Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
I feel a little guilty about this week’s post, because it grossly misrepresents a really pretty coastal town that deserves better than it’s getting in its first Site of the Week appearance.
While I’ve spent lots of time over the last few years up the North Carolina coast in New Bern and vicinity, my only contact with Wilmington was picking up its radio stations thanks to the coastal trop ducting that’s common there.
So it was nice to finally be able to plan a Wilmington visit as part of my last travel of 2018, spending the final days of the year closing the last part of the U.S. Atlantic coast I’d never seen, from Wilmington down through South Carolina to Savannah, Georgia. (Technically, I’m still missing the short stretch of US 17 from Wilmington to Jacksonville, N.C., but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.)
Teenage daughter in tow, behind the wheel of a borrowed Camry being shuttled south to Florida for the winter, we ticked off the last miles of I-40 late at night and checked into Wilmington just in time to see a rainy, gray weather forecast for the next few days of coastal travel.
What to do the next morning while the teenager slept late? Drive between the raindrops to the door of Wilmington’s public radio station, WHQR (91.3), located on an upper floor of an old office building in the charming downtown area alongside the Cape Fear River.
While public TV in North Carolina is oh-so-centralized, emanating entirely from the UNC-TV headquarters in Chapel Hill (well, except for one independent station in Charlotte), public radio in the state is a vibrant web of local signals, some affiliated with universities (like the Public Radio East stations up the coast in New Bern) and some the outgrowth of local community demand. WHQR is the latter, having signed on in 1984 after five years of work by the “Friends of Public Radio” group.
WHQR’s current Front Street studios date to 1994, a decade into the station’s history. They were pretty quiet when we stopped by during the vacation week before New Year’s – OK, there was actually just one person holding down the fort – but it’s easy to see how much radio can come out of here when things are hopping.
Off the elevator landing, the lobby door leads into… an art gallery? Yes! Wilmington is an artsy town, and the reception area of the station doubles as a large gallery with a constantly rotating selection of local artists, open to the community during regular station business hours.
Working our way down the halls to the back of the station, one pair of studios serve as on-air rooms for WHQR’s main format, programming news, talk and some jazz on the big 91.3 Wilmington signal and a network of translators stretching as far south as Myrtle Beach, 90 minutes away – and also for “Classical HQR,” the music format on 91.3-HD2 and another set of translators as far afield as Myrtle Beach.
There’s a spacious music library, a compact rack room, and another cluster of additional studios for production and performances, plus another row of offices along the back of the building.
Heading back out to the drizzle, it’s back to the hotel, collecting the teenager for – what, exactly to do during a rainy day in Wilmington? She’s a film fan, we figure out some of her favorite action films were shot here, including “Iron Man 2,” and so we include some film tourism along with a soggy drive around town to see some of the towers.
Here’s where I have to apologize, because these rainy pictures make Wilmington look gloomy and it’s actually a very nice town that I look forward to visiting again sometime sunnier. South of downtown, in the industrial area down by the shipyards that played a role in “Iron Man 3,” NBC affiliate WECT (Channel 6) and Fox affiliate WSFX (Channel 26) share a building off Shipyard Boulevard. WECT is one of the two heritage stations here in town, and here’s where we make our usual digression to explain a slightly unusual TV market.
For many years, Wilmington had NBC on WECT and ABC on WWAY (Channel 3), but no local CBS, relying instead on the big signals of WRAL (Channel 5) way up the road in Raleigh or WBTW (Channel 13) over in Florence, S.C. WECT, in turn, used a 2000-foot tower to blast its NBC signal out not only to Wilmington but also down to Myrtle Beach and Florence, which lacked an NBC of their own. That WECT tower is long gone, and in the digital age, WECT and WWAY use shorter towers closer to Wilmington without as much distant reach.
As for CBS, it came to Wilmington locally first on channel 26 (as WJKA), then on WILM-LP (Channel 10), which hit the air in 2000 as a semi-simulcast of WRAL from Raleigh with some local ads and weather. After WRAL flipped from CBS to NBC in 2016, WILM remained with CBS through the end of that year before becoming an independent, albeit with many hours filled with WRAL news simulcasts.
Capitol Broadcasting, owner of WILM, added radio here with the purchase of what’s known locally as the Sunrise Radio group, and today all of those stations occupy a compact block building on Kerr Avenue, just off the main Market Street drag that connects I-40 to downtown.
Who’s in the Sunrise group? Sports WMFD (630, plus a translator at 101.7), rhythmic oldies WKXB (99.9), the “Breeze” soft AC 95.9 translator fed by WKXB’s HD, AAA “Penguin” WUIN (98.3), modern rock WRMR (98.7, licensed up in Jacksonville but with a signal from New Bern to Wilmington), top-40 WAZO (107.5) and “Sunny” AC WILT (103.7).
That 95.9 translator, among others, operates from a tower south of downtown near the Cape Fear River and the shipyards, with Cumulus’ WKXS (94.5) as its primary tenant. Cumulus has the other big group here in town, which also includes country WWQQ (101.3), urban WMNX (97.3) and AC WGNI (102.7), as well as talk WAAV (980), and we didn’t get over to its studios or the other FM towers this trip, which gives us another reason to return to Wilmington someday.
We head west across the Cape Fear River for the rest of our Wilmington-market visits, starting up by the I-140 bypass highway at the three-tower site of WMFD, back in a field behind a bunch of truck repair shops.
The WMFD site is a couple of miles north of another diplexed AM site (scroll back up to see it), along the west shore of the Cape Fear River across from downtown and just south of the Battleship North Carolina, which is a museum you could visit (and maybe we will, someday). The two AMs on that short tower are WLSG (1340), which had been simulcasting beach oldies with WSME up in Jacksonville on our 2017 visit to its studios, but which is now regional Mexican, and gospel WWIL (1490); both are primarily heard locally now via FM translators at 94.1 and 104.9, respectively.
Continuing westward on US 17 brings us to two final Wilmington sites before we head out of town and south down the coast toward Myrtle Beach: in a new development on the outskirts of town south of Leland, we find the new studio building of WWAY (Channel 3). WWAY had been the longtime ABC station here since its debut in 1964; in 2017, it added fulltime CBS service on its 3.2 subchannel, simulcasting newscasts on both 3.1 and 3.2 and bumping the CW to 3.3 in SD. The station, now owned by Morris Multimedia, also moved out of its longtime downtown Wilmington studios to this new building, which we hear is quite nice inside, complete with a community room that can be used for a variety of club meetings and such.
And just a little bit to the northeast, near Navassa, is the other three-tower AM array in the market, WAAV (980 Leland), the Cumulus talk station.
Heading out of town on 17 took us within a few miles of the big TV towers near Winnabow, but the day was getting late, the rain was falling and the cloud ceiling was too low to make it worth seeing anything – and so we shall have to return to Wilmington sometime soon to see WWAY, WECT and WSFX.
Thanks to the staff of WHQR for the tours!
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
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Next week: Myrtle Beach, still rainy