Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It’s nice to circle back around to something I missed on a trip, even if it takes seven years to do it.
Back in 2011, the time we spent around Tampa Bay included a bunch of transmitter sites but not a single studio. We came close to setting up a tour of Cox Radio’s studios in St. Petersburg, just off the west end of the Gandy Causeway, but the timing just didn’t work out, and so our Tower Site of the Week back then included only an exterior picture of the building, amidst a whole bunch of shots of the many towers and other studios that dot the vicinity.
When we made it back to Tampa in September 2018 after the Radio Show up the road in Orlando, it was finally time to make that studio connection – and in some ways, it’s good we waited, because there’s a lot to see up here that didn’t yet exist back in 2011.
For instance: if we’d walked into the lobby in 2011 and turned down the hallway, we’d have seen a nondescript conference room. Now, of course, everybody has a performance studio in their building, and Cox is no exception: a little riser for a stage, some lighting and video screens and a few cameras – and presto, that conference room is now a spiffy performance area/meeting room, complete with audio and video control at the far end and a nice kitchen space for food service.
What else has changed since 2011? It’s really easy now to do digital printing of wall and door wraps, and nobody we’ve seen has done it better than this Cox cluster. When you get hired here, one of the questions they ask is, “what’s your favorite band?” If you get an office with a door, that door gets covered in a full wrap featuring that band’s graphics, which is how Metallica and Justin Timberlake end up on the doors of adjacent programmers’ offices.
Continue down the hall and – wait, is this a TV station? No, not exactly, but there’s a unique radio station here as part of the cluster. WHPT (102.5 Sarasota) is “the Bone,” a name that usually connotes some sort of hard-edged classic rock. This “Bone,” though, is a hot talk station of a flavor that’s now fairly specific to Florida. Like the other big example of the format, iHeart’s WTKS (Real Radio 104.1) up in Orlando, the Bone aims at a young male audience with local talk shows all day and well into the night.
Unlike WTKS, the Bone also has a huge video component. You can tune in to “Bone TV” and watch live feeds from the Bone studio, all switched from a former office space next door that’s now been outfitted as… well, maybe this is a TV station now, come to think of it.
The studio itself is just down the hall, behind a sound lock door that separates a main studio hallway from the office areas. It’s 85 degrees and sunny on the other side of those windows, but for video’s sake, there’s dark screening over the windows to keep the space cool and dark. (If you were building this all new today, you’d probably put this studio on the interior of the building instead of on a corner.)
There’s a giant table filling one end of the studio, with the host position tucked inside and space for multiple co-hosts and guests all around it. Lighting for video hangs from a truss overhead.
The other end of the studio has room for live music when bands stop by, plus a sofa where guests and their entourages can hang out, with more lighting and more cameras so it can all be broadcast over “Bone TV,” while listeners chime in via the chat rooms that accompany the video stream.
And since this studio is live more than any other station in the building, there’s lighting hanging down from the ceiling to show the board op whether any of the other five stations (or the Bone itself) have a silence sensor tripping.
The decoration around this building is a huge step up from most of today’s generic-ish cluster compounds. In the staff lounge/cafeteria near the performance studio, there’s a tower beacon salvaged from the Bone’s transmitter site (which we’ll see shortly). Need to make a pit stop? The doors to the bathrooms are also wrapped – and do click on these to examine them in detail, because each of those graphics is made up of lyrics from songs that feature “woman” and “man” in their lyrics. The goal here is to make sure you know you’re in a radio station and not an insurance agency – and it works.
This corner of the building also has the studio for the cluster’s top-40 station, WPOI (Hot 101.5), and the rack room for all six stations.
The other four are in another set of studios down the hall, circling back around toward the lobby: classic rock WXGL (Eagle 107.3) has a studio looking out toward the lobby, with some neat history on the wall by the studio door.
What’s that in the frame? A satin jacket from an earlier incarnation of 107.3, which was the original home of WWRM when the “Warm” AC format launched in 1988. Today, the WWRM calls are down the dial on 94.9, where the AC format is now “Magic 94.9,” the latest use of the FM facility that started 50 years ago right around the corner from here on Gandy Boulevard. (Back then, it was WLCY-FM, sister to WLCY 1380 and ABC affiliate WLCY-TV 10; the 1380 towers and the channel 10 studio are still over there on Gandy.)
WWRM’s studio is nearly identical to the others over here, including its soft AC sister station WDUV (105.5). This is one of the most successful super-soft AC stations in America, often topping the ratings in this market despite a signal that’s located a little off-center to the population base. WDUV’s transmitter is up at the northern edge of the market, in Holiday, at a site shared with its neighbor across the hall, modern rock “97X” WSUN (97.1).
One more wall wrap finishes off our studio tour: that Cox Media mural chronicles the long history of this company, going back to its early newspaper days under its founder, Ohio governor James Cox. What will fill this wall once Cox sells off its radio stations?
The WDUV studio looks out at the back of the building and the STL antennas that send these signals out to four sites: WDUV and WSUN up north in Holiday; WXGL in Oldsmar, at the north end of Tampa Bay; WWRM and WPOI at the big Riverview tower farm, which we’ll see in next week’s installment – and the long hop southeast to Manatee County and the tall tower that’s home to WHPT.
We’d been out to this remote site near Myakka, east of Bradenton before, but here, too, a lot has changed since 2011. Back then, WHPT was powered by a Harris main transmitter and a Continental 816 as backup, occupying just a fraction of the building that had been built for a new UHF station, Lowell Paxson’s WFCT (Channel 66). The channel 66 transmitter eventually moved up to Tampa’s Riverview farm, where it’s now Ion’s WXPX, leaving behind a 1667-foot tower with just this one FM signal on it.
(And what a signal! You can hear the Bone’s 100 kW class C signal from here all the way down to Fort Myers, almost 90 miles south; to the north, it’s easily heard across the Tampa market and almost all the way up to Orlando. For listeners at the northern fringe of the Tampa market, Cox simulcasts the Bone on the HD2 of WSUN from the Holiday site, while WSUN’s “97X” format is heard on 102.5-HD2 for listeners down this way.)
WHPT’s Continental is gone from here now, and engineer Ed Allen really wanted us to make the long drive out here once again to see his new pride and joy that replaced the 816.
Florida is a perfect testing ground for liquid-cooled transmitters, especially out here at a remote site like WHPT’s, which is why Ed put GatesAir’s very first liquid-cooled FLX40 out here in November 2016, relegating the Harris to backup duty.
It’s run flawlessly ever since, Ed tells us almost two years later as he shows off the simple plumbing that circulates glycol through the transmitter and out to heat exchangers just outside the building.
Need more coolant? It’s as close as the nearest gas station – but there’s enough Prestone in two cases stacked in a corner to last for years, Ed says. (And we have no problem hearing him, of course, because these units run so much more quietly than a typical air-cooled rig!)
Outside, the tall tower stands proud in the hot Florida sun – but it won’t be the last one we see down this way before heading back north up toward Tampa.
The ride back to I-75 takes us past the tower of Sarasota’s ABC affiliate, WWSB (Channel 40), the lone network affiliate down at this end of the sprawling Tampa Bay TV market.
We’ll see the rest of Tampa TV soon – but first, how about some more Tampa studios? We’ll show you those in next week’s installment…
Thanks to Cox’s Dylan Scott and Ed Allen for the tours!
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Next week: iHeart Radio and WUSF, Tampa