Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Our summer 2017 travels, which took us out west to Denver, back east to New York, then west again for the eclipse in Kentucky, wrapped up with a couple of days on the road across Michigan, filling in some holes from what had been a fairly comprehensive sweep across the Lower Peninsula in the summer of 2016.
We’d missed, for instance, the Michigan half of “Michiana,” the swath of territory along the state line that’s served primarily by broadcast signals from South Bend and Elkhart, Indiana.
It’s about half an hour up north across the line to Berrien Springs, Michigan, home to Andrews University – and on the eastern edge of the Andrews campus, the 450-foot tower that’s home to the school’s classical station, WAUS (90.7 Berrien Springs), as well as commercial WQLQ (99.9 Benton Harbor). That station was long known as WHFB-FM, but in late 2016 it went top-40 as “Live 99.9,” covering the market from the top of this tower.
We’d seen its studios in 2016, part of the cluster that’s now Mid-West Family Broadcasting, housed in a corner of the WSBT-TV building in Mishawaka; now we get to see the transmitter, in a prefab container next to the tower.
At the far northern edge of “Michiana,” another half-hour east of Berrien Springs, we find Larry Langford’s WGTO (910 Cassopolis). This neat oldies station pulled an interesting shell trick: its studio site in Dowagiac, Michigan is the former studio/transmitter site of the now-defunct WDOW (1440 Dowagiac), complete with the old WDOW tower still out back and even a WDOW sign still on the front of the building.
WGTO has neatly moved into the old WDOW air studio at the front of the building – and there’s still a small room here that functions as the legal main studio of the former WDOW-FM, now Le Sea’s WHPD (92.1 Dowagiac), relaying the “Pulse” Christian rock format from the South Bend studios of sister station WHPZ (96.9 Bremen IN).
While WGTO’s AM signal covers a wide swath of Michiana from its site on O’Keefe Road, east of Dowagiac and north of Cassopolis, it’s on FM in Cassopolis from a translator on the power company’s tower along M-60, the town’s commercial strip. The translator has moved around, from 101.1 to 96.3 when we stopped by, then to 96.7 recently (“Kool 96.7”) – and it has a pending application to move to 97.3 and relocate to the north side of South Bend.
From Dowagiac and Cassopolis, we follow the side roads as they meander north toward Holland and Zeeland and I-196 into Grand Rapids – and that gives us a chance to see a few Grand Rapids-area sites we missed on our 2016 trip.
Right off the side of I-196 south of Holland, the four towers of WPNW (1260 Zeeland) are a landmark to drivers; with 10 kW into two towers by day, this signal is adequate into Grand Rapids, though it drops to 1 kW into three towers with a more restrictive night signal. Sister station WJQK (99.3) and WPNW’s 96.5 translator are up the road a bit, also off I-196, but instead we cross the highway and keep moving north on the side roads, headed for our motel in Coopersville, northwest of Grand Rapids.
Along the way, we pass another Grand Rapids FM that we hadn’t seen before, Cumulus’ “NASH” WTNR (94.5 Holland). Go far enough back in history and this was WJBL-FM, sister to the original incarnation of 1260, WJBL(AM); later, the two stations were separated as 94.5 focused more on the larger Grand Rapids market to the east.
With plenty of summer daylight still available, we don’t linger at the motel; instead, we’re off again up I-96 to Muskegon and then up US 31 along the scenic Lake Michigan shore to the vacation town of Ludington, where our 2016 visit unaccountably missed out on a local radio gem right on Ludington Avenue, the main drag. (It’s also US 10 approaching the historic ferry that carries the US highway across the lake to Manitowoc, Wisconsin.)
Veteran broadcaster Pat Lopeman has been running WMOM (102.7 Pentwater) since it signed on back in 1999, and it’s a great station, full of local news and sports and tightly-programmed hot AC music, all from an elevated storefront studio right across the street from the post office and around the corner from the ferry docks. (And with huge call letters on the wall, too!)
It’s dark by the time we get back down to Coopersville and the hotel, and so we still need to fill in a few tower gaps in the area – Cumulus top-40 WHTS (105.3 Coopersville) is north of I-96 here, and so is the remote tower of Grand Rapids’ ABC affiliate, WZZM (Channel 13). But daybreak does give us a chance to see a closer tower: Grand Valley State University’s WGVU-FM (88.5 Allendale) has its tower right across the highway, so we grab a quick shot before hitting the highway again – this time, southeast toward Grand Rapids and then north on US 131 for an hour or so into the much smaller town of Big Rapids.
There’s a feisty radio competition going on here, and our first stop is at the newcomer, Dom and Jen Theodore’s WBZX (103.9), which signed on after we last drove through here in August 2016. “B103.9” operates from a cozy studio along Business 131 on the north end of town, where we find morning man (and former Long Islander) Bob Aldrich holding down the fort as we pull in at the end of morning drive. (That sign out front also promotes Up North Broadcasting’s WCKC up north in Cadillac, one of two stations they own there.)
On the east side of town, Mentor Partners’ three stations are the established cluster in Big Rapids – though it’s really four formats now that the Scarpelli family has added an HD-fed translator. There’s a big sales and office area in the front of their building, then a hallway in back that leads past the studio of “Big Country” WWBR (100.9) to the studios of hot AC “Y102” WYBR (102.3) and news-talk WBRN (1460) and the rack room.
This is where the fourth signal in the cluster comes from – automated classic rock “Rewind 99.1” is translator W256CC, fed by WWBR’s HD2.
Thanks to Pat Lopeman, Bob Aldrich and Jeff Scarpelli 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 west Michigan IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Lansing, Michigan