Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Traveling the country as we do, it’s not hard to stumble across some unusual names for broadcast groups.
“Cup of Dirt, LLC”? We heard their stations on a Dakotas trip that you’ll see chronicled here later this year.
“Insane Broadcasting”? We heard them in St. Louis in the summer of 2012.
And then there’s “Ideastream” (or, as they prefer it, “ideastream”), the moniker created a few years ago when Cleveland’s public radio and TV stations came together under common management and, soon enough, a common roof, a Playhouse Square building known as the “Idea Center,” just a few doors down Euclid Avenue from CBS Radio’s stations in the Halle Building. (You know that building even if you don’t know you know it – it was the exterior of the department store where Drew Carey worked in the “Drew Carey Show.” Cleveland, as they say, rocks.)
But back down the block we go to 1375 Euclid and the “Idea Center,” where this August 2012 day found us starting upstairs at the most unusual part of this complex: the commercial radio station that was then in the process of being integrated into the “Ideastream.”
This is classical WCLV (104.9 Lorain), and our tour guide this day is none other than the station’s longtime owner, Cleveland broadcasting icon Bob Conrad.
WCLV was actually the newcomer in the Idea Center when we visited. It had been here barely a year when we toured the facility in 2012, and at that point it was still operating independently of the Ideastream stations downstairs. A bit of history here: Conrad and a partner, operating as “Radio Seaway,” bought independent FM station WDGO (95.5) in 1962, changed the calls to WCLV and the format to classical, and for half a century Conrad’s WCLV was one of the most prominent commercial classical voices in the country.
It did plenty of moving around over the years: the studios spent decades at Terminal Tower downtown before Conrad built “Radio Ranch” out in the eastern suburbs in the early 1990s, putting up a new self-supporting tower behind a new studio building off I-271. In 2001, a massive swap of facilities among three owners moved the WCLV calls and classical format from the big class B 95.5 signal (which went to Salem as Christian contemporary WFHM) to a rimshot class A on 104.9, operating from the far western suburb of Lorain, way across the market from much of WCLV’s core audience on the east side. In exchange for the big 95.5 signal, Conrad received cash (which helped sustain the WCLV operation) and a former Salem signal on 1420, ex-WHK, which took on a standards format as WCLV(AM) and then WRMR before being sold back to Salem in 2005. (It regained the WHK calls at that point, too.)
WRMR, it should be noted, was the callsign that had gone with the standards format on 850, a Salem frequency that became the new home of sports-talk WKNR in the big 2001 shuffle. Before it was WRMR, 850 was WJW – and in the 1950s, WJW made its studio home here at 1375 Euclid, where a marker outside notes the building’s place in the history of rock and roll, the term (erroneously) said to have been coined by WJW DJ Alan Freed.
Where were we, again? Right – WCLV, which began a slow transition out of commercial operation after the 2001 shuffle. While still operating commercially from the Radio Ranch studio, WCLV’s license was transferred to a nonprofit entity entrusted with retaining the classical format. Excess revenue went to the Cleveland Orchestra and other local cultural groups, and the commercial “Radio Seaway” continued to manage the station for the new nonprofit licensee. The partnership with Ideastream began with the move here to the Idea Center in 2011, followed in late 2012 (on the fiftieth anniversary of Conrad’s purchase) by an outright donation of the WCLV license to Ideastream. In 2013, WCLV converted to noncommercial operation, allowing its programming to be simulcast on the HD2 of bigger-signalled WCPN (90.3).
The WCLV studios upstairs, like all the Idea Center facilities, were designed for maximum transparency to the public. The glassed-in reception area (complete with vintage 1960s WCLV program guides on the side tables) leads into an open office area along the back of the building. Around a corridor, we pass a spacious engineering area and enter the studio core, which looks out into the main second floor hallway. There’s a big air studio (named for Conrad himself) at the center of this complex, surrounded by several smaller production rooms and voice booths, all linked up by Logitek consoles. Over the years, WCLV has developed a reputation as a national program producer (“Adventures in Good Music” with Karl Haas was probably the most famous), and today WCLV still originates Cleveland Orchestra broadcasts and “Weekend Radio,” the eclectic show in which Conrad shows off the quirkier side of his personality.
From WCLV, we move downstairs into the spaces used by the original Ideastream stations. WVIZ (Channel 25) is the Cleveland PBS station that had been operating from a smaller space out in suburban Brookpark, south of Cleveland within sight of the city’s main tower farm. Even after WVIZ’s studios moved out of Brookpark in 2006, its transitional DTV transmitter stayed put on a short tower there, at low power; WVIZ didn’t get to go to full power (on RF 26) until a few years later, when it shut down its analog transmitter at the site of WERE (1300)/WNCX (98.5) and relocated to the rebuilt tower of NBC affiliate WKYC (Channel 3/RF 17), just south of the old Brookpark studios.
The studio move to the first floor of the Idea Center came with two impressive studio spaces for local production: the Euclid Street frontage looks right into the “Smith Studio,” a 33-by-97 foot space that was set up for a pledge drive when we stopped in. The main entrance to the Idea Center tucks in alongside the Smith Studio’s side windows, and the back entrance to the studio opens into the atrium lobby for Ideastream.
Moving back from the front lobby, a long winding hallway designed as a public space leads down to the “Westfield Insurance Studio Theater,” a 62-by-44 foot space that includes audience seating for 250 people and a control room up at the top of the seating area.
The Westfield studio, on the west side of the building, looks across the big hallway to the glassed-in KeyBank Studio, designed mainly for live musical performances, complete with a top-notch audio control room at the rear.
There’s an isolation booth inside the KeyBank studio, too (you can see it at the right in the photo below).
The technical guts of Ideastream are downstairs, as are the studios for WCPN (90.3), the NPR news outlet that came here from rented space down the street at Cleveland State University. WCPN has a fascinating and unusual history: it’s the descendant of an early experimental “Apex” station started by the Cleveland schools way back in 1938. WBOE was one of several of those Apex stations to switch from AM to FM in the 40-megacycle band, and it was one of a smaller number of those stations that survived on FM after being kicked upstairs to 90.3 in 1948. After several decades as a purely educational station, WBOE evolved into a public radio station by the early 1970s, only to be killed off by budget cuts at the schools in 1978. For several years, WBOE remained on the air with a dead main carrier to support the reading service that lived on a SCA subcarrier; in 1984, a community group, Cleveland Public Radio, resurrected WCPN and restored full public radio service to a market that had been depending on Kent State’s WKSU (89.7), 35 miles to the south, in the meantime.
WCPN’s studios down on the ground floor also look out into the public hallway that leads to the rear entrance, down on this level. Anyone walking down that hallway can also peer into the WVIZ master control and production control suites, seen above, and into the WVIZ/WCPN rack room that adjoins it.
Like WCLV upstairs, the WCPN studios are built around a central core that consists of a main control room/air studio. Off the sides of that studio are smaller production rooms and a big talk studio that’s home to much of WCPN’s daily local talk programming.
Thanks to WCLV’s Robert Conrad for the tour!
Next week: Erie, PA, 2012