Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Longtime Tower Site of the Week readers might recall that we have a tangled history with the Lafayette, Indiana market in wintertime. Back in 2004, this was our December destination for the trip we memorably dubbed the “Icy Slide ‘Round Central Indiana,” wherein we decided that a massive ice storm was a great opportunity to go visit broadcast facilities, not all of which even had power when we stopped by.
We hadn’t been back to Lafayette for a serious visit in a dozen years, and a brief window of opportunity in December 2016 (just ahead of the 100th birthday celebrations for Mrs. NERW’s grandmother in Fort Wayne) presented itself for a rather less icy, but still chilly, return to many of those same stations, nearly all of them under new ownership.
Just south of Lafayette, the cluster that had long been one of the gems of Artistic Media Partners was in the process of being sold to Bill Christian’s “Lafayette TV LLC,” which had also recently acquired a low-power TV station (WPBI-LD 16) and relaunched it as a new NBC/Fox affiliate for the market, which had previously had only its own CBS affiliate.
Only the logos had changed much since our last visit here; hot AC WAZY (96.5) was still in the big studio out front by the lobby, while “Bob FM” WBPE (95.3 Brookston) was in the former WAZY studio across the hall.
The third FM in the cluster had recently rebranded as “Your Country,” and WYCM (95.7 Attica) was down the hall in a small studio that also originates the Purdue sports network. The AM in the group, Fox Sports outlet WSHY (1410), is a two-tower signal, with the tower closer to the building (a replacement since our last visit) heavily festooned with cellular antennas and STLs, fed from a rack room at the back of the building.
Across town on McCarty Lane, the other big commercial cluster in town has changed hands from Schurz Communications to Illinois-based Neuhoff Communications, and along the way has added two more stations that had been competitors back in 2004.
Country WKOA (105.3), classic hits WASK-FM (98.7 Battle Ground) and ESPN affiliate WASK (1450) were the Schurz stations we saw here last time, with top-40 WXXB (102.9 Delphi) and rock WKHY (93.5) having joined the family from RadioWorks a few years back. That’s meant renovations to the studio cluster that occupies most of the first floor here, and we think we got the labels right below but could be mistaken.
The transmitter room across the hall from the studios had been completely reworked since our 2004 visit – WKOA had moved out from here to the WXXB tower on the north side of town near the new SR 25 “Hoosier Heartland Highway” extension, the old AM transmitter had given way to a newer BE, and the WPBI-LD transmitter now occupied the center of the transmitter room, which was a bit ironic considering that the LPTV station is now a sister to the Neuhoff radio stations’ archrivals.
Across the river in West Lafayette, our 2004 visit to Purdue University’s NPR stations had started ignominiously when your editor took a tumble on an icy sidewalk outside the Edward C. Elliott Hall of Music, where WBAA’s studios occupy a basement suite.
This time, all members of our traveling party remained entirely upright when entering the building. Downstairs, things looked pretty much as they had in 2004, when the WBAA studios had just undergone a massive renovation.
It’s aged quite nicely, really – in the studio half of WBAA’s space, two display cases housing artifacts from the station’s long history flank the glass-walled row of studios. At the left side is the control room used for most of WBAA’s news programming, adjoining a talk studio; on the right, the room used for the music programming heard on WBAA-FM (101.3). Between them sits WBAA’s rack room, which looks out on a lounge area with some comfy chairs where we have a nice chat with then-GM Mike Savage.
Our morning in Lafayette concludes south of town at the historic WBAA (920) transmitter site, which we’d seen before from outside but never from the inside.
Inside, it’s a nice panorama of WBAA’s AM history: at left, a 1980s-vintage Harris MW5, at right, the current BE transmitter, and in the middle, a lovely Collins 21A, original to this building’s construction in 1941, complete with control console in the middle of the room, next to STL and processing racks off on the right side.
WBAA-FM (101.3) came along much later, signing on only in 1993, and we find its transmitter facility on the Purdue experimental farm a few miles south of the AM site.
WBAA-FM’s building is much more compact than its older AM counterpart, but it still houses two generations of FM transmitters inside its concrete block walls.
The BE shown at left above is a fairly new arrival, replacing the old TTC to its right that was the original 101.3 transmitter. (The BE brought along HD Radio capability, allowing WBAA to broadcast full-time jazz on 101.3-HD2.)
Another recent arrival here is a translator at 105.9 (W290CM) that relays the WBAA AM programming, which helps out when the AM drops down to a kilowatt at night with a fairly tight directional pattern.
From here, we make a speedy exit to the south and west to pay a call on another market that’s going through huge changes. We’ve shown you the stations of Terre Haute on multiple occasions here, but we wanted to stop by on this December afternoon to say our farewells to Emmis Communications’ Terre Haute presence.
Emmis had only recently moved from the history-laden old WTHI building (now demolished) to new studios in an office building just behind the parking lot where the old building used to be, looking out at the WTHI-FM tower on the southeast corner of the property.
But the cluster in these brand-new studios was about to be split up: crosstown competitor Midwest Broadcasting would get WTHI-FM, the giant in the group, as well as the intellectual property of classic hits “River” WWVR (105.5 West Terre Haute), which moved down the dial to Midwest’s 98.5 in Paris, Illinois, ex-WBOW.
(As best we can tell, Midwest is still operating WWVR and WTHI-FM out of these studios, while keeping the rest of its cluster at its existing studios just south of downtown.)
The rest of the Emmis stations went to regional owner Dave Crooks, who built new studios over in Brazil for sports WFNF (1130 Brazil, plus a 99.5 Terre Haute translator), WFNB (92.7 Brazil, which went from top-40 “B92.7” to AC “Lite” under Crooks) and the 105.5 facility, now doing variety hits “Jack” as WZJK.
Back in Fort Wayne, we didn’t do much local radio tourism, save for a stop at the Allen County Public Library downtown to check out the library’s LPFM presence. WELT-LP (95.7) had been on the air for about a year at that point, with a wide roster of community talk and music programming coming from its well-equipped pair of studios down a hallway off the library’s main concourse. WELT is an offshoot of the Access Fort Wayne cable TV operation, which itself boasts a pair of studio/control rooms and a master control that feeds its four channels out to Comcast cable and Frontier FiOS viewers all over town.
Thanks to Artistic/Lafayette TV’s Dave North, Neuhoff GM Brian Green, WBAA’s then-GM Mike Savage and then-OM David Baes, Emmis’ Eric Michaels and WELT’s Erik Mollberg for the tours – and to Indiana RadioWatch editor Blaine Thompson for driving!
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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: Syracuse, NY – our last stop of 2016