Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Call it a compulsion, if you will – we like completing lists of things here. Over the last 30 or so years, that’s included an attempt to visit and document all of the sites belonging to the 25 enormous AM stations that once bore the coveted “class I-A clear channel” designation – 50,000 watts, full-time, non-directional (unless DA by choice), with no other full-time station sharing the channel.
2019 was a very good year for that quest: as you’ll see a few installments from now, it was the year we finally laid eyes on the 25th of 25 sites from the outside, and it was the year we made it inside two more from the list, bringing the total to either 21 or 22, depending on how you count the one that moved since we saw it. (We’ll spare you the trivia question: it’s WBBM in Chicago, and we toured its old site and have spent time in the building where it’s now diplexed with sister station WSCR.)
But before we got to Texas and the last two new sites we added in 2019, there was the one that took us 18 years to get inside. We drove past WHAS (840) for the first time way back in 2001, on the home stretch of the original “Big Trip,” when we were moving at high speed past a lot of neat radio stuff without making it inside more than a handful of sites. We move a little slower these days, which is good: there’s so much history to see out here on Flat Rock Road, 18 miles east of downtown Louisville in Eastwood, Kentucky, after all.
When this site opened for business in 1938, WHAS was already a major player in radio.
With a proud history back to the early days in radio in 1922, Kentucky’s oldest radio station was an important part of the Bingham family media empire that also included the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, and its increase to 50 kW took it from a site a few miles east of Louisville in Jeffersontown to this location halfway to the state capital of Frankfort.
The new home of WHAS (then on 820 kc, before moving to 840 in 1941) was designed to impress visitors, who were welcome from 2-4 PM daily, as the plaque on the door still tells us!
They were ushered up a curving front staircase, beneath big gold “W H A S” lettering on the front of the building, and into a massive transmitter hall dominated by a Western Electric 407A transmitter, with its control console in the middle of the room.
(Hit that link above to our 2001 article to see some pictures of what this building looked like before the trees got in the way and the paint started coming off…)
There aren’t many visitors these days, but the building still impresses. It’s in need of some TLC now, with vandalism and routine maintenance a problem that the site’s new ownership has apparently not fully addressed. (For the first time since WHAS signed on from here, it’s now a tenant after parent company iHeart sold most of its transmitter sites to Vertical Bridge a few years back.)
Look past the peeling paint, the overgrown landscaping and some window and roof issues, though, and the majesty of this site is still evident. There’s lots of WHAS history on display just inside the front door, including the shortwave transmitter that was an early WHAS remote unit from back in the days when the station was known for serving a region hundreds of miles across, especially when Ohio River flooding knocked out many other local signals and left WHAS as the only beacon of news across a sprawling area.
The Western was supplanted by a shiny new GE BT-50A in 1965, then by a Continental 317C in 1974, and then later on by a Harris DX50 and a Nautel NX50. But instead of cycling older rigs out of the building, as most stations tended to do, WHAS just kept everything. And so the 407 is still there, in the same spot on the same wall it’s occupied for 82 years now, looking across at the GE and the Continental. There’s only one other place where you can see this much 50 kW AM history in one place, and it’s just 90 or so miles away at WLW in Cincinnati. (And like WLW, WHAS applied for 500 kW and even 750 kW status, starting in 1936, though it was never granted superpower.)
Could you fire up the 407 today? Maybe not – but it’s still spectacular to look at, with intact tubes, rectifiers, relays and transformers all in place behind those slotted metal doors.
We’re hesitant to say this with 100% certainty, but the GE BT-50A opposite the WE is the only intact GE 50kW rig we’ve seen in the US, and we’ve seen a pretty good percentage of all the 50 kW AM sites in the country. (And we know for sure that no GE gear survives at the sites of any of the 50 kW stations GE itself owned, WGY, KOA and KGO.)
The GE, in fact, still looks almost like it just rolled off the factory floor at Electronics Park in Syracuse – and did WHAS get any kind of deal from GE based on that company’s own big appliance factory here in Louisville? (You might recall from last week’s Site of the Week that the WHAS studios are now located in what had once been an Electronics Park showroom and training center, in fact.)
Was the wing where WHAS’ newer transmitters are located added on later? We suspect so; WHAS put an FM station on the air from here in the 1940s, a predecessor of what’s now WAMZ on 97.5, long since moved to a different site. In any event, the back room behind the GE and Continental is now home to the current NX50 main and Harris DX50 aux, plus the usual racks of STL, processing and emergency gear like you’d find at any big modern AM site.
There’s quite the basement here, too: go down the stairs at the back of the main transmitter hall and you find yourself in a warren of rooms that include an emergency shelter (added on to the building sometime later in its history), as well as the sort of full machine shop you needed back in the days when you had a site full of engineers who had to make a lot of their own parts, back before you could order whatever you needed from Digikey or Graybar or what have you.
There’s a whole history of electrical distribution down here, too, not to mention the blowers that fed the GE and the Continental back in the day.
And there’s one room that belonged to sister station WHAS-TV: because its studios were in the heart of downtown, its early days of satellite reception and transmission happened out here. Even though the TV and radio station are no longer commonly owned, the old WHAS-TV facility survives out here, abandoned pretty much in place, apparently sometime in the late 80s or early 1990s.
The weather was a little iffy this day, so we didn’t venture out to get a close look at the towers: there’s a short aux tower, plus the 663-foot main tower to the south of the transmitter building.
This isn’t the original 1938 tower; it was replaced in 1995 with the current unpainted, strobe-lit tower. And we apologize, too, that some of these tower photos (and a few you’ll see in the next few installments) aren’t quite up to our usual quality standards: it appears that we had the camera on some manual settings that we should have noticed and fixed (But perhaps it’s a good excuse to make another Louisville trip one of these days – and to redo some of the Texas photos you’ll be seeing in upcoming installments, too!)
Thanks to Michael Golchert 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 Louisville IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Back into Indiana