Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
How long can you drive back and forth across Ohio before finally stopping to check out a unique co-located AM/FM/TV cluster that does local news in a tiny market?
It took us somewhere north of 25 years of traipsing back and forth from Indiana to upstate New York before we finally hooked up with the nice folks at Mansfield, Ohio’s WMFD (Channel 68), WVNO (106.1) and WRGM (1440) – and we wish we hadn’t waited so long to see all the neat stuff inside that modest brown building just off Route 309 in Ontario, Ohio, just west of Mansfield proper.
Typically, a cluster like this would have started with an AM station back in the 1940s or 1950s, followed by FM and TV later on. But this isn’t a typical cluster at all, because Johnny Appleseed Broadcasting here actually started with FM, of all things.
WVNO signed on here in 1962, competing as a 20 kW standalone FM against two established AMs, WMAN (1400) and WCLW (1570), as well as WCLW’s FM on 105.3, another 1962 sign-on.
How many FM standalones survived back then, especially in markets this size with two AMs competing? Not many – but WVNO survived, thrived and eventually added AM and TV sisters many years later on, all under the steady guidance of the Meisse family.
The stations have never moved in all these years, though the facility has certainly grown. When we stopped by in December 2016, it was hard to pick out the original 1962 facility amidst all the additions and renovations over the years, but it’s still there underneath, mainly on the right side of the current facility as seen from 309. Walk into the radio part of the building today and you’ll find yourself in a hallway with studios on one side and WVNO’s vintage RCA transmitter amidst some racks on the other side.
There are now four signals coming from the radio operation here: WVNO does AC as “Mix 106,” WRGM does sports both on AM 1440 and a recent FM translator at 97.3, and WVNO’s HD2 channel feeds contemporary Christian music to another translator at 99.3 as “The Light.” (Their automation systems are all lined up neatly in racks at the back of the studio complex.)
Working our way toward the rear of the facility brings us to the old WVNO fallout shelter, now repurposed as a production room – and then around the corner to the newer part of the building that houses the Meisse family’s TV operation, WMFD-TV and WOHZ-LP.
There’s a fascinating history behind this TV station, and it goes something like this: in 1986, a CP was granted for a new channel 68 in Mansfield, first as WLCH and then WCEO-TV. It’s not clear that it ever signed on as WCEO-TV, but it was definitely on the air by 1988 as independent WCOM-TV, running a big 2.5 megawatt signal from a 1600-foot tower, the tallest in Ohio, halfway between here and Columbus. While the new indie targeted Columbus viewers, it didn’t get on cable there and lasted only a few years before shutting down.
The tower was sold off, dismantled and ended up in South Carolina; the license migrated back to Mansfield and into the hands of Gunter Meisse, who combined it with his low-power TV station, WOHZ channel 50 and relaunched it from here as independent WMFD-TV in 1992, this time from a new tall tower out behind the expanded WVNO building.
A quarter-century on, WMFD has already grown through several expansions back here, replacing its original SD analog control room with a much slicker new HD digital control room that sits behind the TV studio. (There were school choirs in the studio this December morning, recording a show that would air later in the holiday season.)
WMFD’s news operation was one of the first in the region to go HD, and it does lots of news on a fairly limited staff, working from a virtual set on a green screen in one corner of the studio.
This operation is very big on high school sports, too, as shown by the two remote trucks that live in the garage out back, feeding lots of live and recorded sports coverage back to WMFD viewers and to listeners of all three radio stations.
How about some towers? The old WVNO tower still stands out front next to the studio building, but it’s only a last-ditch aux for 106.1 these days. Once WMFD signed on here, WVNO also moved back to the new TV tower, which sits back in the woods behind the studio (with a house in between!)
This 470-foot tower has a lot going on, crowned at the top by the antenna for WMFD’s digital signal on VHF channel 12.
(Viewers who can’t get WMFD over the air can see it on DirecTV and Dish throughout the extended Cleveland market, which gives the station potential viewers more than 100 miles away, all the way to the Pennsylvania border.)
The radio side of the building here has an older RCA that serves as a WVNO aux, as well as the transmitter for WOHZ (now on RF channel 41), a rack for American Family Association’s WAUI (88.3 Shelby), which leases tower space, and a newer Nautel that is WVNO’s main analog/HD rig.
The next room over used to house WMFD’s analog channel 68 transmitter and now houses the DTV on channel 12, plus the racks that house the two translators on 97.3 and 99.3.
(Look up at the antenna close-up above and you’ll see both translator antennas nestled between the WVNO main and the 2-bay ERI for WAUI below.)
Keep driving down the private gated road past the FM/TV tower and you’ll come to the big clearing that was carved out in 1987 when WVNO finally added its AM sister.
WRGM was a tight squeeze indeed: it took six towers back here just to fit in a 1 kW daytime pattern that squeezes most of its power out to the southeast, protecting stations on 1440 in Warren and up in the Detroit area, among others. It later added 28 watts at night feeding that same six-tower array; needless to say, the addition of the FM translator made a big difference!
On the way out of Mansfield, we stop by another historic broadcast site.
Northwest of downtown Mansfield on McPherson Street, the old WCLW had its studios and transmitter going all the way back to the 1957 debut of the AM station. WCLW-FM on 105.3 evolved into WYHT (105.3), which survived after the AM (which had moved from 1570 to 1140 before unsuccessfully seeking full-time operation on 1160) went away in the late 1980s.
It’s just the FM tower for WYHT out here now; once 105.3 came under common ownership with former competitor WMAN 1400, its studios moved to WMAN’s 1400 Radio Lane facility, now home to iHeart’s local cluster.
And we leave you with one more stop along the upgraded US 30 that runs through north central Ohio: Saga’s two stations in Bucyrus make their studio home in a quirky old house near downtown, while the towers for both WBCO (1540) and WQEL (92.7) sit south of town in farmland off Shearer Road, with a new 107.5 translator for WBCO as the latest addition to the site.
Thanks to Wayne Fick for the tours!
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 Ohio IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Indiana, December 2016