Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Of all the places I got to go in the Florida trip I’ve been chronicling for the last few weeks here, one site stood out as among the most unusual I’ve ever visited – and one of the most remote, too.
Far from “tourist Florida,” Okeechobee is a gritty agricultural town right at the halfway point between the coasts, two-plus hours from the nearest big coastal cities – and 20 minutes north of Okeechobee up US 441, up there in the pancake-flat middle of nowhere, a left turn on “NW 240th Street” eventually brings us within sight of a huge field peppered with dozens upon dozens of short towers holding up wire antennas aimed out to all corners of the globe.
This is WRMI, “Radio Miami International,” the current occupant of the biggest shortwave transmitter facility in the country. But WRMI’s owners Jeff and Thais White are fairly recent arrivals out here at Okeechobee, where the history goes all the way back to Boston and 1927. That’s where shortwave experimental station W1XAL was founded. Over the years, W1XAL established a permanent plant at Scituate, south of Boston, evolving into WRUL before World War II. WRUL became “Radio New York Worldwide,” WNYW, in the 1960s, operating from studios in Manhattan with transmitters remaining in Scituate. Then came Family Stations, the California-based religious broadcaster that was in major expansion mode in the 1970s. It bought WNYW, renamed it WYFR, then began developing this site near Okeechobee in the mid-1970s, slowly moving transmitters south until it shut down Scituate for good in 1979.
When Family built WYFR out here, it built a self-sustaining facility, and a remarkable one at that: after moving several Gates and Harris transmitters south from Massachusetts, Family bought a Continental transmitter – and then bought the designs and some key parts from Continental and began making copies in a big workshop at the back of the facility!
Over the years that followed, WYFR ended up with 14 transmitters here, most of them its homebrew Continental copies, each pumping out 100 kilowatts to the world. And then Family hit some tough times after founder Harold Camping famously predicted the end of the world in 2011. The world, as you might recall, failed to cooperate, and Family began selling off or closing down its assets to help pay for the advertising campaign it had mounted.
This facility went dark in June 2013, but before Family could start selling it off in pieces, Jeff and Thais stepped in. A longtime shortwave fan, Jeff had put WRMI on the air in 1994 with just one 50 kW transmitter from a site in northern Dade County (near the 1210/1700 diplexed site we showed you a few weeks back.) With a growing demand to lease time, Jeff figured out that if he could get the WYFR site at a bargain price, he could begin lighting it back up for paying clients. And that’s just what happened: in December 2013, he turned this site back on, moved his old Miami transmitter (the 50 kW Rockwell Collins that’s now transmitter 6, shown above) up to Okeechobee, hired back the old WYFR staff, and he’s been rocking and rolling ever since.
The big building here is divided roughly into three sections, front to back: in front, there’s an office area on one side and a workshop on the other, separated by the front entranceway and the stairs that lead upstairs. In the middle is Family’s original transmitter core – two lines of five transmitters each, flanking a long control room that’s walled off in the middle (and completely enclosed in copper mesh). Much of the transmitter operation here is automated, albeit in 1970s/80s fashion; each transmitter has its own rack of control equipment that includes audio processing and frequency/antenna selection. Most of the programming that comes in these days arrives either by satellite or streaming, but there are still plenty of vestiges here of the days when the programs came by tape, too. There’s a small studio at the back of this area, which was intended at one point to be the local main studio for a Family-owned FM station to the east in the Fort Pierce area.
At the rear of the building is the addition that was put on to support construction of more transmitters, which were then placed on the sides of the workshop. A huge (and very warm) attic area provides storage and an overlook for the cooling system for the transmitters, as well as some of the transmission line that carries their signals out to the antennas.
This was a cloudy, windy March Saturday in central Florida, so these antenna pictures aren’t the greatest; in any event, no photos can really do justice to the huge spread of antennas that fan out around the transmitter building. A forest of exposed antenna switchers and open-wire feeders connect the antennas to the transmitters, and we’re thinking it must be a full-time job just keeping all of those posts and wires maintained.
You can learn more than you’d ever want to know about the antenna configuration at WRMI’s website. And if you ever find yourself in the area (or a plausible drive away from it), give Jeff and Thais a call and arrange a tour. They love showing it off, and it’s worth the drive from tourist Florida to come geek out at this magnificent facility.
What else is there to see around here? Not much, honestly: Lake Okeechobee, while enormous, isn’t really easy to see – when you get to the end of the road in the town of Okeechobee, all you see is the high levee that surrounds the lake and keeps it from flooding over into the town.
There’s just a little bit of local radio here to be seen: WOKC (1570 Okeechobee) and sister station WAFC-FM (106.1 Okeechobee) have studios in a little office building on one of the main drags downtown. The WOKC AM tower (and its FM translator at 100.9) sits next to a church east of downtown, with a folded unipole antenna mounted on a mast right in the church playground.
Thanks to WRMI’s Jeff and Thais White for the tour!
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Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
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Next week: Florida’s Treasure Coast