January 18, 2008

WMVP (WCFL) 1000, Chicago

It's a new year here at Tower Site of the Week, and a new set of travel pictures to start us off. In August 2007, your editor and Mrs. Editor spent a few days traveling from her native Fort Wayne to Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and then back to Fort Wayne via Rockford, Illinois, and along the way we had a chance to see some very significant broadcast sites.

In particular, we had a very productive afternoon on the west side of Chicago, visiting three historic and important 50 kW AM sites that we're honored to be able to share with you over the next few weeks.

In our last installment, we dived deep into the well of Chicago broadcasting history, not just into the relatively recent waters of WMAQ, but all the way back to the long-gone era of KYW. This week, we wrap up our whirlwind afternoon in Chicago's western suburbs by visiting a somewhat newer site, but one that still has plenty of history to recommend it: the Downers Grove site of Chicago's AM 1000. You can call it by its current calls, WMVP, if you'd like. To us, this will always be WCFL.

Fortunately for us, and for anyone who loves radio history, all the recent renovations at this site - and there have been many, as we'll see - didn't disturb the big stainless-steel letters on the front of the Art Deco building on 39th Street, and we trust that you (and the station's current owners, Disney) will forgive us if we still think of this as the "WCFL site" as we head inside and check out all the history that lives within.

WCFL didn't just call itself "The Voice of Labor" - in its early years, it really was. Under the ownership of the Chicago Federation of Labor and the management of founder Ed Nockels, WCFL debuted in 1926 from Chicago's Navy Pier as a radio station devoted to the causes and concerns of organized labor. By 1928, WCFL had outgrown the Navy Pier transmitter site and had purchased this 100-acre site in Downers Grove, where it finally broke ground in 1932 for what would end up being a 50,000 watt transmitter site.

WCFL took a while to get to 50,000-watt status, gradually adding towers as it raised power. The first of what would be three self-supporting towers on this site went up in 1935, followed by another in 1945 and a third in 1947. It was around that time that the RCA BTA-50F transmitter took its place along the west wall of the big transmitter room. This was the "classic" WCFL configuration that pumped out one of America's most influential top-40 formats two decades later: three towers on a roughly east-west axis, two 499' tall and the center tower 446' tall, with two of the towers sending a mildly directional signal toward downtown Chicago by day, and all three coming into play at night to create a cardioid pattern aimed east, protecting co-channel KOMO in Seattle. (It's hard not to get chills just thinking about all the Biondi and Lujack and Weber and all the other great voices that went out through this site back in the days of "Super CFL.")

That facility, augmented by a Continental 317C that came along in the seventies, outlived WCFL's glory years. The Chicago Federation of Labor sold the station in 1978, and after several years of ownership by Mutual and then by Amway, WCFL became a religious station in the eighties. That's when the studios and offices moved out here to Downers Grove, into a two-story brick building, complete with a cross motif on the front, that went up next to the transmitter building. (It's now used for storage, I'm told.) Later on, WCFL was sold again, becoming WLUP(AM) for a few years, ending up with the WMVP calls as a sports station, and ultimately becoming ESPN Radio's Chicago outlet, with studios located in ABC's Chicago headquarters at 190 State Street.

By then, the old towers were showing their age, and in the spring of 2006 this site began to undergo its biggest change in half a century. WMVP was then a sister station to WLS (890), and the FCC issued it special temporary authority to operate as a diplex on WLS' tower in south suburban Tinley Park at reduced power while workers began erecting three new guyed towers right in the midst of the old directional array. For several months, WMVP shifted to the WLS site during the day while workers were on the Downers Grove property, then moved its signal back to Downers Grove at night when the tower work was over each day.

When the work was done, the array included one 489' tower and two 410' towers, with a brand-new ground system, new transmission lines and a rebuilt phasor. There's even an FM antenna on one of the towers, intended to be an auxiliary site for WZZN (94.7 Chicago), though now that WZZN and WLS have been sold to Citadel, separating them from WMVP, it's not clear that the aux facility for the FM will ever be built out here.

Even without the old towers out back, the history is palpable in this old transmitter building. We'll pretend for a moment that we didn't come in through the back door and instead imagine that we came in the front way, through the glassed-in lobby. At the front of the building, tiled walls and big windows set off a row of offices (and what looks like it might once have been a makeshift studio) on one side, and on the other side stainless-steel railings line a stairwell that goes downstairs.

Back in the day, the view from this spot would have been truly dramatic: the ceiling rises to the big double-height transmitter room, with the massive RCA transmitter filling the entire wall to the left, the phasor and the Continental 317C straight ahead, and the control desk for the RCA in the middle. (And check out that lovely Deco band of stainless steel that lines the wall above the transmitters and phasor, too!)

Today, this view also includes a few other more recent additions: the current main transmitter, a Harris DX50, sits with its back to the front door and another rack of STL and processing gear behind it.

There's another auxiliary transmitter - I believe it's a Continental 316 in an unusual configuration - sitting between the DX50 and the 317C. As for the big RCA, it is, sadly, only a facade these days. Long since out of use, it was gutted a few years ago as part of a cleanup project here, and there's now nothing but storage behind that beautiful wall of cabinets. It still looks magnificent, though - and the whole site is still impeccably maintained, and now ready for another half-century of broadcast service.

And from here, we've got a shiny new transmitter site awaiting us 90 miles to the north in Milwaukee, though the blue skies behind these WMVP pictures don't even hint of the summer storm that's on the way, making that a three-hour rush-hour slog up the Tri-State Tollway to get there...

Thanks to WMVP chief engineer John Hurni for the tour!

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