Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Some days on the road go a little out of order, and so it was last February when we spent a pleasant day tramping around broadcast facilities all over Southwest Florida.
This formerly rural area has grown into a decent-sized small metro that stretches out along some 80 miles of I-75, from Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda in the north down through Fort Myers, Estero and Bonita Springs to Naples in the south. (And since 75 runs pretty far inland for much of this stretch, there’s a whole coastal piece to the equation, too, including the sprawl of Cape Coral and the resorts on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
And here’s where we ended up doubling and even tripling up to see some of these areas multiple times in one long day: we started at the WGCU studios south of Fort Myers near the Lee-Collier county line, then headed north past Fort Myers and across the Charlotte County line to the TV tower farm that sits along State Route 31 northeast of Fort Myers.
You’ve seen these sticks before – we drove by them in 2011, then saw one of the sites here in more detail in 2015. But we didn’t get inside the WGCU public broadcasting site then, so we were happy to tolerate a somewhat cloudy, gray afternoon to spend some time seeing a site that was again on the verge of change.
WGCU was on analog channel 30, then on digital RF 31 before the repack, and that’s where we came in: Kevin Trueblood had big plans for some new transmitters in his compact metal building to handle the repack to RF 22.
Across the table in the middle of the building, that’s a fairly recent Nautel NV30 that went in for WGCU-FM on 90.1. And all around them is some pretty robust planning on Kevin’s part to make sure this site is as hardened as it can be against the next hurricane to blow through, whenever that might strike. (If you’ve been to a recent PREC or NAB conference, you’ve likely seen Kevin’s harrowing pictures and videos from the security cameras at this site the last time it took a beating.)
Within sight of WGCU’s tower are the other big sticks here – the WINK-TV/FM tower, with a newer antenna having replaced the old analog channel 11 rig we saw back in 2011, and Waterman Broadcasting’s tower for its shared WBBH (Channel 20)/WZVN (Channel 26), about which we’ll have much more very shortly.
So: we’ve seen a transmitter, the sun is coming out, there’s a condo with a beach and a pool awaiting us an hour or so north in Sarasota, let’s hit the highway and soak in the rays, right?
Nope. Not when the phone rings at lunch with Kevin and we find out we can squeeze in another tour of a station we’ve long wanted to visit.
WAVV (101.1 Naples Park) is one of America’s last true beautiful music stations, a standalone operation with a great reputation in the industry. And it’s nearly an hour in the wrong direction, down at the very southern end of Naples near where I-75 and US 41 turn east to become Alligator Alley and the Tamiami Trail, respectively, across the Everglades toward Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
The pool and beach can wait (and fear not, we did get there, as well as binging on four spring training games here in Fort Myers as well as in Sarasota and Lakeland, before this Florida trip ended). Instead, it’s down I-75, back past the WGCU studios, deep into Collier County to the WAVV studios, right there on 41 as it enters Naples from the Everglades.
There was no plain old STL tower for this station when it hit the air in the 1980s. The city fathers wanted it camouflaged, and so it’s a campanile-style structure that creates a nice landmark for the station.
Inside, the atmosphere is “relaxed dental office” in both decor and music. Sales offices are off to the right, and the studios are down a hallway to the left. There are two production rooms, including one that doubles as the tracking studio for WAVV’s HD2, which carries a locally-programmed oldies format still heavy on 50s and 60s tracks.
The oldies format is the brainchild of our host this afternoon, Al Baxa, who’s also on the air on the main WAVV while we’re visiting, from a studio that’s still lined with CDs.
Sadly, our visit here doesn’t include a meeting with WAVV’s founder/owner, Norm Alpert. After owning WHOM (94.9) up north on Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Alpert came here to Florida in the 1980s to get the WAVV license and put the station on the air. And, alas, Alpert had died early in December 2018 at age 89, leaving the station in the hands of his family, which still runs the station.
(Times move on, though – just last week, it appears WAVV removed most of its instrumentals for a more contemporary soft AC sound.)
And as the sun sets over southwest Florida, we’re all set now to point the rental car north for what’s now the two-plus hour drive up to Sarasota… right?
Nope. One more tour has materialized in the meantime, another interesting only-in-southwest-Florida operation that we’d long wanted to visit. In one of the older sections of Fort Myers, just south of downtown, another broadcaster with Northeast ties has staked out its place in a crowded TV market. CBS affiliate WINK-TV was here first, of course, holding a local monopoly for 15 years. But in 1968, WINK was joined by a new NBC affiliate, WBBH-TV (Channel 20), followed in 1974 by an ABC affiliate based in Collier County, WEVU (Channel 26) in Bonita Springs.
Waterman Broadcasting bought WBBH in 1978, and in 1994 one of the first TV shared-services agreements brought WEVU (by then renamed WZVN) under the same roof as WBBH here on Central Avenue in Fort Myers.
A few years ago, Waterman massively expanded the original building, adding on a big new shared newsroom for WBBH and WZVN at the rear, opening directly into the studio for WBBH’s newscasts.
Each station here has its own control room adjacent to its studio, allowing both stations to originate their own newscasts in most time slots. (We showed up just after 7, when WBBH was in syndicated programming but WZVN was on the air with local news.)
The WZVN control room is a mirror image of WBBH’s, but its studio is a little smaller. It’s also completely interior to the building, which means when hurricanes are threatening the area, both stations retreat to this space to originate simulcast coverage until the storm passes.
One more WZVN note: when all the stations down here began branding with their cable channels in the 1990s, the former “channel 26” became “ABC 7” on the air. That has the potential to be a little confusing up north of here, where the Fort Myers/Naples signals have coverage overlap with Sarasota’s WWSB (Channel 40), which also brands with its cable channel and is also known as “ABC 7,” complete with a similar circle-7 logo. There’s nowhere we know of that has both WZVN and WWSB on the same cable system, so this is an issue only for over-the-air viewers, and they see WZVN on 26.1 and WWSB on 40.1 even now.
The old WBBH studio space is now the sports office across from the WZVN studio, and deeper into the interior of the building we find a reworked rack room for both stations, as well as the glassed-in space that houses separate master control operators for both stations.
By the time we say our goodbyes, it’s well past 8, and now, after our long day going north and then south and then north again, we can finally point the rental car north up 75 and 41 for a good night’s sleep in Sarasota, followed by beach, pool, sunshine and spring training. (Sounds awfully nice right now, doesn’t it?)
Thanks to WGCU’s Kevin Trueblood, WAVV’s Al Baxa and WBBH/WZVN’s Ryan Grabow 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.
Don’t forget you can still visit our store to check out our other great products. We’ll be taking preorders for the 2021 calendar soon. Stay tuned!
And don’t miss a big batch of South Florida IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: WWFD, Frederick, MD