Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
There are a lot of local TV stations in America, and over the last few decades we’ve had the pleasure of touring many of them – hundreds, in fact. And the truth is that a lot of them look like a lot of the rest of them, when you get right down to it – bland blocky structures from the 1950s or 1960s, modernist blocky structures from the 1970s or 1980s, converted warehouses or office-park buildings…
But every once in a while, you walk into a building and your jaw hits the floor, because what looks like a typical curvy 50s building on the outside looks like a perfectly-preserved motel of the era on the inside.
This is WLNS (Channel 6), the Nexstar-owned CBS affiliate, and this gem of a midcentury-modern building on East Saginaw Street, east of downtown Lansing and hard by the US 127 freeway, is the “country house” it built in 1953, when the station – and TV in central Michigan – was just three years old.
Channel 6 was WJIM-TV then, owned by Harold Gross and named (like its sister radio station, WJIM 1240) for Gross’ son Jim. The story goes that Harold Gross wasn’t entirely sure TV was going to make it, so just to be on the safe side, he had his new studio building designed for easy conversion to become a motel.
65 years later, it’s still easy to see what Gross’ plan B looked like. Walk into the lobby and the reception desk on your right could very easily be a check-in counter. The hallway straight ahead of you? It’s lined with sales offices now, but those could each be motel rooms. That door next to the check-in desk? It leads to the room where you could easily imagine wolfing down your continental breakfast the next morning. (In “plan A,” it actually became the longtime home of one of channel 6’s most famous shows, which started as “The Copper Kettle Kitchen” and became “the Martha Dixon Show,” running from 1954 until 1979; today, it’s the station lunchroom.)
Better yet, you could turn left, where a glass-walled corridor leads to the studio side of this U-shaped building – and where it looks out on a patio full of tables and… what’s that out in the yard?
You can’t have a 1950s motel without a pool, right? So WJIM-TV built a pool, and even as it survived and thrived as a TV station, the pool became a fixture, complete with the “TV6” logo in the Gunite. I’m told the station holds parties for its staff out here, and that staffers’ families could swim here on the weekends.
(Quick afternoon dip before the 6:00 news, anyone?)
Did we mention that this was a steamy August day and a dip in the pool sounded pretty good right about then? (No, we didn’t get one.)
Instead, we head in to the studio side of the building to see this piece of the operation. The studio itself (which faces the front of the property) is relatively compact, with the news set forming most of a circle around the camera positions and a sports set off to the side.
Here, too, pieces of this building’s long history are in evidence – the huge side door of the studio was designed to allow cars to drive in for live commercials in the 1950s, and the lighting controls date from 1968, with the old WJIM-TV calls still on the nameplate. (Channel 6 became WLNS in 1984 after Gross sold the radio and TV stations to separate owners; he’d been through legal issues that included a license challenge from the ACLU, and WLNS soon found its way into Young Broadcasting’s hands.)
The back end of this side of the building looks to have been renovated in the 1970s, judging by the wood paneling on the studio entrance and the elevated former control room area at the back. Across the hall is a glassed-in production control room which adjoins the master control area in the back corner. (I suspect the area that’s now master control was the old transmitter room for channel 6 and for WJIM 1240 AM, which shared the tower out back.)
Master control is a busier place than perhaps it once was – Nexstar now operates Lansing’s ABC affiliate, WLAJ (Channel 53), under a shared-services agreement with licensee Shield Media.
Long the distant third-place station in town, WLAJ doesn’t do its own news; ever since it moved here from its last run of separate operation from a building on the south side of town, WLAJ has simply simulcast WLNS’ newscasts with a separate bug in the corner.
There’s a basement on this side of the building, too – perhaps where the laundry room for the motel would have been? Today, it houses a few offices, including the Shield Media/WLAJ “main office,” as well as tape storage going back decades.
Out back, there’s some interesting history: the guyed tower behind the station was WJIM-TV’s second transmitter location, but it wasn’t in use very long. Channel 6 signed on from the top of a downtown bank building in 1950, moved to the 500-foot tower here when the building opened in 1953, and then grew again pretty dramatically just three years later with a move eastward to a new 1000-foot tower in Okemos, at the eastern edge of the Lansing metro area. For a time, before local TV came on in adjoining markets, WJIM-TV boasted a reach northward to Saginaw and Flint, west to Battle Creek and south to Jackson, the latter of which is still in the market.
(The tower behind the TV station was used by WJIM 1240, later by WJIM-FM 97.5, and still later was reduced in height after the radio stations moved out.)
As for the tower in Okemos, it’s seen plenty of change – WLNS-DT signed on at channel 59, then moved to its present RF 36, with the old channel 6 batwings still mounted up top – and it’s about to change again. Nexstar sold WLNS’ spectrum in the 2017 auction, and so the Okemos site will soon go dark, with WLNS channel-sharing on the WLAJ transmitter down south in Onondaga, which we showed you last week. (It’s now on RF 25 but will move to 14 in the repack.)
Thanks to Dan Kelley for the tours!
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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: Lansing, 2017 (part III)