Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We spend, as you probably know, way too much time visiting Indiana – and yet somehow we’ve given far too short shrift over the years to the stations that live just across the line in neighboring Michigan.
In the company of our RadioInsight.com colleague Lance Venta, we set out to try to fix that in July 2016 by embarking on what we’ll call our “2016 Medium Trip,” making our way northward along Michigan’s western shore, then southward down the middle of the state and eventually southeast to Detroit.
We began on a Thursday evening in Kalamazoo, a city we’d passed through several times without ever stopping to see towers. Our recap here starts at the northern end of the market, where venerable WKZO (590) has been on McKinley Avenue (then known as “WKZO Road”) since 1938. WKZO had already been around for 15 years by then – it started at what was then Emanuel Christian College in Berrien Springs, south of here, in 1922 as amateur station 8AZ and then as commercial station KFGZ and then WEMC.
The college (now Andrews University) sold the station in 1930 to John Fetzer, who’d helped build it, and Fetzer ran WKZO into the 1990s alongside a growing broadcast empire, about which we’ll see more in a bit.
A few miles southeast of WKZO’s towers is another four-tower array, the transmitter and studio home of WKMI (1360). WKMI came along in 1947 as one of WKZO’s first local AM competitors, and today it’s a Townsquare-owned talk station.
Its studio building at the center of the AM array at the end of Jennings Drive is also home to Townsquare’s FMs in the market, top-40 WKFR (103.3 Battle Creek) and rock WRKR (107.7 Portage), plus a country translator at 102.5 fed from WKFR’s HD2.
From here, we swing around to the south side of Kalamazoo, where we find the three-tower array that’s now home only to WQLR (1660). This site just west of the Kalamazoo airport was the longtime home of WKLZ (1470), which signed on in 1956 and left the air exactly 50 years later in favor of its expanded-band sister. Today, WQLR is all sports, a sister station to WKZO.
Continuing south from the 1660 site brings us to the lakeside town of Portage, where the two towers of WNWN (1560) sit next to South Westnedge Park on South Westnedge Avenue. The adult R&B station calls itself “Magic 95.5,” and it’s heard primarily on its FM translator these days.
After WKLZ left 1470, religious WKPR (1420) saw an opening: it bought out former sister station WDOW (1440) in Dowagiac, south and west of Kalamazoo, and moved from a 1000-watt daytime-only directional signal to 2.7 kW days and 24 watts at night, non-directional. Both of the old towers still stand at WKPR’s hilltop home off Ravine Avenue on the northwest side of Kalamazoo.
Just west of WKPR (and just east of US 131), we find two towers that are home to several FM and TV signals. Cornerstone University’s WCXK (88.3) is up here, below the batwing antenna of public broadcaster WGVK (Channel 52, which ended up on VHF channel 5 for its DTV signal). The shorter tower here has a UHF antenna for a replacement translator on RF 30 that brings Kalamazoo the Fox programming of WXMI (Channel 17) from Grand Rapids.
We didn’t get the opportunity to do any studio tours in Kalamazoo (we’ll have to get back there one day soon!), but we did swing by WKZO’s longtime studio home at 590 W. Maple Street south of downtown, still home to its former TV sister WWMT (Channel 3), as well as the current WKZO studios at 4200 W. Main Street. WKZO is now part of Midwest Communications, and this building also houses sister stations WNWN, WQLR, alternative rock WZOX (96.5 Portage), AC WVFM (106.5) and a studio for country WNWN-FM (98.5 Coldwater, to the east).
The next morning found us westbound on I-94 to Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, the southernmost Michigan broadcast communities on the Lake Michigan shore.
WHFB (1060 Benton Harbor) signed on from studio and transmitter on Fairplain Avenue back in 1947, but the AM signal has fallen on some hard times recently. It was silent for a while, then became a sister station to WIMS (1420 Michigan City IN); today, the studios are located at WIMS in Michigan City and the big building at the base of the tower appears to be sitting empty. The former WHFB-FM (99.9) no longer uses this tower – it’s now a rimshot to South Bend, and it was just in the process of changing calls to WQLQ right after we passed through here last summer.
The competing cluster in town belongs to Mid-West Family Broadcasting (as does, ironically, the former WHFB-FM), and we find its studio at 580 E. Napier Ave. This building houses WSJM (1400 St. Joseph) and its FM sisters, WSJM-FM (94.9 Benton Harbor), WYTZ (97.5 Bridgman) and WIRX (107.1 St. Joseph). WSJM(AM) and its translator at 95.7 do sports, WSJM-FM is news-talk, WYTZ is country and WIRX is rock; the AM and the translator use the tower in the field back behind the studio.
From Benton Harbor, we head northeast to Grand Rapids with rain on our tail, and so we’re happy that our next destination is indoors. Grand Valley State University sits right alongside the river in downtown Grand Rapids, and it’s home to public broadcaster WGVU, where we get a last-minute tour as Friday afternoon draws to a close.
The TV side of WGVU includes WGVU-TV (Channel 35) in Grand Rapids and sister station WGVK in Kalamazoo, which simulcast from studio and control facilities on the ground floor of the Meijer Public Broadcasting Center.
The radio stations are upstairs: WGVU-FM (88.5 Allendale)/WGVS-FM (95.3 Whitehall) carry a fairly standard public radio news-talk format, while WGVU (1480 Kentwood)/WGVS (850 Muskegon) does a very neat oldies format, a rarity in the public radio landscape.
As we leave WGVU and head for our hotel, the rain opens up and most of the rest of the afternoon’s tower-hunting plans are completely washed out – but the weather clears in time for us to head out for a few quick shots before we head to a West Michigan Whitecaps baseball game.
South of downtown at 120 College Ave SE, we drive past the big studio building of WOOD-TV (Channel 8), the Media General-owned NBC affiliate that serves a sprawling stretch of west Michigan. (It and Kalamazoo’s WWMT both have towers near each other in the Gun Lake area, halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo; we saw the WWMT site in the analog days and profiled it right here some years back.)
Up by the ballpark, right off the side of US 131, we find the tower of WTKG (1230) in a hotel parking lot; go far enough back and this was WJEF(AM), John E. Fetzer’s Grand Rapids sister to WKZO in Kalamazoo. (WJEF-FM on 93.7, while licensed to Grand Rapids, operated from the WKZO-TV tower near Gun Lake, using 320 kW of superpower; it’s now country WBCT.)
Did you know Grand Rapids is the “Furniture City”? That nickname is immortalized in the callsign of religious station WFUR (1570)/WFUR-FM (102.9), a sister to Kalamazoo’s WKPR. Its studio and transmitter site (and now that of the AM’s translator at 92.9 as well) sits at the end of Garfield Avenue, southwest of downtown – and if you look very carefully in the background at the left of the towers in the photo above, you can see one more tower out here on the west side, the stick of Cumulus talker WJRW (1340), the station long known as WLAV.
Thanks to the staff of WGVU for the tour!
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
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.
Don’t forget you can still visit our store to check out our other great products. We’ll be taking preorders for the 2021 calendar soon. Stay tuned!
And don’t miss a big batch of West Michigan IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Medium Trip 2016, part II – from Holland to Traverse City