Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
You know what’s always a satisfying moment in the life of a transmitter site chronicler? When there’s a site you’ve driven by for years…and you finally get inside the gate to check it out close-up and personal. And it gets even better when the inside of the site is as impressive as our first stop on this week’s installment.
We’re on Ironwood Road just south of South Bend, Indiana on this August day in 2013, taking in the Art Deco magnificence that is the transmitter site of WSBT (960), WNSN (101.5), WSBT-TV (Channel 22) and the AM station’s recently-added translator, W241AD (96.1).
As best we can tell, this site was built just before World War II, at a point when South Bend’s oldest radio station, the South Bend Tribune‘s WSBT, was making the move from 1360 (where it shared time with WGES in Chicago) to its post-NARBA home at 960.
The original WSBT building here was a little more Deco-ish than its current incarnation, comprising only that tall center portion and one small wing on each side. But when WSBT added FM service and then, in 1952, WSBT-TV, the need for additional room meant more space was added on, especially on the south side (left side as seen from the gate above) for the TV transmitter.
There were, of course, a lot of transmitter buildings built with lovely Art Deco detailing back then – but few have survived and even been restored as beautifully as WSBT’s.
Whatever transmitter might have been in here in the 1940s or 1950s is long gone, of course, and the space it once occupied along a curved wall in the pit below the (yes!) railed-off visitors’ gallery is now occupied by transmitters for all three radio stations here. This is mostly a Harris plant now, with the “Sunny 101.5” transmitter on the left, a 1970s-era phasor in the middle, a Continental backup and Harris Gates Five main on the right for the AM, and the new Nautel translator perched proudly in the rack between the two AM rigs.
The wood-paneled transmitter room includes glass cases adjacent to the door to show off the station licenses, a big improvement over the dusty bulletin board we see at most sites these days, as well as a little museum of old test equipment mounted up above the current transmitters.
(Check out that floor! The WSBT folks had it replaced after the original linoleum floor here was damaged some years back.)
There’s an elevated walkway – wood-paneled, yet! – that runs behind the radio transmitters, which are glassed in on the back side. Go off to the left and a door that may once have led to a garage now leads to the addition that went up in the 1950s for WSBT-TV. The current Harris transmitters for WSBT-TV’s digital signal sit along a hallway that runs from the TV transmitter control room down to a big garage that also once housed the transitional digital rig on channel 30.
Out back, there are six towers on this site: the guyed 1048-footer that sits right out back went up in 1962 for the TV and FM signals, while the 5000-watt AM signal uses two different DA configurations. By day, it uses three of the four shorter self-supporters in a north-south line out back, plus the a doglegged taller self-supporter that was the original FM/TV tower. By night, 960 uses the four-tower in-line array.
That tall TV tower mattered a lot for a long time: back in the days of frequent NFL blackouts, WSBT-TV was just far enough from Chicago that it could still carry Bears games on Sundays…and just close enough that with good antennas, a lot of Chicagoland bars and apartment buildings could pull in Channel 22 as an alternate source to CBS’ own WBBM (Channel 2)!
In 1955, WSBT moved into a state-of-the-art studio building in the heart of downtown South Bend that lasted the station for more than half a century before it moved to its current state-of-the-art facilities in suburban Mishawaka. Right around the time of that 2008 move, we showed you in-depth looks at both the new studio and the old place. But until 2013, we didn’t get to see what became of the old studios after WSBT moved out.
After WSBT went out to Mishawaka, it handed the keys to its old building to the market’s public TV station, WNIT (Channel 34), which had been rather awkwardly housed over in Elkhart, where its studios occupied part of a public school building and its offices were in prefab structures in a parking lot, at least until a fire destroyed them.
When it got the chance to move to downtown South Bend, WNIT gutted most of the old WSBT plant. The main entrance moved from the middle of the block on Jefferson Street to the corner, the 1950s facade gave way to sleek shiny glass, and the whole facility was designed with an eye toward creating spaces for the greater South Bend community to interact with the station.
A few pieces of the old WSBT survived, sort of: while WNIT has a new control room complex on the first floor instead of the cramped second-floor rooms WSBT used, the TV studio at the core of the complex is largely unchanged, just with a new set at one end for WNIT’s “Experience Michiana” public affairs show, which is taping the day we visit.
At the southeast corner of the building, one piece of the old WSBT remains largely unchanged: WNIT hasn’t yet made much use of the studio complex where WSBT’s radio stations lived, and those old studios sit for the moment with consoles and other gear removed but with furniture largely intact. (Or at least they did in 2013…)
Not long after WSBT moved into its new Mishawaka digs, it almost ended up adding several more network affiliations to its longstanding CBS connection (and the independent programming it airs on 22.2).
Weigel Broadcasting, the Chicago-based entrepreneurs behind MeTV, This and several other digi-nets, had moved into South Bend in the 1990s with Fox on a low-power station, W58BT, later renamed WBND-LP. With a few strokes of luck in the mid-1990s (most notably longtime ABC affiliate WSJV’s move to Fox), Weigel ended up with ABC on WBND, later augmented by CW on WCWW-LP (Channel 25) and MyNetwork on WMYS-LP (Channel 69).
Here’s where WSBT comes in: in 2009, Schurz almost bought Weigel’s South Bend stations, with big plans to move ABC, CW and My in with CBS at its Mishawaka headquarters. But the FCC didn’t act quickly on the proposed purchase, and after it fell through, Weigel decided to expand its minimal news presence on WBND (an 11-minute update at 11 PM produced at Milwaukee sister station WDJT) into a full-fledged local news operation in South Bend.
Weigel built new digs for WBND and its sister stations in an office park adjacent to the Indiana Toll Road on the north side of town, and it’s a good bet no other LPTV in America has facilities quite this nice. There’s no master control here – that’s all centralized at Weigel HQ in Chicago – but there’s a good-sized newsroom and control room that produces a full slate of daily newscasts on WBND (plus morning and 10 PM shows for WCWW).
The small but functional studio sits right in the middle of the space, adjoining the newsroom on one side, the control room behind it and a big sales/promotions bullpen area on the other side. And one neat thing about the newsroom: to share a ceiling-mounted camera between the weather office and a newsroom flash position 20 feet or so away, the clever Weigel engineers hung it from a piece of sliding-door track that runs along the ceiling, allowing it to slide from one position to the other.
For a market that’s barely in the top 100, South Bend has a lot of local TV news: in addition to Weigel’s WBND/WCWW and Schurz’ WSBT/”SBT2″, there’s also Gray’s long-dominant NBC affiliate, WNDU (Channel 16) and a nightly 10 PM newscast at Fox affiliate WSJV (Channel 28).
Thanks to WSBT’s Jim Roberts, WNIT’s Greg Giczi and Weigel’s Tony Simons for the tours!
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Season two of “Top of the Tower” offered you several preview editions during the NAB Show last month in Las Vegas – and now we’re (finally!) back to regular weekly editions. Join host Scott Fybush and a wide variety of industry insiders every Wednesday for interesting conversation about what’s happening in the business of radio and TV, not to mention programming, engineering and the newsroom.
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Next week: Knox, Indiana and more!