Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Ah, Savannah! City of graceful squares, Spanish moss, Johnny Mercer, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Paula Deen’s relentless attack on the nation’s arteries… yes, all of the tourist Savannah is very real and utterly delightful, so long as you’re in the historic part of town along the Savannah River. (P.S. Good luck trying to park.)
Along our way back to Atlanta after the Radio Show last year, we stopped for a night to experience a little of that Savannah (we don’t usually do restaurant recommendations, but go here and eat and you’re welcome) and, of course, to see some broadcast facilities.
Those broadcast facilities don’t exist in tourist Savannah, though. No, the Savannah you get to see this week and next is out by the oil tanks and along the bypasses, even if you might still end up on Johnny Mercer Boulevard humming “Moon River” as you look for the AMs east of downtown Savannah.
Actually, if you’re all the way out on Johnny Mercer Boulevard, you’ve gone a bit too far east: four of the five AMs in town are all clustered within a mile or so of each other off Harry Truman Parkway where it nearly meets the Savannah River, less than a mile from downtown. The tower by the oil plant just beyond the Truman off-ramp to President Street started out as the home of Savannah’s AM 900, originally WJIV and then WEAS for many years. That callsign is now on a sister FM signal, while 900 is now WJLG, “the Ticket.”
Today, it shares that tower with sports competitor WSEG (1400), which used to be WSGA, and with a Cumulus news-talk sister, WBMQ (630).
WBMQ was once WSAV, the biggest AM in town, running 5000 watts day and night from a three-tower array another four miles east of here in the marshes of Oatland Island. That location is now mostly a wildlife refuge, and WBMQ lost nearly all its night power when it gave up the Oatland site, dropping to 4700 watts by day and just 47 watts at night.
Just a half-mile or so to the southwest, another tower behind a housing project on the east side of Savannah belongs to iHeart’s gospel WSOK (1230), which once shared this site with 1400 before it joined the triplex.
Drop almost due south of here some 40 blocks and you’ll find yourself in residential suburban-ish Savannah, where Victory Boulevard carries US 80 as it heads eastward to its terminus at Tybee Island. When 630 was WSAV, it had its studios here, shared with what’s still WSAV-TV (Channel 3), Savannah’s NBC affiliate. In 1977, WSAV sold the radio station to a little family-owned company called Beasley, which renamed it WKBX for a while; the TV station kept the WSAV calls and the building, which now sits right across the street from the local minor-league ballpark, home to – we are not making this up – the Savannah Bananas of the independent Coastal Plain League.
Continue due south deeper into suburbia, past the Oglethorpe Mall, and you come to Television Circle, a street that’s now home to no television stations at all. But that vacant building on the corner? It’s full of TV history – it was here, in 1970, that Savannah got its full complement of network affiliates with the launch of WJCL (Channel 22), named for its owner, former mayor Julius Curtis Lewis, Jr. (He was also a car dealer, and he put his new station down here near his dealerships.)
WJCL added full-time ABC to the NBC on WSAV and CBS on WTOC-TV (Channel 11), eventually spawning a small broadcast empire that included WJCL-FM (96.5) here in Savannah along with WLTZ-TV in Columbus and WLTX in Columbia, S.C.
While WJCL-TV (now in the hands of Hearst) made a big move a few years back – we’ll see that in our next installment – its FM side is still down here on the misnamed Television Circle, where it occupies the next building down from the vacant TV studio. “Kix 96” is the country outlet that’s part of the Cumulus cluster here. It’s one of two big commercial clusters, including also WBMQ and WJLG on AM and – at least when we were there a year ago – four other FMs. WEAS-FM (93.1 Springfield GA) is urban “E93,” continuing the old AM 900 calls; WIXV (95.5) is classic rock “I-95;” WTYB (103.9 Bluffton SC) is classic R&B – and WZAT (102.1) was hot AC, at least until it became part of Cumulus’ 2019 sales to EMF, which flipped it to K-Love as WKZV in June.
Where’s the other big commercial group? On the west side, along with one more AM and the rest of Savannah’s TV dial – and we’ll see all that in part two of our look at non-tourist Savannah.
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Next week: Savannah, part II