Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
A quick getaway to the shores of Lake Erie last September was a chance for a couple of “lasts” – we wanted to see the last home game under the Indians nickname for Cleveland’s baseball team before becoming the Guardians, and while we were in town, we also wanted to drop by to see iHeart’s massive studio complex in suburban Independence before those stations completed their long-awaited move to a new streetfront space in bustling downtown Cleveland.
The move in late 2021 wrapped up twenty years for most of these stations here on the fourth floor of the big office building at 6200 Oak Tree Boulevard, in an office park off the busy Rockside Road/I-77 interchange eight miles south of downtown.
When these stations arrived together in 2001, it completed a turbulent period of consolidations and swaps that saw both Jacor and Clear Channel assemble sizable Cleveland station clusters before their 1999 merger. The cluster that had belonged to Clear Channel was spun off in pieces to Radio One (WERE, WENZ) and Infinity (WNCX), while the stations Jacor had already assembled became part of the new Clear Channel, then spread out among several buildings downtown and in the suburbs.
This was one of the first giant studio complexes built for the huge clusters made possible by the Telecom Act of 1996, serving as a model for so many others just like it that we’ve seen over the years.
By the time we stopped in with a few hours before first pitch, the move-out had already begun: much of the office space here had emptied out during the pandemic with staffers working at home, and some of the studios were about to be dismantled, too.
Let’s start at one end of the long studio hallways here, where the live performance studio had already been packed up ahead of the move downtown. There was a lounge area outside here with a view looking north toward downtown, and next to that the first of multiple studio complexes for each individual station.
WMJI (Majic 105.7) was one of the first and last pieces in the Jacor puzzle – the company operated it under LMA in the late 1980s and then bought it outright in 1998 as part of its acquisition of Nationwide’s radio operations. Once a top-rated oldies station, WMJI had segued to classic hits and lost most of its live airshifts by 2021, with only a live morning show in this studio space.
As with most of these station pods, WMJI’s area included a producer/call screener studio and a production room, one of the last spots here to still have any old tape technology.
Some of the studios here ended up seeing even less use: WHLK (106.5 the Lake) was WLTF (“Lite Rock”) when Jacor acquired it from Secret in 1997, later becoming hot AC “Mix” WMVX before going to adult hits, eventually completely jockless.
There’s more personality, at least in mornings, at the next studio complex in the row. WGAR (99.5) came along with WMJI and WMMS from Nationwide in 1998. It’s long been the top country station in town, and its studio still carries some traces of a long and important history that goes back to WGAR’s days on the AM dial.
That “50,000-watt transmitter plant” sign came from not far away on Broadview Road, where the AM 1220 facility that used to be WGAR(AM) became all-sports WKNR before Jacor spun it off to Capstar as part of the Nationwide acquisition. (It will play a role again in the story of these stations – keep reading!)
The next studio pod down the row features perhaps the most historic FM station in the cluster. WMMS (100.7) is, of course, the legendary Cleveland rocker of “Buzzard” fame, though it had been through a lot before it arrived here. Ownership had shuffled from Malrite to Shamrock to OmniAmerica to Jacor to Clear Channel and the format had veered from classic to modern rock.
What saved WMMS, in some form, turned out to be talk – it poached the “Rover’s Morning Glory” show from the CBS Radio cluster in 2007 and then installed Alan Cox in afternoon drive, making the station into a rock/talk hybrid that also eventually added Cavaliers and Indians/Guardians play-by-play.
That was PD Jason Carr doing middays in the WMMS studio when we stopped by to admire the history, including a giant Buzzard banner and a vintage WMMS sign from one of the station’s earlier studio locations. (And yes, we’re told all that history made the trip downtown for WMMS’ next chapter, too.)
The studio in the next pod over is a little less exciting: it’s top-40 WAKS (Kiss 96.5), which was the last piece of the Jacor puzzle before the merger with Clear Channel. In 1998, Jacor had bought WZLE (104.9 Lorain), a religious station in Cleveland’s western suburbs, flipping it to top-40 as Kiss, and in 2001 the 104.9 signal became a chess piece in one of the country’s biggest radio shuffles.
That’s where the old WGAR 1220 comes back into the picture, too: Clear Channel sold 104.9 to become the new home of classical WCLV, which sold its bigger 95.5 signal to Salem. Salem moved its WHK religious programming from 1420 to 1220 and its WKNR sports format from 1220 to 850, which displaced standards WRMR – and the 1420 signal went from Salem to WCLV with standards.
Confused yet? There’s more – WAKS and the “Kiss” format moved to the Akron-licensed 96.5 signal, formerly hot AC WKDD, while the WKDD format went to Canton’s 98.1, which Clear Channel acquired from Salem, which had run it as WHK-FM.
These days, WAKS is fully a Cleveland-market station, but only afternoons are done locally, so there was nobody in the room when we stopped by.
Back we go to WMMS as we move down the hall to the studio complex that’s specific to Rover and his syndicated show, which has picked up new affiliates in recent years as iHeart has added it to more of its owned stations.
The studios here are – were? – decorated for a lot of the video that Rover and his crew produce. And what’s that in the control room window? One of our local beers from here in Rochester, which was brewed when Rover was on original affiliate WZNE but “updated” for its current iHeart-owned home, WAIO “Radio 95.1.”
There’s AM news and talk here, too, including a studio that’s used for visiting hosts and at least one weekend show that’s live on one of iHeart’s Akron AMs, WARF (1350). It’s now sort of a part of the Cleveland cluster as the company’s home of sports and gaming content for the market. (There’s also a separate studio cluster to the south for the company’s Akron/Canton stations, including WKDD, rocker WRQK, classic hits WHOF and talk WHLO.)
There’s a sizable newsroom here that also provides a lot of news content to other outlying iHeart clusters around and beyond Ohio, but its main focus is on the big 50,000-watt news-talker, WTAM (1100).
By the time WTAM came here to Independence in 2001, Jacor/Clear Channel had rebuilt it into a powerhouse after weak years under the old WWWE calls. With a lineup that included the Cavs and Indians/Guardians, the station also had a popular talk lineup that included lunchbucket afternoon host Mike Trivisonno, who held court from a big corner talk studio adjoining the station’s control room.
That was a caricature of “Triv” in the window; we didn’t meet him that day because he was still doing the show at home, and sadly, we never will, since Trivisonno died a month later, just as he was getting ready to go on the air.
We haven’t spent a lot of time on the technology here, since it was mostly headed for recycling: instead of the older analog boards and Nexgen automation that went in here as long as two decades earlier, the new downtown iHeart facility was following the company’s standard design these days, using Wheatstone’s Wheatnet AOIP consoles and RCS’ cloud-based automation.
That was the old rack room above, built out in the usual way with several racks per station, and most of what you saw here was considered old enough that it was simply scrapped when this facility finally closed down for good.
On the way downtown for the game, we passed by another broadcast facility on the verge of change: at the start of 2022, Ideastream Public Media took over operation of WKSU public radio from Kent State University, merging the NPR news-talk that had been on its WCPN (90.3) into WKSU’s 89.7 signal. Ideastream had already taken over operation of classical WCLV – remember them from the 2001 shuffle? – and the 2022 move took WCLV to the 90.3 facility, while the 104.9 out in Lorain became WCPN, a western-suburbs repeater of WKSU.
And yes, we did get to walk by the new iHeart building at 668 Euclid Avenue, which boasted a “Fall 2021” opening date, though the actual move wasn’t completed until the summer of 2022. We’re looking forward to getting back there next summer to see the new digs – and to take in a Guardians game, too!
Thanks to iHeart’s Keith Kennedy for the tour!
And don’t miss a big batch of Cleveland IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: WHOL, Allentown PA
If you don’t have your 2023 Tower Site Calendar yet, now is the perfect time to get it. Because we have lowered the price to just $14. The calendar has great photos of broadcast sites near and far (everywhere from Navajo Nation on the cover to Boston to Toronto to Texas, and beyond), plus a lovely “centerfold” you can keep on your wall for 2024. It’s still shipping regularly, and you can have yours in just a couple of days! Order your copy and you’ll see what we mean. If you have already ordered your calendar, make sure you check out the other items in the store, too!
CALENDARS ON CLEARANCE
If you don’t have your 2023 Tower Site Calendar yet, now is the perfect time to get it. Because we have lowered the price to just $14.
The calendar has great photos of broadcast sites near and far (everywhere from Navajo Nation on the cover to Boston to Toronto to Texas, and beyond), plus a lovely “centerfold” you can keep on your wall for 2024.
It’s still shipping regularly, and you can have yours in just a couple of days!
Order your copy and you’ll see what we mean.
If you have already ordered your calendar, make sure you check out the other items in the store, too!