June 2, 2006

Terre Haute, Indiana (Part I)


As frequent readers of this column are all too aware, a significant portion of your editor's vacation time is spent visiting the in-laws in beautiful Fort Wayne, Indiana. As a result, we've spent a lot of time checking out the radio sights of fine Hoosier destinations ranging from Indianapolis to Lafayette to South Bend to Valparaiso to...well, you get the picture.

And so it came to pass, having run out of other Indiana towns to visit, that your editor and a small band of equally-crazed radio folks found ourselves heading to Terre Haute, an hour or so west of Indianapolis, one evening in November 2005.

Terre Haute is not a large market - it clocks in at #233 on the radio side and at #146 on TV, covering a large (but very rural) swath of territory on both sides of the Indiana/Illinois border. It is a college town, home to Indiana State University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and our first stop upon arriving in the city was the well-appointed studio/classroom facility at Indiana State's WISU (89.7), the powerful (13 kW) signal that is the city's only modern rock station, for reasons we'll explore in greater depth in our second installment next week.

That's Rachel Carl, who was then the student station manager, shown above at left in the main air studio. The darkened room on the other side of the glass is the talk/sports studio, and to the right of that window is another window that looks into a big classroom that's used for broadcasting classes. There's also a nice production room - and a row of little practice booths where students can get the feel of the board and the mike before they actually get on the air. Not bad at all!

From Indiana State, on the northern edge of downtown, our next stop is the Midwest Communications stations, in a small building right on the main north-south drag, Third Street (aka US 41) a half-mile or so south of downtown.

When we visited, there were just two stations here - top 40 "Mix-FM" WMGI (100.7) and its smaller hot AC sibling, WWSY (95.9 Seelyville) - but they've since been joined by two more stations licensed to Paris, Illinois, a few miles to the west. WMGI's mostly live, while WWSY is largely voicetracked. (It's also changed format since our visit; it's now adult hits as "95.9 the Valley."

The next morning, our day begins at Terre Haute's biggest broadcast facility, the three-story building at 918 Ohio Street that's long been home to WTHI radio and television.

WTHI began its life just after World War II on the AM dial, with 1000 watts at 1480, adding FM service in 1948 (7.2 kW on 99.9). On July 22, 1954, WTHI-TV signed on at channel 10, becoming the market's first (and, for more than a decade, only) TV outlet. By then, the stations - as well as the city's two newspapers - were owned by Tony Hulman, of Indianapolis racing fame.

(Channel 10 had been allotted to Bloomington, where it was used by Sarkes Tarzian's pioneering WTTV, but that station's move to channel 4 in February 1954 cleared the way for the channel 10 allocation in Terre Haute.)

The Hulman family sold the WTHI stations to Emmis in the mid-nineties, and in early 2000 WTHI(AM) was sold off to a local religious broadcaster, trading its news-talk format for a simulcast of nearby WPFR-FM (93.9 Clinton). We'll see its transmitter site next week.

WTHI-FM, meanwhile, had become a ratings monster - its "Hi-99" country format routinely draws 12+ shares of 24 or more - and it added an FM sister, WWVR (105.5 West Terre Haute), which does classic rock as "The River."

And about the time we were visiting, Emmis announced it was selling WTHI-TV, the market's dominant CBS affiliate, to LIN, which owns the CBS affiliates in Indianapolis, Lafayette and Fort Wayne as well.

The sale apparently won't change the day-to-day operations at 918 East Ohio, though - the radio stations will continue to occupy their space to the left of the lobby, while the WTHI-TV studio will stay put right behind the lobby, with master control right next to it.

The TV newsroom and the rest of the TV offices are upstairs in this building, which dates to the mid-nineteenth century. The entire facility, right down to the wood-paneled lobby, is a wonderful example of what small-market broadcast facilities looked like back in the early days of television - and the 550-foot self-supporting tower out back, built in 1954 for WTHI-TV, remains in use for WTHI-FM.

Where's Channel 10 transmitting from now? That - and the rest of Terre Haute's broadcast scene - will appear in next week's Site of the Week.

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