Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
So there we were, me and Indiana Radio Watch editor Blaine Thompson, having just driven the length of Indiana in a day and a half and settled in to a motel room near Churchill Downs in scenic Louisville, Kentucky after our fascinating tour of Louisville Public Media.
So what do we do for an evening encore?
If you guessed “get back in the car and drive an hour and a half back into the hinterlands of southern Indiana,” you’ve been paying attention to how these trips work for us.
Heading northwest out of metro Louisville, you leave the city pretty fast, and it’s a pretty, rural drive out US 150 through increasingly hilly terrain as we make our way up through Paoli, Indiana. There are three stations in one building here – Paoli-licensed WUME (Mix 95.3) and WSEZ (1560), plus country WKLO (96.9 Hardinsburg), which carries forward a legendary Louisville callsign.
Their studio building right on the square in downtown Paoli isn’t at its best when we drive by, only because there had just been a storm that apparently took out a front window – we’ll have to come back in better conditions.
But Paoli isn’t where the tourists go. They continue another 20 minutes west on 150, to the twin resort towns of West Baden Springs and French Lick.
More than a century ago, the magnificent twin resorts, one in each town, lured wealthy visitors from all over the Midwest and beyond to enjoy the mineral waters and other attractions.
There’s a fascinating history to both of these resorts – French Lick remained in operation through the decades, while West Baden Springs closed, became a seminary, then a college, then fell into near-fatal disrepair.
But beginning in the 1990s, these resorts turned around. They both went through phenomenal restorations, and with their glory restored, they are once again destinations for travelers from around the region (or at least they will be again, soon.)
Wait a minute – this is a radio column, isn’t it?
Yes! Which is why we’re not just wandering around these resorts by ourselves. We’re here in the company of Bill Willis, a veteran broadcaster who also happens to have built WFLQ (100.1), the local radio station here in French Lick. And before he takes us up to see his station, he wants to make sure we get the full measure of just how impressive these hotels really are.
You can’t get the scale from these pictures – the French Lick Springs Hotel has 443 rooms and sits on 2600 acres of golf course, trails and other scenic beauty, while the West Baden Springs boasts an amazing 200-foot dome over its giant atrium.
Bill wants to make sure we see it all: the glittering gold leaf of the 2006 restoration of the French Lick lobby, the pools, the huge porch that looks out on the French Lick lawn, and then over to West Baden Springs to see the –
Wait a minute, what’s that parked in the Baden Springs lot? Why is there a promotional vehicle there for WBUZ down in Nashville, three hours to the south?
It doesn’t take too long to solve this particular mystery: as Bill walks us in to admire the majesty of that 200-foot dome and its nighttime light show, there’s WBUZ’s owner, Bud Walters of the Cromwell Group, accompanied by spouse and pooch, and it turns out Cromwell is having its managers meeting there at West Baden Springs.
Mystery solved, our tour continues, all around the dome, into the vintage barbershop and other amenities that surround it, up to an overlook to further admire that amazing structure.
(It was the largest free-spanning dome in the world from 1902 to 1913, and you weren’t going to get out of this column without a little bit of trivia, right?)
And when you’re touring the local landmarks with the owner of the local radio station, you get to see some things the regular tourists don’t: Bill persuades a staffer to fetch the keys to open up “Table One,” the ultra-private dining room that’s tucked away in the kitchen, with those cool LCD windows that can untint with the push of a button to reveal a view of the West Baden chefs hard at work.
Radio? Yes, there’s that, too, which is why after our deluxe West Baden tour we chase Bill up winding hillside roads to pay a late-night visit to WFLQ.
Bill built a lot of this facility himself, up here on Sand Hill Road north of West Baden Springs in what looks like another hillside house in a residential neighborhood. It’s a compact plant up a twisty driveway, with a homey lobby, some offices off to the rear and one side, and the studio/transmitter room just to the left of the lobby.
Did we forget to mention French Lick’s other claim to fame?
While your grandparents (or great-grandparents) might have known French Lick mainly for the springs and the resorts, the first thing anyone knows about the town now is, of course, that it’s the hometown of Larry Bird.
WFLQ carries the games of Bird’s alma mater, Springs Valley High, and as you’d expect, there’s a big Bird poster right there on the carpeted studio walls, with his autograph looking down on the air talent.
Indoor studio tour at night? No big deal.
But what about WFLQ’s tower, which sits just behind the trees up the hill behind the studio building?
With some guidance from Bill’s laser pointer, the support of the top of Bill’s pickup truck to hold the camera steady, and a very long exposure, we managed to get at least one usable image showing the tower and the three-bay ERI antenna (we’re not at all far from ERI home base!), which is pretty impressive if you knew just how very dark it actually was up on the hill that night.
And with thanks to Bill, we head back off in the dark Indiana night for the long drive back to Louisville and another full day of station visits on the Kentucky side of the line.
Thanks to Bill Willis for the extensive tours!
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Next week: iHeart Louisville and WKRD 790