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Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Ever play the “where else could I be happy living?” game? It’s a common pastime here, and one of the answers that always seems to come back is, “You know, Indianapolis would be a nice place.” For someone from what’s essentially another medium-sized midwestern city, there’s a lot to love about Indy. It’s big enough to have lots of urban amenities, save, perhaps, for a real football team. It’s small enough to be easily navigable, most of the time. It has better highway access to more of America than just about any other city you can imagine. And it has a long, wonderful broadcast history, too.
One of the most colorful pieces of Indianapolis’ broadcast tapestry is a fellow named Bill Poorman – or, as he was known on the air for many years, Bill Shirk. His family owned one legendary top-40 station, WERK in Muncie, and Shirk went on to become the star personality at another famed top-40, WXLW (950) in Indianapolis. Shirk had a second career, too, as a very talented stage magician. And then he went on to yet another career, building and then selling radio stations. In the 1990s, he put WHHH (96.3) on the air from downtown Indianapolis, and then he turned around and sold it and several sister stations to Radio One at the peak of the market.
But Bill Shirk didn’t leave radio: his latest turn found him putting several noncommercial FM signals on the air on the outskirts of Indianapolis: WIRE (91.1 Lebanon) carries another legendary Indy callsign, while WSPM (89.1 Cloverdale) and sister station WSQM (90.9 Noblesville) serve the far west and north sides of the market, respectively. When we stopped by in the summer of 2013, these stations were in their last months together as studio-mates, sharing space down the hall from Shirk’s office in the landmark “Pyramids” office towers on the northwest side of Indianapolis.
That’s “Radio Mom” WIRE above, not long before it was transferred to a new licensee and moved to new studios in downtown Lebanon, and just down the hall are two studios that were being used by the Catholic duo of WSPM/WSQM shortly before they, too, changed hands and moved to new studios in Castleton, just off the I-69/I-465 interchange.
Because Indianapolis had a channel 6 in the analog days, the low end of the FM dial in town used to be fairly empty – but one prominent exception was the University of Indianapolis’ WICR (88.7), which has been a part of the FM landscape here since 1962.
Today, WICR is a class B signal operating from modern studios (vintage 2005) in Esch Hall on the UIndy campus. It’s part of a fantastic broadcast program under the direction of Scott Uecker, who teaches his students more about the real world of radio and TV than many of the other academic programs we’ve seen out there.
There are three program streams that come out of the Esch Hall studios: the main signal is a mix of classical and jazz, cleverly mirrored on 88.7-HD2, where “The Mirror Image” is jazz while HD1 is classical and vice versa. And while HD1/HD2 strive to be as close to professional radio as possible, WICR’s HD3 is student-run “UIndy Radio,” a more traditional college station.
It’s not just the WICR studios that have been on the move these last few years (they moved in 1999, as well) – it’s also the transmitter. In the days when analog channel 6 was still on the air, WICR’s 88.7 signal (and the other big low-end FM signal in town, WFYI on 90.1) shared the channel 6 site in the tower farm along W. 79th Street on the northwest side of town. You can see what that site looked like at the end of the analog era in this Site of the Week installment from 2011, including a look at WICR’s old transmitter.
Since late 2009, WICR has made its transmitter home on a beefy American Tower facility that’s the newest addition to the tower farm. For now, at least, the big building at the base of the big tower still has lots of space for new tenants, and so WICR’s BE transmitter purrs away happily in one small corner of a very large open floor. (Other tenants here, on the lower level, include LeSea’s religious WHMB-TV and Daystar’s religious WDTI-TV, as well as an Emmis translator, W298BB on 107.5, that runs in parallel with spors “Fan” WFNI 1070, the old WIBC AM.)
In previous Site of the Week installments, we’ve explored bits and pieces of the blocks of North Meridian Street just north of downtown that has long been the hub of Indianapolis TV. (Here, for instance, we go inside the studios of WISH-TV, the longtime CBS affiliate in town; who knew, when we wrote that piece, that WISH would lose the CBS affiliation at the end of 2014 to longtime independent WTTV channel 4?)
Long before that seismic affiliation shift, the world of Indy TV was rocked once before, when Indy’s oldest TV station dropped its longtime NBC connection in 1979 to become an ABC affiliate. By then, channel 6 was already firmly planted at 1330 N. Meridian – and today, this building is by far the longest-serving home of any Indianapolis station.
When this building went up in the 1950s, channel 6 was WFBM-TV, the TV outgrowth of the city’s oldest radio station, WFBM (1260). The sell-off of Time Life’s broadcast properties in the early 1970s turned channel 6 into WRTV under new owner McGraw Hill, while radio moved out to its transmitter site northeast of downtown to become WNDE on the AM side and WFBQ on the FM side.
Over the years, 1330 N. Meridian has been renovated many times, and today’s visitors don’t even enter from Meridian Street. Instead, the main lobby is now in back, near the doors to Studio A, one of two locations from which WRTV originates newscasts. (It also has a satellite TV studio downtown in the Monument Circle headquarters of Emmis Communications.)
When we visited in 2013, there were some changes underway here: McGraw Hill’s TV holdings had just changed hands to become part of the bigger Scripps Howard group, and a new TV control room was under construction, with a temporary control room set up in one corner of TV studio B toward the front of the building.
Where the old lobby used to be in front is now part of an expanded newsroom, which sweeps around a corner to take in most of the front part of the first floor. And down in the basement, we see the master control hub McGraw Hill had built a few years earlier for all of its stations: whether you’re watching KMGH in Denver or KERO in Bakersfield or KGTV in San Diego, your ABC programming is coming from Indianapolis. (This facility has since been expanded to include the Scripps-Howard stations; combined with the LIN hub down the street at WISH-TV, this means something like 35 TV stations all have master control along these few blocks – and if you’re in Buffalo, your CBS, CW and ABC stations all have master control operators here on Meridian Street!)
Want to see some vintage pictures of this facility, all the way back to its construction in 1952? This site has plenty!
The southernmost of the Meridian Street TV studios, at 1000 N. Meridian, belongs to Dispatch-owned NBC affiliate WTHR (Channel 13), the market’s top-rated station, and it had just taken the wraps off a facelift of its own when we stopped by in late December 2014 en route to watching the big WISH-WTTV affiliation shuffle playing out.
WTHR’s previous news set had been moved to the smaller second studio during a lengthy reconstruction of the main studio, and the result sure was worth it.
The new set, which debuted in December, was designed by Clickspring, the same folks responsible for NBC’s network and O&O studios, among others – and it’s a neat combination of LCD screens, backlit panels and what we’re told is the only track-mounted camera in a local market this size. (It looks awfully nice on the air, too!)
Down the hall, the control room has been fully modernized for HD news production, and master control originates the main NBC signal as well as MeTV and a weather subchannel.
And now there’s still more of Indianapolis to see: on our next visit, we’ll have to see the new “CBS4” news operation, among other changes in this constantly-changing market.
Thanks to WICR’s Scott Uecker and the legendary Bill Shirk for the tours!
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Next week: Changes in Fort Wayne