Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is no doubt a lovely place when the weather’s nice and the sun is shining on the beaches of the Grand Strand.
On one of the last days of December, when the sky is gray and the rain is falling? Not so much. The good seafood places are all closed for the season, the boardwalk is empty, and so it’s either hit the shopping mall or drive around and see a few of the sites in this surprisingly sprawling market that we’d never visited before.
A bit of geography: there are really two Myrtle Beaches. There’s the beach itself, which stretches for miles and miles of boardwalk and a repetitive string of condos, hotels, arcades, gift shops and restaurants for a block or two inland. Go another couple of miles inland and there’s the US 17 bypass highway, lined with motels, office parks and residential development – and another few miles inland from that, a newer bypass (designated SC 31 for now, but eventually to be part of I-73) with newer chunks of development growing along its fringes.
It’s that US 17 corridor where we find most of Myrtle Beach’s broadcast scene, with an important caveat: Myrtle Beach is just one part of a somewhat artificially bloated TV market that stretches from here through Conway, 15 miles inland, all the way northwest to Florence, more than 60 miles away.
Florence is a separate radio market from Myrtle Beach, but the Myrtle Beach radio market at least includes Conway, and we didn’t get there this time, which means we didn’t see much in the way of FM or TV towers.
TV, then: it wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that Myrtle Beach-Florence became a full TV market with the arrival of its own NBC affiliate, Raycom’s newly built WMBF (Channel 32). WMBF signed on digital-only, replacing fringe signals and cable coverage from WECT in Wilmington, N.C. (which we showed you last week) and WIS in Columbia.
WMBF’s studios sit right on the US 17 frontage road, next door to the Sun News newspaper building. Continue south (really west here, given how the coast turns) toward the Myrtle Beach airport and turn off into the office park just west of the airport, and there’s the Fox affiliate, WFXB (Channel 43).
(Where are the transmitters? WMBF’s is near Bucksville, a dozen miles inland from the Myrtle Beach airport; WFXB’s is up closer to Florence, near the North Carolina state line. It’s nearly impossible to receive the entire market over the air from any one location, so cable and satellite penetration is huge here.)
Back in toward town, just a few blocks south of the WMBF studios and the big Broadway at the Beach mall/entertainment center, Dick Broadcasting makes its studio home on a little side street called Ocala Street. This two-building complex houses top-40 WMYB (Energy 92.1), alternative rock WKZQ (96.1), talk WRNN (99.5), classic rock WYAV (Wave 104.1) and classic country “Hank,” heard on a 93.5 translator and WWHK (1450), which broadcasts from the tower behind the back studio building.
Moving south (or west, if you prefer) out of town on 17, we pass the new studios of the oldest station in the TV market. Nexstar’s CBS affiliate WBTW (Channel 13) is licensed to Florence, where we saw its old studio and transmitter site off I-95 a few years ago. As with most of the stations in this sprawling market, it operated several news bureaus, including one just off 17, just past the Myrtle Beach airport. As the gravitational center of the market moved more toward Myrtle Beach than Florence, WBTW relocated a few years ago, tearing down its small bureau here and making this site its main studio home, even though it takes a good outdoor antenna to pick up WBTW’s VHF RF signal from its site way up near the state line in Dillon, more than 60 miles away. (WBTW also produces morning and evening newscasts for Bahakel-owned WFXB from this location.)
ABC for the market is Sinclair’s WPDE (Channel 15), licensed to Florence with studios in Conway, and we didn’t get to see it at all this trip.
Continuing out of town on 17, the highway turns into a divided surface road, and a few miles out we come to iHeart’s small Myrtle Beach cluster, in a low-slung building off the east side of the road. This cluster includes top-40 WWXM (Mix 97.7), adult hits WYNA (Bob 104.9, licensed across the state line in Calabash, N.C.), “Rock 107” WRXZ (107.1) and country WGTR (Gator 107.9).
No AMs in this batch? That’s not unusual – this is barely an AM market at all. WNMB (900 North Myrtle Beach) was silent when we were in town; after many years with local ownership and AM stereo, it’s now in the hands of Andrulonis Media, which also owns “Carolina Country” WMIR (93.9) and “Rejoice” gospel WJXY (1200, with translator on 103.5.)
And there’s no local public radio here, either – it’s either SC Public Radio’s WHMC (90.1 Conway) or the two translators of the WHQR services from up the coast in Wilmington.
Our last Myrtle Beach stop is another few miles down 17 on the outskirts of Surfside Beach, where Cumulus’ studios sit on the north side of the highway.
This cluster includes urban WDAI (Kiss 98.5), ESPN sports WSEA (100.3), classic hits WSYN (Sunny 103.1) and country WLFF (106.5 NASH FM.)
(Had we been paying better attention, we’d have turned just a bit inland off 17 past Cumulus; there are two towers near Garden City that between them carry six of the bigger FM signals in the market – iHeart’s 97.7 and 107.9, Dick’s 92.1, 96.1 and 104.1 and Cumulus’ 98.5.)
WLFF is licensed to Georgetown, the next city of any size as we head south down 17, and that leads us into one of the more pleasant surprises of the trip. We didn’t know much about Georgetown other than that it sits halfway between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, and that there were a few radio stations we wanted to stop and hear as we made our way toward Charleston.
As it turned out, we’d spend the better part of an afternoon in Georgetown. With the sun emerging and temperatures warming, we enjoyed a late lunch on the deck of one of the restaurants that line the Harborwalk along the Sampit River, a visit to the Rice Museum and a stroll through the historic downtown.
It’s just four blocks from historic Front Street to Church Street, where a small cemetery backs up to the swamps along the Great Pee Dee River – and what’s that behind the cemetery at the edge of the swamp? It’s WLMC (1470), one of two AMs here in town, with an oldies format feeding a translator at 101.1.
WLMC is co-owned with WGTN (1400), whose tower and former studio are on a county road off the 17 bypass west of downtown Georgetown. WGTN was doing country as “Coast Country 107.5” when we were there, branding with its translator frequency as well. The rest of Georgetown radio has largely been pulled away to either Charleston or Myrtle Beach; the only full-power FMs licensed here are Cumulus’ WLFF (106.5, serving Myrtle Beach) and Colonial’s WXJY (93.7, with a gospel format pointing toward Charleston; it would later flip to country as WYAY.) There’s also an LPFM run by the fire department, WGEO-LP (105.5), which exists in part to provide emergency information when coastal storms hit.
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Next week: Charleston, S.C.