Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Have you been enjoying our pictures from our big visit to Evansville, Indiana in 2011? It’s a neat smallish market with an outsized history, and I hope you’ve liked the chance to see some of that history. But if you’re ready to move on, fear not – this week’s installment gets us out of Evansville…after just a bit more history along the Ohio River.
That’s 44 Main Street above, at the edge of downtown Evansville just a block away from the bend in the Ohio River. It’s a building where big dreams have been dreamed, and one where some of those dreams have turned into ghosts, too. The last full-power station to take air in the market, WEVV (Channel 44) signed on in 1983 as an independent, quite naturally affiliating with Fox upon that network’s launch a few years later.
Then, in 1995, opportunity struck: the Fox affiliation moved down the dial to WTVW (Channel 7) after Fox took a partial interest in WTVW’s new owner, Petracom. WTVW’s longtime ABC affiliation moved to longtime CBS affiliate WEHT (Channel 25) – and that left CBS looking for a home and WEVV looking for a network. WEVV became “CBS 44” on September 18, 1995, bringing with it a big expansion to the small news operation WEVV had launched in 1992.
We’d mentioned last week that Evansville is a sub-100 TV market, and if that strikes you as being small for four news operations to survive, you’re right: WEVV’s newsroom shut down in late 2011, just a few months after our original “Big Trip” had passed through town. But a decade later, the ghost of WEVV’s news lived on: our tour of the 44 Main Street building included a look at the big studio in the middle of the building, where the remains of the set still sat, surrounded by storage and lunch tables used for a makeshift cafeteria and station conference room.
(The rest of the building includes a big atrium lobby outside the studio, sales and programming offices upstairs that have expanded into the former newsroom area, and a spacious master control and rack room adjoining the studio at the back of the first floor.)
While WEVV lost its newscast, it retained its CBS affiliation – and it even got Fox back a few months before our 2011 visit. When Nexstar’s deal for Fox on WTVW expired, Fox came home to WEVV, taking over from MyNetwork TV on 44.2 and adding a low-power station, W47EE-D, to carry “Fox 44” in HD. And just this year, longtime WEVV owner Communications Corporation of America sold to Nexstar, creating a situation we’ll explore more in a moment.
To continue exploring the market, we need to cross the Ohio River, zipping our way southward on US 41 into Henderson, Kentucky, which hugs another bend in the river just a few miles south of downtown Evansville. All the Evansville stations come in just fine here, of course, but Henderson has its own local station, too: Ed Henson’s WSON (860) operates from right in the heart of town, occupying the front corner of the first floor of the “Citi Center Mall” on Second Street, which is also home to the local Chamber of Commerce.
WSON dates back to December 1941, ten days after Pearl Harbor, to be precise, when Hecht Lackey put the station on the air as a daytimer. (His son Henry owned the station until the sale to Henson in 2010.) The breakdown of the clear channels in the 1980s allowed for fulltime 500-watt operation with the addition of a second tower at the transmitter site on Zion Larue Road east of town, just over the US 41 bypass.
Did we mention things were changing fast when we visited in the summer of 2011? WSON was just weeks away at the time from launching a powerful FM translator, W243CU (96.5), and today the station brands its classic hits format prominently with both AM and FM frequencies.
The studios downtown are as simple as it gets: behind the glass walls along the “Citi Center” arcade are a main air studio (complete with a mirror hanging from the ceiling so passers-by can see the console!) and an office space, with a small newsroom office tucked in behind the air studio.
While WSON is the local Henderson station, it’s far from the only station transmitting from Henderson. Within sight of the AM towers are the taller towers of most of Evansville’s TV stations and a few FMs to boot, all tucked into the little Wolf Hills neighborhood on a bluff just south of the river.
The oldest station up here, by far, is WEHT (Channel 25), the market’s ABC affiliate. While competitor WFIE’s callsign boasts of being “First in Evansville” based on its November 1953 debut, WFIE was only first in Evansville because WEHT, the market’s first TV station, had signed on two months earlier across the river here in Henderson.
It was on channel 50 then, and it was a CBS affiliate, licensed to Evansville. The move to channel 25 came in 1966, when the current 996-foot tower went up at this site on Marywood Drive off US 41, at the southern end of what’s now a spread-out tower farm.
As noted above, WEHT ended up with ABC in 1995. A few months after our 2011 visit, Nexstar completed its purchase of WEHT, moving CW affiliate WTVW (Channel 7) into this building on the Kentucky side as much of the old WEHT staff was dismissed. And at some point pretty soon, it’s widely expected that WEVV and its CBS and Fox affiliations will move in here as well; while Nexstar can’t own the WEVV license, it’s entering a shared-services agreement with WEVV’s new shell ownership that will likely bring CBS, Fox, ABC and CW all under this roof on Marywood.
(One more irony: after an interim digital operation on RF 59, WEHT ended up on RF channel 7, WTVW’s former home, at the end of the DTV transition.)
The rest of the Wolf Hills towers spread out to the north from here. Along Green River Road, the tower of Townsquare’s WKDQ (99.5) sits behind a gate with the same hand-drawn ASR sign that amused us on the original Big Trip back in 2001. (When we’d mused about it back then, we heard back from a market engineer who noted that nobody seemed interested in stealing a sign like that…)
Since our 2001 visit, the tower added a second occupant: Townsquare sister station WDKS (106.1) runs its class A signal from a one-bay antenna way down the tower from the big six-bay 99.5 antenna up top.
WEVV’s tower sits just behind the WKDQ/WDKS tower, but it’s accessed off Wolf Hills Road to the north. In addition to WEVV itself (now on RF 44), this tower is home to translators W220DV (92.1), relaying Way-FM from a WDKS HD subchannel, and to WSON’s W243CU translator.
To the east, down a long driveway from Wathen Lane, sits the 948-foot WFIE tower, built here in 1977 to give channel 14 signal parity with the other stations transmitting from this site. Today, WFIE is on RF 46 from this location.
And that’s it for Evansville – but not at all the end of this particular trip, which took us almost all the way up the western edge of Indiana on US 41. About half an hour north of Evansville, Princeton is the first decent-sized town on the route, and it has a long and ambitious broadcast history of its own. WRAY (1250) signed on here as a daytimer back in 1950, and in the heady days of early UHF television it spawned WRAY-TV in December 1953. As with so many of those little UHF stations, WRAY-TV couldn’t compete with the bigger signals down the road in Evansville, and it suspended operations in July 1954, never to return. (Wikipedia claims that the WRAY-TV equipment and license were donated to Vincennes University, 30 miles to the north, to become public station WVUT channel 22 in 1968; given the time gap and the distance involved, that’s a big  for now in our book, though.)
WRAY did eventually add a big class B FM signal on 98.1 in 1960, and today WRAY-FM is a country station, with WRAY(AM) doing news-talk, all from a compact brick building next to the tower on West Broadway a few blocks east of US 41.
Before US 41 arrives in Terre Haute (a market we’ll be exploring in more depth soon), it passes through the little town of Sullivan, which has its own little AM/FM combo. WNDI (1550) signed on here in 1963 as a 250-watt daytimer, joined in 1982 by WNDI-FM on 95.3. The AM tower is right behind the studios on Indiana 54, east of old 41 and the newer bypass south of town; the FM is out to the west near the Illinois state line, and we didn’t drive out to see it.
We jump ahead a day or so on the trip to show you the final towers in this week’s installment, skipping (for now) an overnight stop just over the state line in Danville, Illinois that we’ll recap next week.
Instead, we move on along to Rensselaer, Indiana, a small town that’s home to the only radio along I-65 between the southern fringe of the Northwest Indiana Chicago suburbs and the Lafayette market. WRIN (1560) was the first signal in town when it signed on as a daytimer in 1963, followed in the early 1970s by FM competitor WJCK (97.7). Under owner Tom Jurek, the AM and FM combined a few years later, with the FM taking its present calls of WLQI. Since 1985, the pair of stations has been in the hands of John Balvich’s Brothers Broadcasting, operating from studios in what looks like an old schoolhouse under the WLQI tower just off US 231, just north of the WRIN tower. WRIN does adult standards these days, while WLQI carries classic rock.
And that leaves us with just one more Rensselaer station: St. Joseph’s College signed on WPUM at 90.5 in 1977, taking its calls from the college mascot, the Pumas. The arrival of a higher-powered 90.5 signal up in Crown Point displaced WPUM to 93.3 a few years back, and today it operates as a 60-watt class D signal from the campus water tower.
Thanks to WEVV’s Rob Williams and WSON’s Bill Stephens for the tours!
Yes, the 2014 Tower Site Calendar has technically been two years in the making, since Scott gathered photos for it on the cross-country drive.
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 Indiana and Kentucky IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Danville, Illinois