Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Lots of people pick on Cleveland – but you won’t find any negative talk about Ohio’s biggest market here. As the halfway point on our frequent trips between upstate New York and the in-laws in Indiana, northeast Ohio is a place we visit frequently…but usually without enough time to really stop and visit with the great engineers who call the area home.
In the summer of 2014, we had a chance to fix that, spending most of a day with veteran Cleveland engineer (and DJ) Ted Alexander and getting inside a bunch of sites we’d only ever seen from the outside.
We started, appropriately enough, in Royalton Heights at one of Ted’s proudest accomplishments: the 1999 rebuild of what was then WRMR (850). The 850 frequency in Cleveland was the longtime home of WJW, a station that actually started in the early 1920s in Akron. As part of a big realignment of northeast Ohio radio (more on that in a bit), WJW moved to Cleveland and to 850 on the dial in 1943, running 5000 watts day and night from this very site in Royalton Heights.
Changes in FCC rules allowed for 850 to get a big boost in power in the 1990s, and after several years of work, then-WRMR ended up with a brand-new six-tower array and a new transmitter building (replacing an earlier transmitter building that had been expanded to add studios) – and a new day power of 50,000 watts, dropping to a more tightly directional 4700 watts at sunset. You could eat lunch off the floor of that transmitter room, with its DX50 for day use and DX10 for night and backup; the phasor at left feeds four of the six towers by day (with a signal that blasts westward as far as Indiana and southern Michigan) and a different four-tower array (with two shared towers) at night.
The massive shuffle of ownership, calls and formats in the summer of 2001 turned 850 from standards WRMR into sports WKNR, and that’s what it’s been ever since, now under the ownership of Craig Karmazin’s Good Karma Broadcasting.
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Our next stop takes us just over a mile northward on Ridge Road to one of the most visually distinctive sites in the forest of towers that dots this hilly area south of Cleveland. That four-tower array is Cleveland’s AM 1300, which signed on here in 1949 as WERE, part of the post-war boom in radio activity. WERE was so eager to get on the air that it actually signed on an FM station, WERE-FM 98.5, even before it put the AM on the air – and 98.5 has been here at this site ever since, today as CBS Radio’s WNCX. The 826-foot guyed tower that sits in front of the AM array had another tenant for many years: in the analog era, this was also the home of public broadcaster WVIZ-TV (Channel 25). Though it ended up building its DTV site elsewhere, WVIZ’s old analog antenna still sits at the top of the tower, right above the panel antenna for WNCX, now shared with sister station WQAL (104.1, the descendant of the long-ago WJW-FM).
On the AM side, WERE ended up as part of Radio One’s Cleveland cluster, and in 2007 it swapped calls and formats with gospel sister WJMO (1490 Cleveland Heights); today, it’s gospel WJMO on 1300 from this site and talk WERE from the 1490 site east of downtown Cleveland.
The last site we’ll show you in this week’s installment is another link in our ongoing “Things That Weren’t Going To Be There Much Longer” series. We’d long been extremely eager to see inside the building at 9446 Broadview Road in Broadview Heights, east and a bit south of the 850 site, and it’s not hard to see why: the long history of radio at this site left behind one of the last RCA BTA-50F transmitters still in the wild – but it was due to be removed just a few months after our visit.
That five-tower array above (and remember, you can always click on any image here to see a larger version!) went up in 1944 when George A. Richards moved his station WGAR from 1480 to 1220 as part of a rare FCC exception to the wartime freeze on the construction of new AM facilities. FCC commissioner Lawrence Fly defended the grant in a Congressional hearing by explaining that WGAR’s previous facility at 1000 Harvard Ave. in Cuyahoga Heights had been negatively affected by the wartime expansion of an Alcoa aluminum plant nearby, and that the FCC needed to secure the use of 1220 in Ohio under the NARBA treaty that had come into effect in 1941. (WADC on 1350 in Akron had also applied to move to 1220, but was denied.)
WGAR moved its existing two towers and RCA 5D transmitter from Cuyahoga Heights to the new site, salvaged copper for a ground system from Richards’ sister station WJR in Detroit and refitted an old farmhouse at the Broadview Heights site for use as the new transmitter building – and when it left 1480 behind, WHBC in Canton moved from 1230 to 1480, leaving just enough of a directional notch to also allow for the new 1490 in Cleveland Heights after the war that eventually became WJMO.
The boost to 50,000 watts came after World War II, as did the addition of WGAR-FM on 99.5, using a two-bay batwing antenna that’s still mounted on one of the five 200-foot towers out back that accompanied the power boost. The move to 50 kW required a new transmitter building, which was actually still under construction when RCA delivered the first BTA-50F to the site; it was protected by tarps until the roof overhead could be completed!
That first BTA-50F was long gone when we visited in 2014, and we’ll see what became of its old space in a moment. The BTA-50F that was still here arrived in the early 1970s, installed in a new addition at the back of the building to house this rig that WGAR bought as surplus after WBAP and WFAA, which had shared it on 820 kHz, had to move from its transmitter site to make room for the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. (WGAR paid just $7500 for the transmitter and a large stock of spare parts, buying them not from WBAP but from the airport authority that had condemned the old site and paid for WBAP/WFAA to move.)
All you’d ever want to know technically about this majestic transmitter, and then some, can be found at Jim Hawkins’ excellent page on the site. This particular 50F was still in excellent condition at the end, from the pair of 5671 PA tubes to that beautiful stack of mercury rectifier tubes. The building around it, hastily constructed in 1971 as an “L” off the rear left side of the original transmitter room, wasn’t in such great shape, which helps to explain why the transmitter had to go. (It’s been saved and may eventually end up in a museum.)
That original 1946 transmitter room still sits at the core of what eventually became a two-story studio/office structure that was expanded out toward Broadview Road. Today, there’s a Harris 3DX50 sitting on the left side of the wall that was once filled by the original 50F. That’s a lower-power Nautel for backup next to it, and a space off to the right where an MW50 had originally replaced the 50F in the 1970s. The wall to the left has racks that still bear a “WGAR FM” sign from the early FM days here, and the original front wall of the transmitter building is now lined with windows that look into what had been studio spaces here in WGAR’s later years.
How did this studio/office space end up as storage? In 1990, then-owner Nationwide Communications sold the 1220 facility off separately from WGAR-FM. The AM side kept its studios here at Broadview Heights, changing format to sports and calls to WKNR. Amidst the big consolidations of the 1990s, WKNR ended up back with WGAR-FM under Jacor’s ownership, but not for long: it was swapped to Capstar for WTAE (1250) over in Pittsburgh and then sold off to Salem in 2000. In 2001, the 1220 facility was part of the big frequency/call/ownership shuffle: while it stayed with Salem, it sent the WKNR sports format down the dial to 850, with 1220 changing calls to WHKC and then WHK and picking up the religious format from WHK’s longtime home on 1420. The studios for WKNR on 850 stayed here for a little while longer, but Salem eventually sold that station to Good Karma, which moved WKNR to new digs in downtown Cleveland, leaving the old studio and office space here vacant.
In 2005, Salem once more realigned its Cleveland station lineup: 1220 became religious talk WHKW (“the Word”), and the WHK calls returned to 1420 – which we’ll see in next week’s exciting installment.
Thanks to Ted Alexander and Salem’s Cleveland engineering team for the tour!
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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: From Cleveland to Akron