Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If you’ve ever driven the traffic-choked I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa, perhaps you’ve stopped for gas or a snack around the halfway mark. That’s Polk County, a booming area that’s right at the point where both metropolitan areas are starting to collide with each other.
Venture a little south of the highway, past the tidy spring training home of the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium, and you’ll find yourself in downtown Lakeland. Aptly named for its location amidst several small lakes, Lakeland was a 1920s boomtown, almost equal in size to Orlando. The New Florida Hotel, which dominated the downtown skyline, became the center of Lakeland’s broadcast scene in 1936 when WLAK hit the airwaves at 1310 on the dial, filling the frequency that had briefly been home to Lakeland’s first radio station, . By 1942 (after moving to 1340 in the NARBA shuffle), WLAK had outgrown its studios in the hotel, moving to a lavish new Art Deco studio building at its transmitter site, a few blocks southeast at the east end of Lime Street on the shore of Lake Bonny.
After World War II, WLAK moved from 1340 to 1430, boosting power to 1000 and then 5000 watts. Its old digs at the New Florida found new life in 1949 as the home of Lakeland’s second radio station, WONN (1230); WONN didn’t stay there long, either, moving to its transmitter site near Lake Hunter a few years later – and then in 1966 to a modern new studio-transmitter plant on West Lime Street.
Joe Garagiola bought WONN in 1971, then sold it in 1976; by 1981, it was in the hands of New England’s Hall Communications, which has owned it ever since. It’s still at that same location on West Lime, but a lot has changed since 1966. There’s a newer facade and a big 1980s addition that doubled the size of the original building. The former WLAK is here, too – after it became WQPD in the 1970s, then WLKF in 1983, it ended up with Hall in 1996. Hall moved 1430 down Lime Street from the old WLAK building into this facility soon afterward, leaving its transmitter behind at the old location. (That building still stands, but is now offices; does anything remain of the original 1940s Art Deco studios under the 1980s faux-Colonial stucco?)
And there are two big FMs here now at the 1960s WONN studios, too, as part of Hall’s “Big 4.” The 100,000-watt voice of WPCV (97.5 Winter Haven) has been a sister to WONN since Garagiola bought in in 1973. With a reach from Orlando to Tampa and beyond, it has become by far the dominant station here – especially after WLAK’s FM sister on 94.1 (originally WVFM, later WEZY) moved its operations down the road to the Tampa market, where it’s now Beasley’s WLLD.
Hall rounded out its “Big 4” in 1997 when it bought little class A WKGF (98.3) down in Arcadia, halfway to Fort Myers. It became WWRZ, “the Rose,” and after a series of power increases and a change of city of license to Fort Meade, WWRZ now serves Lakeland, Polk County and beyond as adult hits “98.3 Max FM.” (It’s in HD, too, carrying WONN and WLKF’s AM programming on its subchannels.)
Our visit in September 2018 found plenty of activity at the station on a Saturday morning, at least on the FM side. These days, WONN’s small studio mostly runs an automated standards format, heard both on 1230 and now on a translator at 107.1 from the tower out back.
WONN sits on one arm of the U-shaped studio complex, with the “Max” studio at the base of the U. There’s a remote underway, and operations manager Mike James is back here at the WWRZ studio running the board.
Across the hall is the control room and talk studio for WLKF’s news-talk format, now heard on a 96.7 translator as well as the original 1430. (There are some historic WLAK pictures on the wall here, a nice nod to the long history of this heritage station.)
WONN’s transmitter and the STLs for the other stations are in a small room off the WLKF studio, backing up to the racks that form one wall of WPCV’s big studio at the top of the “U.”
The big country voice of central Florida is live and local, and if we’d been here in the morning, we’d have seen a live news presence in the small studio next door, which has views into the WWRZ and WONN studios as well.
The rest of the building is mainly sales and management offices, save for a space downstairs that’s been converted into a small performance studio that’s perfect for visits from country artists who stop by WPCV as they’re touring central Florida. (And what tour doesn’t include stops in Orlando and Tampa these days?)
Hall’s stations are by far the dominant players these days in Polk County; aside from out-of-market listening to Tampa and Orlando signals, the only other local stations of note are urban WWAB (1330), several Spanish-language and religious signals and WWBF (1130) from nearby Bartow, with its translator at 102.9 carrying its classic hits format as “WBF.”
It’s a great radio market for another reason, too – there’s no local TV to speak of here. What’s now Hearst-owned independent WMOR (Channel 32) is licensed to Lakeland, where it started as WTMV, but it’s Tampa-based and Tampa-focused these days, ceding Polk County to Hall and its radio competitors.
Thanks to Mike James for the tour!
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