Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
My friend Mike has a neat job, traveling the country (and at the moment, the world) helping radio stations make their audio processing as good as it can possibly be. That means he’s visited a lot of broadcast facilities – and it means that when he tells me there’s a station I really need to go see myself, he knows what he’s talking about.
For the last couple of years, he’s been telling me about one place in particular: WHIZ radio and TV in Zanesville, Ohio. That small city an hour east of Columbus is known (at least among road geeks) for the unique “Y bridge” that carries US 40 across the confluence of the Licking and Muskingum rivers into downtown Zanesville (complete with an intersection in the middle of the bridge where another street joins it!) – and it’s known, at least to us, for still having a family-owned radio/TV combo in town.
WHIZ started out in the AM radio days as WEBE, another hour to the east over in Cambridge; it became WALR (for owner Roy Waller) when it moved to Zanesville in 1930, and in 1939 it took the WHIZ calls, moving from 1210 up to 1240 two years later. In 1951, WHIZ moved its transmitter to Downard Road, up in the hills southeast of downtown, and it’s up here at Downard Road where we pull up on a humid June morning, accompanied by Mike (and by 10-year-old Eli, who wants to see what WHIZ looks like, too!)
There are three buildings up here on the hill now, and we start at the 1980-vintage brick building that’s home to the WHIZ offices and radio studios. The lobby here shows off the next few decades of WHIZ history: in 1953, WHIZ-TV hit the air on channel 50, powering up a year later down the dial on channel 18. WHIZ-FM came along in 1962 on 102.5, and we’ll see what happened there in a moment.
Most of those AM/FM/TV combos that came together in the 1950s and 1960s split up a few decades later, but not WHIZ. Southeast Ohio Broadcasting has kept all these signals in family hands, and WHIZ(AM) in particular continues to be one of those rare full-service AM stations that just keeps chugging along in 2018 with local news, talk and music, live and local into middays and afternoons. (That’s morning host Brenda Larrick doing an interview in the AM studio, as seen from the FM side.)
Two FMs now flank the AM in the row of studios along the south side of the building. The current version of WHIZ-FM (“Z92”) is on 92.7 licensed to South Zanesville. It’s the former religious WCVZ, which picked up the WHIZ-FM calls and top-40 format in 2009 when WHIZ moved the big class B 102.5 signal closer to Columbus. (It’s now licensed to Baltimore, Ohio, as class B1 WWCD, leased out to another broadcaster as modern rock “CD102.5.”)
The racks that once held WHIZ-FM’s automation sit in the back room behind the WHIZ-FM studio, surrounded by the record library. Down at the other end of the row of studios, the automation that powers the newest addition to the family, country “Highway 103” WZVL (103.7 Philo), runs from a small studio that will eventually have more live capability.
While this looks like a one-story building from the front, it actually slopes down to give the ground floor some daylight as well.
Down here there’s a sizable sales office for the stations, with walls lined with old WHIZ banners and ads (one shows WHIZ-TV on channels “18 78 80,” reflecting long-defunct translators in Cambridge and Coshocton!)
There’s a rack room tucked away down here, too, serving the IT needs of this building and the Wheatstone networking that ties these radio studios together just upstairs.
From here, we leave the 1980 building and walk across the parking lot to an older brick building that goes back almost to the start of TV up here.
Walk into this building and you’ll find the WHIZ newsroom immediately to your left, with a another door straight ahead leading into the compact WHIZ-TV studio, where the noon news is about to get underway.
Take a right and you’ll be in the hallway that leads to the TV control room, which serves both as WHIZ-TV master control and as the production control room for WHIZ newscasts.
They hang on to their history up here: the engineering shop next to the TV control room houses the old WHIZ-FM transmitter (now defunct), as well as STL and EAS gear for the current WHIZ-FM (its tower is a few miles to the south) and WHIZ(AM), whose current tower we’ll see in a bit.
There’s a cabinet back here full of vintage tubes – and still more neat stuff in storage rooms behind the TV studio, where we find, among other things, a much earlier AM transmitter that probably predates the WHIZ callsign, going back at least to the WALR era. Another adjoining room houses Cold War-era civil defense supplies, including Geiger counters and 1960s-vintage powdered food.
The current 153-meter tower and the big building at its base is rather newer than the TV studio next door. The WHIZ-TV digital transmitter is in here (it’s now on RF 40, moving to RF 30 in the repack), sitting across from racks that hold the WZVL transmitter and another transmitter that would soon light up with the new WHIZ(AM) translator on 102.3.
Again, history matters here: that light pole out back by the tower isn’t actually a light pole at all – it’s the old analog channel 18 antenna, long since replaced by the current UHF antenna atop the tower, just above the three-bay WZVL ERI.
Until 2002, the tower here on Downard Road held a very, very rare distinction: it was home to AM, FM and TV stations all with the same callsign. (WMC/WMC-FM/WMC-TV in Memphis is, we think, the only other remaining member of that small club, and we really need to put on our blue suede shoes, board the plane and go walking down there sometime soon.)
With the arrival of DTV and the new tower, WHIZ(AM) moved its tower away from Downard Road after 51 years, relocating a few miles north to a new site on the side of a hill northeast of downtown off John Street. A rare, very late RCA BTA-1S moved up here, serving as the backup to a newer Harris that powers this very clean-sounding AM signal all over town.
Mike was right – this is indeed a very special little broadcast operation, and the people of Zanesville are lucky to have its local service. We hope to get back soon for another visit!
Thanks to Kevin Buente and Mike Erickson for the tours!
And don’t miss a big batch of Zanesville IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: A Few Stops Across Ohio