Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Very bluntly: I would much rather be in Fort Myers, Florida than in Rochester, New York right now, and you probably would be, too.
Alas, I’m here and not there, but we can all enjoy some virtual sunshine, at least, as we spend the next few Site of the Week installments recapping my visit to southwest Florida this past February.
And we start with one of my broadcast friends who did have the good sense to abandon the frozen north (Wisconsin, where he’d been working for Wisconsin Public Radio) for the sunny Gulf Coast. Kevin Trueblood is now associate general manager for technology and operations at WGCU, the public TV and radio station that serves the Fort Myers and Naples area, and he was kind enough to spend a big chunk of a day with me showing me his stuff.
The Fort Myers-Naples area has been one of Florida’s boomtowns, and you can really see the speed of the growth here when you know that WGCU’s licensee, Florida Gulf Coast University, literally didn’t even exist until 1997. What’s now WGCU-TV (Channel 30) and WGCU-FM (90.1) is a little older, but not much – it signed on in 1983 as WSFP-TV/FM, a remote outpost of Tampa’s WUSF-TV/FM. (Before that, you’d have needed cable to see PBS down here, or a really good antenna aimed east across the Everglades to Miami’s WPBT, and you probably wouldn’t have heard NPR at all.)
In 1996, WSFP was transferred to the new FGCU as it finished building its campus east of I-75 south of Fort Myers. The current WGCU building opened not long after the campus itself, in 1997, and serves as both the public broadcasting center and as a classroom facility for FGCU communications students.
The lobby looks right into the master control center for WGCU-TV (Kevin’s not a big fan of the hubbed master controls that now run many other public TV stations; he believes in keeping it local, especially because the MCR provides an impressive peek into the station for potential donors!), which in turn adjoins a small but efficient TV rack room.
There’s a studio at the center of the building for local TV productions and events, with video and audio control rooms next to it.
Serving as it does a demographic that skews older than most markets, WGCU offers its own locally produced reading service for blind and vision-impaired listeners, and it has a nice office suite of its own on one side of the building, with a control room and two reading booths.
The engineering offices are out back (we love Kevin’s office nameplate!), with the rack room for WGCU’s radio services. In addition to WGCU-FM here in Fort Myers, there’s a satellite signal, WMKO (91.7 Marco Island), that serves Naples and Collier County to the south. (It was in the process of changing transmitter sites, so we didn’t get to visit it this time.)
The radio studios here are located in the center core of the building, and are quite substantial: there’s a main air studio/control room, a talk studio where WGCU’s “Gulf Coast Live” talk show originates, production rooms and a big performance studio/classroom that looks right into the main control room.
When we stopped by, a FGCU class was using the big studio to produce and record their own projects, an increasingly rare sight at NPR stations with university licensees these days.
The main WGCU transmitter site is half an hour north of here, part of the big TV/FM tower farm in southern Charlotte County, but emergency preparedness is a big deal for Kevin and WGCU. The studio facility was battered by Hurricane Irma in 2017, when staffers camped out inside the building for several days to provide nonstop TV and radio coverage while many other area stations were silenced. (WGCU later won a Murrow award for that coverage.)
Afterward, WGCU began building a backup FM transmitter site within view of the studio, on a county-owned tower just across the main FGCU campus loop road. Kevin was just getting ready to turn on the Nautel transmitter here for the first time when we visited in February 2019; if another storm threatens the main transmitter site, WGCU can now keep broadcasting to the immediate Fort Myers-Estero area from this location.
We’ll continue the WGCU tour in our next installment, but we close this one with a neat little bonus. Fort Myers has become something of a “Boston South” for retirees (for a while, the Globe even printed copies down here in the winter for New England expatriates), and just down the road from the Red Sox’ “Fenway South” complex in southern Lee County, an otherwise unassuming condo complex houses a little secret: the world headquarters of “JIB On The Web,” the webcast that continues the beautiful music and voices of WJIB-FM (96.9), the station that relaxed Boston for more than 20 years from 1967 until 1990.
Warren Schroeger programmed the original WJIB for years up in Boston, and after he retired down here, he started the streaming tribute, using the original music and voicetracks from many of the original WJIB personalities.
That’s the original light from the Commercial Wharf WJIB studios hanging on Warren’s living room wall. Turn the corner and duck through the closet off the master bedroom, and there’s the WJIB studios as they now exist, pumping out relaxing music for what’s now a worldwide audience of beautiful music fans.
(And no, “JIB On the Web” has no relation to the current Boston/Cambridge incarnation of WJIB, Bob Bittner’s AM 740 and its 101.3 translator – though if you track the history back far enough, 740 and 96.9 were once sister stations as WXHR AM/FM and then under Kaiser-Globe as WCAS and WJIB.)
Thanks to Kevin Trueblood and Warren Schroeger for the tours!
Though the months are over the pictures remain, and they remain beautiful. Especially at half price.
And don’t miss a big batch of southwest Florida IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: More Fort Myers and Naples