WGTO-AM 540 Haines City – In September 1955, WGTO signed on the air at 540 kHz from studios in the Palm Crest Hotel in Haines City with a power of 10,000 watts and a broadcast day from sunrise to sunset. WGTO’s original owner, KWK, Inc., of St. Louis, signed a 99-year lease on land about three miles north of Lake Alfred off County Road 557 to place the station’s transmitter and twin 350-foot towers.
A concrete block transmitter building was built and air conditioned for the comfort of personnel during the hot Florida summers. There was also a 10kw heater for use in the winter months. Another smaller structure was built nearby for the well-water pump and storage. Inside the transmitter building was a control desk with a remote amplifier, turntable, and reel-to-reel tape recorder for recording off the air and also to feed the station’s signal to the transmitter in the event of program line failure to the Haines City studio. The transmitter was an RCA 10 kilowatt BTA-10H. Mounted in racks were monitoring and limiting amplifiers, Conelrad equipment, and modulation monitor (see photos of the WGTO transmitter site in Photo Album under Studios).
WGTO’s main studio control room in Haines City was outfitted with a pair of RCA BQ-70F turntables and an RCA BC-2B consolette in a two-studio arrangement. Studio A was used for group live broadcasts and recording and Studio B was for news and interviews. The studio also had a device used to indicate when an announcer was talking too long. A timer was automatically activated each time the mike switch was turned on. After a specified period of time (it was 1 minute 45 seconds in 1957) a brilliant light would flash warning the announcer that his time was up (see photos of the WGTO Haines City studios and its floor plan in Photo Album under Studios).
In its early days WGTO adhered to two basic fundamentals of good on-air programming – balance and pacing. It was station policy that any interviews on a deejay’s show should not exceed five minutes in length, and the person being interviewed had to be a nationally-known music business figure. All records were auditioned for sound quality and lyrics before being placed in rotation for on-air use. The Music Librarian usually ordered 8 to 10 copies of records that were very popular in order to present quality-sounding music at all times. Remember record cue-burn?
The station’s DJ Programming Guide (WGTO’s music format and policy that deejays were given to follow) called for a one-hour show to consist of approximately 15 records – one current Top 5, one current Top 6-10, four Top 5 revue records (drawn from a file of former Top 5 records from the previous eight years), and six standards, records by the original artists who made the hit recordings. If more were needed to fill out the hour, they were drawn from this category.
KWK owned WGTO for only the required three years before selling it to Hubbard Broadcasting of Minneapolis in 1958. A story has been floating around the industry for decades – and at this point it’s only a story as far as we know - that Stanley Hubbard won the WGTO license from KWK in a card game. Others sources say Hubbard paid $150,000 for it.
Hubbard Broadcasting always wanted WGTO to be more powerful than just a 10,000 watt station. Most of its stations were already power houses, but the only way the little Haines City station could raise its power was to change its city of license. About this time, Dick Pope, owner of Florida tourist attraction Cypress Gardens stepped into the picture with a proposal. Pope offered to build new studios for WGTO on the attraction’s property and lease it to Hubbard for $1.00 a year, including all maintenance, in return for free advertising on the radio station. A deal was struck and WGTO moved to Cypress Gardens in 1958.
Moving the operation also meant that now WGTO’s city of license would change from Haines City to Cypress Gardens (while not really a “city,” Cypress Gardens did have its own Post Office) and that the station could increase its power. The FCC granted WGTO a power boost to 50,000 watts which would require Hubbard add two additional towers at the transmitter sight. After the towers were built and the power increase took effect, the station promoted itself as “the most powerful station in the nation” – due to its operating at the lowest AM frequency with the highest AM power permitted.
A popular program on WGTO in its early years was Canadian News with Dave Price which ran Monday through Saturday morning at 9:00 during the winter months. The ten-minute program kept Central Florida’s winter visitors from north of the border up to date on all the news from back home. Today (2006) the show continues at stations across the country under the name Canada Calling with Prior Smith.
The longest-running local program on WGTO, conceived jointly by Hubbard and Dick Pope, was Welcome to Florida, a half-hour (and later one hour) live broadcast from Cypress Gardens, which ran from 1958 to sometime in the 1970’s before the format flip to Country (listen to excerpts from the show in Audio Clips). George Prescott and John Taylor were two of the program’s hosts who conducted interviews with the Gardens’ guest celebrities and visitors each weekday afternoon at 12:30, right after the 12 noon ski show. Two of the show’s many sponsors over the years were Kikkoman Soy Sauce and Delta Airlines.
Frank Berry, who today (2006) works in the Engineering Department at WTVT Fox-13 in Tampa and is a former WGTO Chief Engineer, remembers that for a number of years the station’s Sunday morning programming originated from the transmitter site which had been outfitted with two Magnecorder reel-to-reel decks. He also recalls that following the Sunday morning church broadcasts in the early 1970’s WGTO ran Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 from turntables at the transmitter and dropped in local spots from reel-to-reel tapes which were pre-recorded each week.
WGTO’s programming moved head-long into Top 40 in the early 1970’s and became the 50,000 watt Rock of Florida, remembered for its memorable Pams “Solid Rock” jingle package (listen to some of them in Audio Clips and see the bio for Ronnie Gee in Who’s Who for an insight into this period). A few years later, WGTO came up with a new moniker. Remember when the station was known as Disco 54 in the mid 1970’s?
Finally, after 22 years playing pop music, a milestone was reached at 12 noon on January 29, 1977 when WGTO flipped to country, heralding an awakening of central Florida’s 50,000 watt “sleeping giant.” The next day new billboards went up announcing the arrival of the new country voice. The original air staff consisted of Program Director John Terry, Dave Campbell, Terry “The Bird” Slane, and News Director Jim Greenfield. Within a month Mike McCoy was added to the lineup. When both McCoy and Terry departed the next year, seasoned veteran Jim Maloy took over mornings, “Lady Radio” Jacki West was hired for early afternoons, and Terry Slane was named PD.
WGTO became a Billboard music reporting station and won the “Small Market Station of the Year” award from Billboard Magazine in 1978. Soon Program Director Terry Slane was named one of the County Music Association’s “Deejay of the Year” winners, as was Jacki West. And in 1979, yet another milestone was reached when the FCC permitted nighttime operation for the first time, albeit at a reduced power of 1,000 watts, using different phasing on the existing four towers. The first nighttime jocks were Crazy Bob Fuller from 7 to midnight and Bill Carson on overnights.
Not only was WGTO quick to play the hits by Nashville’s establishment, but it also broke hits for new, up-and-coming artists. “The Roadmaster,” the station’s Ford F-150 “billboard on wheels,” was seen everywhere on central Florida streets and highways, giving away cash money to drivers whose car, truck, or van sported a WGTO “Great Country Music” bumper sticker. The “Giant” quadrupled its audience in the first year and went on to become a solid number one in the Arbitran ratings.
Ten years later, the greatest period of popularity in WGTO’s history came to an end when, in late 1986, Hubbard Broadcasting sold the station for $1.5 million to Cypress Broadcast Ltd. who switched from Country to Gospel. And yet another owner-group (Florida Media, Inc.) bought WGTO in 1989, moved the station from Cypress Gardens to Pine Hills (Orlando), built new studios on Marshall Farms Road in Ocoee, erected a six-tower array about ten miles west of Disney World, and switched the music format to Oldies. In 1992 live announcers were eliminated, replaced first with an oldies satellite service and then with a mix of talk and sports. When Paxson Broadcasting bought the facility in 1994 and changed the call letters to WWZN, it closed the book on the history of “Florida’s Most Powerful Station,” the 50,000 watt AM giant, WGTO.
Following the move to Orlando, the empty building that was once the station’s offices and studios near the entrance to Cypress Gardens was used as a storage facility until 1997 when it was remodeled to house the Central Florida Visitors and Convention Bureau and later, an emergency medical center for guests at Cypress Gardens (see a picture in Photo Album). The access road to the old transmitter site off County Road 557 north of Lake Alfred, known as WGTO Tower Road, is no longer just a two-rut dirt trail cut through a pasture, but a paved road dotted with homes on each side.
Names associated with the history of WGTO during its pop music period (1955-1977) include the three original air personalities, Dale Starkey, Bob Wery, and Dar Dodds (who owned Tri-Dec Records and Recording Studio in Haines City with partner Bill Peck). Others were Alice Torman (Receptionist/Traffic 1955-1958), Jim Corbett (News), Ginny Stangry (Record Librarian 1955-1957), Elaine Newman (Ass’t Record Librarian 1955-1957), Dorothy Holley (Bookkeeper), John Taylor, Bob Collins (Buddy Lee), Bill Gramer (PD), Jim Duke, Phyllis Gregg (Bookkeeper), Marty Giles, Woody Wooden, Ronnie Gee (Ron St. John, Program Director and Music Director), George Prescott (George Ogburn, Program Director), Elaine Powell (Receptionist/Traffic 1961-1971), Mark Prichard (afternoons 1960), Dave Hart (afternoons 1961), Bob Clarke (1972), Bob Carr (mornings-1976), Larry Green (Larry Cox), Al Dunaway, Dave Wright, Dan Daniels (Dan Dermody), Johnny Dark, Bill Bailey, Charlie Brown (Gary Parker), Wes Belisle and Jim Greenfield (News).
Names from WGTO’s “Great Country Music” years (1977-1986) include John Terry (PD), Dave Campbell, Mike McCoy, Terry “The Bird” Slane (PD-Music), Jim “Jimbo on the Radio” Maloy, “Lady Radio” Jacki West, “Crazy” Bob Fuller, Bill Carson, Patti Jordan (“PJ The DJ”), Allen Rich, Henry Jay (Music), Jim Greenfield (News), Kathy Tanner (News), Roy Riley (News), Van Amig, Lyle Wood, Jack Robson (mornings), Harry Sharp (News), Bob McCord (News), Dave Lane, Judge Krater (Mike Creiger), Becky Johnson, Keith Halladay, Frank Berry (Engineering), Bill Burnett (News), Dick Hart (Engineering), Scott Edwards, Roy Beamer, Woody Wooden (Sales), Tom Rusk (Sales), Carol Lamons (Office Manager), Nancy Lauderdale Cattarius (Sales), Crista Deason (Receptionist), Tom Drake (Sales), John Redwine (Sales), Paul Titchenal (Engineering), and Dan Sanborn (News).
On-Air personalities from WGTO’s gospel period (1986-1990) include Joe Penny, Anne Adams, Roy Beymer, and Dave Grachek.
Names from WGTO’s oldies period (1990-1994) were Merrill Craig (PD), Keith Feeney (Operations), Neil Schindler (Sales Manager), Rose Marie Harris (Promotions), Roy Adams (Music Director), Dave Matthews (Public Affairs Director), Russ “Uncle Russie” Ross ("The Doo-Wop Shoppe"), Perry Moore (mid-days and Sales), Rocky D, Bob McCord, Kathy McFarland (News), Terry Mason (PD), Dave Edwards, and Al Brady (“Music and Memories”).
The list of former General Managers includes Gene Hill, Max Kimbrel (1958-1965), Spencer Danes, Bob Grossman, Jim Atkins, Bob Kelly, Howard Trickey, Lloyd Barham, Dick Bennick, Jim Bocock, Wes Howard, Howard Hoffman, and Bob Johnson.
WGTO’s first Chief Engineer in 1955 was Dave Schick who held the job until around 1971. He was succeeded by Paul Titchenal, Dr. Frank Berry, Dick Hart, Clayton Creekmore, and Jay Waggoner. Other staff engineers included Leo Oswald, Garland Burt, Ted Jahn, and Roy Beamer.