Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
In addition to the KMOX visit we documented a few weeks back, our summer 2012 midwest jaunt (accompanied by our good Fort Wayne buddy Blaine Thompson of Indiana RadioWatch) included one more “Things That Won’t Be There Much Longer” stop.
Our stop at 918 Ohio Street in Terre Haute, Indiana was a little different from the other “see ’em before they’re gone” stops of 2012, though, because we’d been here before. Back in 2005, our first visit to Terre Haute included some time in this building, just as the stations within were splitting into two ownership groups. Emmis, which had bought both WTHI-TV (Channel 10) and WTHI-FM (99.9 Terre Haute)/WWVR (105.5 West Terre Haute) from the stations’ founders, the Hulman family, was selling its last TV holding to LIN Television. At the time, we confidently explained, “the radio stations will continue to occupy their space to the left of the lobby, while the WTHI-TV studio will stay put right behind the lobby, with master control right next to it. ”
But urban redevelopment is a powerful force, and a half-dozen years later, the two owners here were getting ready to split so that the city could turn 918 Ohio into a parking lot.
And so we needed to come back to see the rest of this venerable building before the wrecking ball showed up to demolish what appears to have been the oldest TV studio structure in America.
How’s that again? Yes, while the WTHI stations had been here only since the mid-1950s, the three-story building itself was built way back in 1906 as a garment factory. When the Hulmans put WTHI-TV on the air in 1954, they renovated the old factory into a studio for the TV station and its radio sisters, WTHI (1480) and WTHI-FM (99.9). But the Hulmans (famed for their baking soda business, located just up the street, as well as their interest in auto racing and for putting the money behind Terre Haute’s Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology) didn’t get as rich as they did by overbuilding, and the radio and TV stations needed only two floors of this building, leaving the top floor mostly vacant for many decades.
In the summer of 2012, WTHI radio and TV looked pretty much the same way they’d looked for decades. The awning out on Ohio Street led into a classically 1950s-style wood-paneled lobby, with a ramp leading behind the reception desk on the left into the radio area, a door in the middle leading straight back to the TV studio, and a door to the right leading to a hallway down to the TV control room and the stairs leading up.
When LIN took over the TV side from Emmis, it added WTHI-TV to its hub in Indianapolis, where a room upstairs at WISH-TV (Channel 8) houses master control operations for more than a dozen LIN stations in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and beyond. That left the old master control area toward the front right corner of the building semi-vacant, and with a move to a new home in the offing, the old production control room behind it didn’t get an upgrade to HD while it remained at Ohio Street, either.
The TV studio at the middle of the building was simply carved out of what had been factory space, which explains the column right in the middle of things. But the ceilings were nice and high and the space was pretty big, so WTHI-TV was able to do plenty in this studio in the nearly six decades it called it home. (It had also put a new set in here since our 2005 visit; I think pieces of this set moved up the street to the new studio a few months later.)
In 2005, we hadn’t been able to get upstairs, but our 2012 visit took us up a flight of stairs to the TV station’s offices on the second floor. That included a break room still shared with radio, TV sales offices, and a newsroom at the middle of it all, with edit bays in an adjoining hallway.
Under LIN, WTHI remained the dominant TV news operation here; it added to its reach not long before our visit when LIN added the Fox affiliation on the 10.2 subchannel. (Fox had been on channel 38, the shared-services partner to Nexstar’s NBC affiliate WTWO-TV 2; channel 38 changed from Fox affiliate WFXW back to its former ABC affiliation as WAWV, returning ABC to the market after an absence of more than a decade.)
Upstairs, the third floor that the Hulmans never built out was still straight out of 1906. On the west side of the building, big windows offered a nice view toward downtown Terre Haute from a mostly open wooden floor dotted here and there by storage for old equipment.
On the east side, plywood walls framed off the area where WTHI-TV’s original transmitter had been before relocating to a taller tower way south of town, and where WTHI-FM’s transmitter had just moved out. The TV station’s studio-transmitter link still hung on the self-supporting tower next door, and the old transmitter rooms upstairs still housed WTHI-TV microwave gear and two older WTHI-FM transmitters, a Gates and a newer Harris.
From that nifty old attic, we descended to the ground floor to visit with the Emmis radio folks at WTHI-FM and WWVR, and to revisit the studios we’d seen back in 2005.
Not much had changed here over the years: heading to the left from the shared lobby, there was a cluster of studios along the front of the building that had been built mostly for the AM station way back when. What I think had been the AM station’s main air studio had become a production room with a big window facing Ohio Street; next to that was the cozy main air studio for “Hi-99,” the ratings monster that was (and is) country WTHI-FM. (That was midday jock Diane in the air studio when we stopped by.)
“The River,” WWVR, was mostly automated, so its air studio was just a small booth next to the FM studio. A hallway bent back from the air studios to a bullpen area at the back of the building for programming and sales staffers, with a smaller production studio and rack room at the rear corner of the building next to the bullpen.
(What happened to WTHI’s AM station? The big 1480 directional array had become something of a liability as the market turned heavily to FM, and in 2000 it changed hands to religious broadcaster Paul Ford, who now runs it as WPFR.)
So that’s the “before,” from just a few weeks ahead of Emmis’ move out of the building, and at some point soon we need to make our way back to western Indiana to check out the “after” in completed form. But we can show you the “in progress,” thanks to a quick tour of the new WTHI/WWVR digs that were being finished up in the new building at 925 Wabash Street, right behind the back parking lot at 918 Ohio. Emmis was headed for the top floor of the new building, in a sleek new space with a row of Axia-equipped studios stretching right back from a lobby at the front corner of the building.
The Emmis cluster went through some changes not long after making the move up here in late August 2012, just weeks after our visit. Another cluster in Terre Haute radio, the Crossroads Communications stations that had been just down Ohio Street, was splitting up: its WBOW (1300 West Terre Haute) and WBOW-FM (102.7 Terre Haute) went to Duke Wright’s Midwest Communications, while its WSDX (1130 Brazil) and WSDM-FM (92.7 Brazil) went to Emmis. Emmis kept sports on the daytimer AM as “ESPN 1130” WFNF, while relaunching the FM (which had also been doing sports) as “Bob 92.7,” WFNB.
Looking back at the old building from the front windows of the new radio building, we can see the base of the old 1954 TV tower – and if you look closely below it, there’s a new prefab building constructed to house the WTHI-FM transmitter and other rental properties once their old space on the top floor of 918 Ohio Street was demolished.
When we visited, WTHI-FM had just moved its BE transmitter downstairs from the old transmitter room; I believe the old Harris from upstairs was due to move down as well to become a backup for “Hi 99.”
There was plenty of room in the new building for more transmitters, too, and not long afterward Emmis acquired a translator at 99.5 to relay WFNF’s programming, which became “The Fan 1130/99.5.”
As for WTHI-TV, it didn’t go far either. While the Emmis radio stations stayed so close to the old building that some staffers are now parking their cars on the lot where the old studio building sat, the TV station moved just a couple of blocks west to 800 Ohio Street.
The TV station wasn’t quite as close to moving, and so we weren’t able to get a look inside that building, which was still under construction in early August 2012. WTHI-TV made its move in October 2012, and on our next ride through Terre Haute, we’ll be sure to stop by and get a look at the finished product.
And as long as we were doing the “Things That Won’t Be Here Much Longer” tour, that’s the old Crossroads studio at 1301 Ohio Street shown above at right. The historic home of WBOW radio was already mostly empty when we stopped by: the AM 1300 and FM 102.7 facilities had already moved to the Midwest studios south of downtown. The former WBOW-FM (102.7) had become country WDWQ, challenging WTHI-FM; AM 1300 was off the air, but it eventually returned very briefly as news-talk WIBQ before Midwest acquired a new construction permit for 1230 and moved WIBQ there, surrendering the daytime-only 1300 license. The WBOW calls migrated across the state line to 98.5 in Paris, Illinois, which had been doing news-talk with the WIBQ calls when we stopped by in 2012.
And that brings us really full circle: the original WBOW (“Banks of the Wabash”) that had occupied this building was itself on 1230 before moving to 640. Those frequencies, as well as sister station WZZQ (107.5, the original WBOW-FM), went silent in the 1990s when their then-owner, Mike Rice, was convicted of a felony. 107.5 remains silent even now as several noncommercial applicants compete for the channel. 1230, as noted, finally came back home – and 640 ended up in the hands of the Birach family, which is in the process of surrendering its own 640 signal in western Michigan so it can move the Terre Haute 640 permit to the far Chicago suburbs, with a new city of license of Peotone, Illinois.
Thanks to WTHI-TV’s Todd Weber and Emmis’ James Conner and Eric Michaels for the tours!
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Next week: From Terre Haute to Lafayette, Indiana