZ (990) and WITZ-FM (104.7), as well as the studio of sister station WQKZ (98.5 Ferdinand).
The AM station has been right here, as best I can tell, since day one in 1948, when it was a 1000-watt daytimer. It was placed several miles south of Jasper to serve both Jasper and neighboring Huntingburg, as evidenced in the 1949 Radio Annual, where WITZ is listed with two phone numbers: “678” in Jasper, “515” in Huntingburg!
The Metzger family (doing business as “Jasper on the Air, Inc.”) was an early adopter of FM, putting WITZ-FM on the air at 104.7 from this site way back in 1954.
In 1997, WITZ and WITZ-FM added a sister station. WQKZ (98.5), a class A in nearby Ferdinand, signed on in 1997 with a signal serving Jasper and points south, all the way to Tell City at the Ohio River.
The WITZ building has been extensively expanded and remodeled over the years, with the most recent updates appearing to date to the 1980s or thereabouts. Entering near the middle of the building, visitors find themselves in what I believe was the original 1948 building, with a newsroom and studio directly ahead. To the left, the north end of the building houses business and sales offices and a production room; to the right, another addition includes two more studios.
There’s a transmitter room right behind the main studios, with an auxiliary AM transmitter (a vintage RCA BTA-1R), the little half-height Energy-Onix main AM transmitter and a newer Continental 816 to power WITZ-FM’s 50 kW signal.
WITZ splits its AM/FM format in an interesting small-town way: it simulcasts in morning drive, then goes to AC music on the FM while the AM goes talk for a few hours with Dave Ramsey and Rush Limbaugh before returning to simulcasting at 3 PM. The AM station now has 6 watts of post-sunset power, for whatever that’s worth – and when AM and FM split, the AM programming runs out of a studio down in that addition on the south side of the building, across the glass from the console that controls WQKZ. “KZ Country” is mostly satellite-delivered, but it does carry Cardinals baseball and some local sports, too.
There’s a sad coda to our WITZ visit: just a day after we stopped by, longtime owner Earl Metzger died at the age of 69. Son of the stations’ founder, Metzger was a former president of the Indiana Broadcasters Association and one of the state’s best-respected broadcasters.
There’s one other local voice in Jasper: noncommercial WJPR (91.7) is “Jasper Public Radio,” playing oldies for Dubois County and vicinity, but we didn’t get a chance to see them.
Instead, we made our way south down US 231 and across the new(ish) William Natcher Bridge into Kentucky to spend some time visiting the stations of Owensboro, which we showed you in an earlier installment of Site of the Week.
Back in 2001, we’d stopped at the University of Evansville on the east side of town to see WUEV (91.5), which then had its studios right where its transmitter is located, in historic Olmsted Hall in the middle of the campus. By 2011, WUEV’s tower was still on Olmsted’s spire, but its studios had moved to spiffy new digs in the Ridgway University Center building behind Olmsted.
This was early August and school was still a few weeks away from coming back into session, but we still got to see the new studios, which have a nice big window looking out into a lounge area on the second floor of Ridgway.
WUEV isn’t the only college station serving Evansville, and on this trip in 2011 we got to see the other big one, too. The University of Southern Indiana is way out on the western edge of town, six miles or so down the Lloyd Expressway from WUEV, and its radio voice is a 250-watt AM signal, WSWI (820).
What’s a public university doing with a low-on-the-dial AM? In many parts of the Midwest, a signal like this would have a history dating back to the 1920s and the first flush of “educational radio” at land-grant colleges. (Think WOSU in Columbus or WBAA in West Lafayette or WILL in Urbana…)
In this case, though, what’s now USI didn’t even exist until 1965, and it was still “Indiana State University-Evansville” when the AM license and equipment were donated in 1981.
The donation came from Evansville’s biggest radio operator at the time, the Engelbrecht family’s South Central Broadcasting. AM 820 had been the original home of WIKY, the city’s top-rated station, going back to 1947. But by 1981, WIKY had successfully transitioned to FM dominance (we’ll see much more on that next week!) and the Englebrechts were buying a full-time AM, WEOA (1400). In that pre-duopoly era, the daytime AM license had to go, and off to the university it went, complete with a new tower at the eastern edge of the campus.
WSWI’s studios are located in the Liberal Arts Center on the western edge of the campus, and they’re not only well-appointed but quite busy for a summer morning, with a live morning show underway complete with local newscasts each hour. In addition to the main on-air complex, an adjoining room serves as a production area, with several prefab rooms where students can record and practice.
How does an AM daytimer survive as a college station in the 21st century? With lots of help from new technology, of course. WSWI was early to the streaming game, and it’s partnered up with WPSR (90.7), the Vandenburgh County public schools’ FM station, to put WSWI programming on 90.7-HD2, allowing for 24-hour broadcasts that include a heavy emphasis on “dubstep” music at night, a format WSWI takes pride in having pioneered in the U.S.
Thanks to WITZ/WQKZ OM (now GM) Gene Kuntz, WUEV GM Tom Benson and WSWI GM John Morris for the tours!
But the wait is over. The Tower Site Calendar, 2014 edition, has gone to press, and you can be the first to reserve your very own. We expect delivery at the end of the month, and we’ll send them right off to their loving homes, spiral bound, shrink wrapped and best of all, with a convenient hole for hanging!
This year’s gorgeous electronic pinups include the iconic towers of Catalina Island, a combiner system in St. Louis, the twin towers of KNRS in Salt Lake City, a historic rooftop site in Jamestown, New York and many more!
If you want a tower calendar on your wall NOW, you can pick up the current edition for just $5 with your 2014 order!
Click here to order your new calendar!
Then check out our store page for our other great merchandise, including the last-ever FM Atlas, the new NRC AM Log and a model of the KSAN tower.
And don’t miss a big batch of Evansville IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Evansville, Indiana, part II