Scott Fybush /
02.01.2007 12:00 AM
Art Deco Radio in Northeast Ohio
Photos by Scott Fybush

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The new WNIO transmitter building is seen with part of the WNIO and WKBN arrays behind it.


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The original WBBW tower in its new home at Struthers High School.


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Wes Boyd and Jerry Starr check out the temporary ATU for WBBW's longwire antenna.


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WKBN's lobby is still a sight to see, complete with round windows and call letters inlaid into the floor.


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Bill Glasser pauses in WHBC Master Control.


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The lobby of WHBC.


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WHBC afternoon host Brice Lewis in the studio.


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The exterior of WHBC.
Where can you find a 12-tower directional AM antenna system, not one but two classic Art Deco studio buildings, the closest co-channel AM stations in the country and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, all within an hour's drive or so?

Welcome to northeast Ohio — not the big city of Cleveland, but the somewhat smaller markets of Akron, Canton and Youngstown, south and east of Drew Carey's hometown.

Triple threat

With the National Radio Club convention taking place in Akron last Labor Day weekend, it didn't take much of an excuse to find a couple of days to drive down to the area from my home base in upstate New York. It didn't hurt that I had several longstanding invitations to visit engineering friends in Youngstown.

Jerry Starr is one of those rare triple-threats: He started his career as a DJ on Youngstown's heritage top-40 station WHOT, but he's also a wiz behind the production console and a talented engineer to boot. Jerry retired from WHOT and its sister stations (now under the Cumulus umbrella) a few years ago, but he was happy to play tour guide for a day, with the assistance of two of the market's top engineers, John Clarke at Clear Channel and Wes Boyd at Cumulus.

Both have been busy over the last few years. At Clear Channel, John's pride and joy is one of the most remarkable AM transmitter farms in the country: the six towers of WKBN (570), right next to the six-tower night site of WNIO (1390). WKBN's been on this former farmland in Poland, Ohio since the '70s, but 1390 just arrived a few years ago.

(It had quite an odyssey to get out here, having lost its heritage tower site a few miles away to a big strip mall, followed by several years of STA operation from a new single-tower site that's still used for its day signal.)

To clear the way for 1390 to build its night site next door to WKBN, Clear Channel ended up buying yet another adjacent property, which had been home to the five-tower night site of Youngstown's AM 1330. (It's now WGFT, but was the original AM facility of WHOT, the station where Jerry got his start, and today it's operating daytime-only from its other site northeast of Youngstown.)

It also took some heavy-duty skirting of the existing WKBN towers to prevent any pattern disruption — but it all worked, and it's quite a sight to see all those sticks rising from the farmland as you head south from Youngstown on I-680!

Longwire

John and Wes are both busy with tower-replacement projects, too, including one site that both companies share.

WBBW (1240) and WNCD (93.3) were once sister stations, and the Cumulus-owned AM remains a tenant on the FM tower, now owned by Clear Channel. It's in the process of being replaced — and so WBBW is operating, at least for now, from a longwire antenna strung up the side of Wes' own FM tower (home to WHOT-FM 101.1 and WYFM 102.9) behind the Cumulus studios.

Wes has two wire antennas in operation in the market; there's another one, designed by Jerry, just across the state line in Sharon, Pa. It's keeping WPIC 790 on the air while a new tower is built on the base of its old Truscon self-supporter that was taken down in April 2005.

Speaking of Truscon, that venerable tower manufacturer was based right in Youngstown, and we drive past its old factory as part of Jerry's tour.

Even though it's been more than half a century since Truscon turned out its last tower, examples of its work are still visible all over the city. The original WBBW tower, for instance, was donated to the suburban Struthers school district when it was replaced in the '60s, and it still stands outside Struthers High School, holding the antenna of WKTL(FM).

And there's a 660-foot Truscon self-supporter behind the studios of WKBN(TV) on Youngstown's south side. It's been supplanted by a much taller guyed tower, but the huge insulators at its base give a clue as to what was once out behind the gorgeous Art Deco studio building. Until the tall TV tower was built in the '70s, this land was home to the WKBN(AM) towers as well, and the TV tower was insulated so it could be detuned from the AM array. It must have been a sight to see. And indeed, WKBN's lobby is still a sight to see, complete with the round windows and the call letters inlaid into the floor.

Art Deco radio

Remarkable as the WKBN studio building is, there's an even better-preserved example of Art Deco radio architecture just an hour or so to the west in Canton.

WHBC(AM) built its studio building right in the heart of downtown, on Market Avenue, in 1938, and to walk in the door in 2006, you'd swear time had stopped right then and there. The illuminated call letters above the doorway and the classical relief sculptures on the front of the building are nice; but when you get inside, the first thing you see is an elevated reception area, and just behind that, a big glass window looking right into the main AM studio, all surrounded by spiffy curved walls and railings, mirrors and all the Deco detailing you'd have expected to see at Columbia Square in Hollywood or 30 Rock in New York back in the golden age of radio.

Chief Engineer Bill Glasser has been with WHBC since 1966, and he's justifiably proud to show off his facility. Beyond the main AM studio, the space that was once master control still serves that function, albeit with long racks of ENCO servers and other modern broadcast gear. Next to the AM studio, a former performance studio and sponsor's gallery has been converted into the main studio and production room for WHBC(FM). There was once a mirror-image set of studios on the other side, now used as the newsroom and the general manager's office. (Bill says the big window that once looked from the sponsor's gallery into the studio is still behind the wall that now separates the two rooms.)

And did I mention that WHBC(AM) is still live and local, all day long, with news every 15 minutes and hefty doses of local sports?

Before we leave Canton, one more bit of radio trivia: it's just under 22 miles from the four-tower array of kilowatt daytimer WINW (1520) to the six-tower array of kilowatt daytimer WJMP in Kent, also on 1520. That makes them the most tightly-spaced pair of co-channel AM stations anywhere in the country, with directional patterns so tight that at my hotel just two exits down the highway from WJMP, there's almost no sign of the Kent station. Think the FCC would ever let that happen today?

Archived articles in this series are available under Travels With Scott at radioworld.com. Past articles visited radio facilities in Los Angeles and Milwaukee.


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