Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Sometime soon, Site of the Week really needs to spend some serious time catching up on Chicago, one of our favorite radio markets (and cities, period). But in the meantime, we offer some snapshots from a Chicago visit in the summer of 2015 that wasn’t really meant to be a radio trip at all, just a fun road trip with 7-year-old Eli in a car almost twice as old as he was, and with no air conditioning to boot.
When you have a kid who loves building things, though, no trip to Chicago is complete without a ride up to the top of at least one of the city’s several awesome skyscrapers – and when you’re a dad who knows a whole bunch of engineers, it’s easy to arrange a ride like that.
And so we found ourselves on the way up to the (wow, Dad!) 99th floor of the building we will insist on calling the Sears Tower, regardless of whatever name may have been on the door when we walked in.
This is a busy floor, home to several TV and radio transmitter rooms including Cumulus’ WLS-FM (94.7) – but our destination is the suite occupied by most of iHeart’s FM cluster. WLIT (93.9), WKSC (103.5) and WGCI-FM (107.5) all have their main transmitters here, in a neat row stretching back from a window with an amazing view out to the lake. Sister stations WEBG (95.5) and WVAZ (102.7) are a few miles north at the Hancock Center, though WEBG has an aux up here. It’s in a small room opposite the HD transmitters for WKSC and WGCI, adjacent to the combiners that send those signals up to one of the radomed antenna masts up on the roof.
After prying the young man away from the window view (it wasn’t easy!), we headed back down to ground level to do all sorts of non-radio things – there are many, many ways to keep a curious little guy amused in a great city like Chicago, after all.
A few days later, we pulled into Milwaukee just ahead of a summer storm, bound for a Brewers game and a DX get-together…and, yes, some radio visits, too.
We’d visited “Milwaukee Radio City,” the home of WTMJ radio and TV, almost exactly a decade earlier on one of our midwest Big Trips, but we had a few good reasons to go back.
First off, our good friend Tom Langmyer had made the move to Milwaukee after a long run as general manager in Chicago at WGN, and so we had to stop by and check out his new corner office, from which he now oversees the news-talk radio properties of what’s now the Scripps radio group.
Second, we wanted to check out the renovations in the radio studios since that 2005 visit – and they were quite impressive indeed!
Before we go inside, a note about the views outside: the WTMJ plant sits in the middle of a big tower farm just north of downtown Milwaukee. In addition to the 1000-foot guyed tower right out back for WTMJ-TV (Channel 4) and WKTI (94.5), there are two big candelabras just to the north that are home to Milwaukee’s PBS stations, WMVS/WMVT, and to several FMs as well. Just to the east (and in the background below) is the thousand-foot self-supporter that’s home to Fox affiliate WITI (Channel 6) and several more FMs. And there’s something missing – the original WTMJ-TV tower that was still out back here in 2005 was gone a decade later.
Inside, the radio studios fill the space that was once WTMJ’s big auditorium studio, right down the middle of the original Radio City building. They’re all decked out with new furniture and Axia consoles now, a nice upgrade from the old gear that still filled these rooms a decade earlier.
WKTI, in particular, had been through lots of changes: it went from AC as WKTI in 2005 to adult hits as WLWK, “The Lake,” not long after – and then went back to the WKTI calls with a country format right before we pulled into town. It hadn’t yet hired an airstaff at that point, but for all his skills with a coffee mug, we didn’t think Eli was going to get the morning gig there…and he doesn’t stay awake late enough to do nights, alas.
Our final morning in Milwaukee brought us together with one of our very favorite engineer friends, Entercom’s Chris Tarr, who had his own renovated studios to show off.
Since our 2005 visit here, Entercom added on a new wing to its studio building in suburban Hales Corner, putting new studio space, a new lobby and some new offices across what had been the front of the building.
It wasn’t obvious at first glance, but the walk into the lobby took us right past the windows of the new studios for top-40 WXSS (103.7 Kiss FM) and sports WSSP (1250), which open up into a new hallway that runs along what had been the old front of the building.
Look carefully in the WSSP studio (you can always click on any photo here on Site of the Week to enlarge it!) and you’ll see that the signage now says “105.7 the Fan.” That’s the new FM translator that carries WSSP’s programming from the WXSS site at the candelabra we showed you up above.
Kiss is next door, in a narrow light-filled room that has a nice view of its own out to the parking lot.
The WMYX studio has been rearranged, too, with new windows and a new doorway.
(The old WSSP studio is now an office, and the old WXSS space is now a production room, if memory serves.)
This is an unusual facility, you might recall, because there are two buildings here: across the parking lot from the studio/office building is the 1940s-era gem that’s housed the 1250 transmitters ever since that signal signed on.
We’d seen this facility again on a 2009 visit, and not much had changed this time around, but it’s still neat to look at.
There’s gear here from every single one of the last six decades, as far back as the RCA BTA-5T that’s still the aux for 1250 (above at left) and as new as the Nautels (above right) that power 1250 and 99.1 today.
Thanks to iHeart’s John Boehm, WTMJ’s Tom Langmyer and Entercom’s Chris Tarr for the tours!
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Next week: Terre Haute, Indiana