After 70 years, News-Gazette Media's radio stations back downtown

After 70 years, News-Gazette Media's radio stations back downtown

Our radio crew is walking from South Neil to downtown Champaign this morning. Follow along on Facebook Live at The News-Gazette's page

Champaign's largest and oldest commercial radio station has moved back to its roots, once again sharing a building with The News-Gazette after 70 years apart.

This week's handover to a state-of-the-art digital operation at 15 Main St., 2 miles away from the old studios, left "Penny For Your Thoughts" talk-show veteran Jim Turpin feeling emotional.

He came to WDWS full time in 1980, after three years working there while in college.

Turpin said "great colleagues are more important than the building itself."

"It's fantastic that we have some great surroundings and the newest and best equipment," he said. "It's the people who count. When I drive by the South Neil Building, I'll think of all the grand times we had there."

General Manager Mike Haile said the move helps emphasize a goal for all of News-Gazette Media's outlets: to collaborate and share a home on the internet.

"Now you have an award-winning radio reporter a desk away from an award-winning News-Gazette reporter," he said.

WDWS, named for News-Gazette founder David W. Stevick, as well as fellow FM station WHMS (renamed in the 1980s for Helen M. Stevick) and more recent acquisition WKIO-FM have completed their move.

WDWS-AM was Champaign County's first commercial radio station. It signed on at 8 a.m. on Jan. 24, 1937, from the second floor of the original News-Gazette building.

In December 1948, WDWS-FM went on the air, and the entire operation moved from downtown Champaign to South Neil Street. The new 420-foot tower was said to be the highest structure in East Central Illinois at the time.

The three stations have fared well with the equipment they had for many years. Haile, a 17-year employee, said those occasional hairy moments with the complications of tangles of wire always seemed to work out.

"When you're surrounded by great people, you can cover for things," he said. "And when you're in a jam, (engineer) Ed Bond always makes it work."

But nothing lasts forever.

"The Neil Street building was state of the art for the 1960s when they built the addition," Haile said. "Now, the tech side has seen better times."

The transmitter remains on South Neil, but all digital studios and satellite broadcasts are at 15 Main.

Consultant Wayne Miller did a lot of the work, aided by staffers, Darren Holt's IT department and Chris Ard's construction crew, Haile said.

Miller often put in long hours on the high-tech work.

"I'm kind of hands-on and I don't really trust anyone else," said Miller, adding that crawling under desks had been a test of his rheumatoid arthritis. He owns Peoria Network Associates and specializes in moving radio stations, saying that this was one of the biggest he's done.

"Mike Haile and I have been pacing like expectant fathers," Miller said.

Most of the major work was finished Tuesday, he said, though there are still details left — "on the air" signs, for instance.

He feels confident the stations won't need a re-do for a long time.

"Things can go wrong with wiring, but this digital equipment will be around for a long time," Miller said.

The people who use the new equipment say the change is for the better.

"The South Neil building is custom-built for radio and has so much history attached to it. So I'll miss it for those reasons," reporter Tim Ditman said. "But our new equipment is top of the line. And our news operation will be more streamlined, since we can talk face to face with the print reporters."

Michael Kiser, who has done everything from news to hosting Saturday SportsTalk, said "the move has had a nostalgic feel."

"I've been a part of this company for more than nine years now, so moving to a new location is the end of what has been a big part of my life, a second home if you will. But at the same time, it is exciting to have nice, new studios with all new equipment at the downtown building," he said. "All of us at the radio station have been looking forward to using what is easily top-of-the-line equipment. I will, of course, miss the radio center, and I'll miss calling that building home, but change is good."

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