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June 25 - July 2, 2004
WCTM, Eaton, Ohio, R.I.P.
This week, we present an encore of
a feature that originally appeared here on December 5, 2002.
Sadly, it's now a little bit of history. At 5:15 on the afternoon
of June 24, 2004, Stan Coning signed WCTM off the air for the
last time, ending not only the story of this little Ohio AM station
but also the era of commercial beautiful music on American radio.
There's unlikely to ever again be a station like WCTM, and we
wish Stan (who turned 81 last week) all the best in his retirement.
Next week, we'll offer another encore
presentation, this time of a station that's alive and well and
very close to your editor's heart (and even closer to his radios);
we'll get back on schedule with our look at the roof of the Prudential
Tower on July 9, when we return from two weeks of intensive site-gathering
for future editions.
If you've ever driven I-70 between Dayton and Indianapolis
during daylight hours on any day but a Sunday, your radio dial
might have drifted across the 1130 spot on the AM dial just as
you approach the state line. And if it did, you're likely to
have heard something long gone from the radio spectrum in most
of the rest of the country: honest-to-Drake-Chenault beautiful
music, mixed with the occasional standard being played right
from a dusty LP.
when you think that's enough to merit pulling off the highway
and listening for a bit, the station gets even more unusual:
a computerized voice announcing the time and temperature, and
then - every fifteen minutes or so - a soft-spoken announcer
who tells you you're listening to "WCTM Eaton, Radio Ranch
At this point, if you're anything like the radio obsessives
who usually visit this page each week, you've pulled off the
highway completely and headed south into Eaton to find out the
story behind this very unusual little radio station.
That's just what we did a few weeks ago - except that in our
case, the original encounter with WCTM took place months ago,
when our colleague Clarke Ingram took an interest in WCTM after
learning that its owner, Stanley Coning, had taken ill and the
station had gone off the air. When Coning recovered from open-heart
surgery and returned WCTM to the air in early September, Clarke
was there rolling tape on the event. And when he learned that
Coning was to be honored by the Eaton community choir the Sunday
before Thanksgiving, a return trip was clearly in order.
From Eaton High School, where the concert took place, you
can look a block west to US 127 and see an unusual eight-bay
FM antenna, mounted on a tower with the "WCTM" calls
prominently displayed. This was the original WCTM, 92.9 FM, which
Coning and three partners put on the air from this site back
In the early seventies, Coning sold WCTM-FM to Great Trails
Broadcasting, which changed the calls to WJAI and then, a decade
later, to WGTZ. The format changed from beautiful music to top
40 as "Z93," and the station's focus changed from Eaton
to Dayton, 25 miles to the east, with the legal ID cleverly couched
as "WGTZ, Eaton Dayton alive!" (Say it out loud and
it makes sense...)
But all along, Coning wanted back on the air. (This is, after
all, a man who was kicked out of high school in the thirties
for paying more attention to radio magazines than to his schoolwork.
Sound familiar?) His original intention was to build WCTM as
an AM station, but the scarcity of available frequencies led
him to build the FM first, despite the lack of listeners on that
band, and worry about the AM later.
After selling the FM, Coning (which rhymes with "awning")
turned all his attention to getting an AM daytime license, a
process which took more than a decade of fighting off 14 other
applicants and culminated in a license for 250 watts, daytime-only,
from a three-tower site east of Eaton along US 35 near West Alexandria.
the help of engineer John Baumann from Dayton, Coning turned
the site of a former drive-in theater into an AM station, modifying
three towers of different sizes so they matched each other, burying
his own radials (260 of them!), and building a studio in a prefab
garage building next to the middle tower.
When WCTM signed on at 1130 in 1981, it picked right up where
WCTM-FM had left off a decade earlier: same beautiful music,
same reel-to-reel automation, same Stan Coning. And time pretty
much stood still out here for the next two decades. Coning's
wife passed away in 1989, and after that the station pretty much
became his life, signing on at 7 or 7:30 each morning and signing
off at 5 each afternoon, except on Sunday when the station was
In recent years, the station had fallen into some disarray,
with piles of tapes and paper filling most of the available space
in the building. Then Coning suffered a series of heart attacks
and a car accident, leaving WCTM off the air for much of 2002.
Many thought they'd heard the last of WCTM, but they underestimated
Stan Coning and his friends in the radio community. Several volunteers
are helping him clean out the studio (a recent triumph was the
excavation of the studio turntables, allowing Stan to supplement
the beautiful music reels with LP cuts), maintain the equipment
(a Nautel transmitter now powers WCTM in place of the antique
Collins tube gear) and spruce up the grounds (recent months saw
Coning and volunteer Grant Wadsworth cutting down the brush that
had taken over much of the transmitter site).
WCTM's 250 watts do surprisingly well, covering most of the
Dayton market to the east and reaching west beyond Richmond,
Indiana halfway to Indianapolis. And the audio quality is remarkably
good, considering that most of the beautiful music tapes WCTM
plays are original from the late sixties and early seventies.
At the age of 79, Stan Coning is still living his dream, running
his very own radio station just the way he wants to, six days
a week, every week of the year. We should all be so lucky!
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