Local AM radio station, WCNW, fades into history

Fairfield station ends run after losing transmission line.

Editor’s note: This is a column by guest history writer Jim Krause.

It seems another piece of Butler County broadcasting has recently passed into history. After 59 years on-air, Fairfield’s WCNW – AM signed off for the last time on April 30 of this year.

According to station representative Chris Theiss, the cause was due to a loss of a transmission line and an inability to find a suitable replacement. The station had been operating with greatly reduced power since 2019 due to the damaged line.

The Federal Communications Commission website lists the station as still licensed to owner Vernon R. Baldwin Inc., but with the status of “licensed and silent”. This status means WCNW has authority to remain off the air until repairs are complete.

The Fairfield station at 8686 Michael Lane sits on seven acres with six radio towers behind Jungle Jim’s just off of Ohio 4 in Fairfield. According to industry sources, the property is more valuable than the radio station itself. Station representative Chris Theiss stated that no decisions have been made regarding the sale of the broadcast license or the property. According to Theiss, a factor into the future of the station is whether there is enough commercial support to justify the expense of replacing the failed transmission lines.

The forerunner of WCNW got its start on Sept. 20 1962 when local road contractor Walter Follmer, Sr. signed on Fairfield’s first radio station WFOL. It was a 30,000 watt FM radio station with studios in a leased building on Ohio 4.

Walter’s son, Walter L. Follmer Jr. was named general manager.

WFOL operated on 94.9 on the FM dial and became the area’s first radio station to broadcast fulltime in stereo. The station’s format was “beautiful” or easy listening music. The Follmer Broadcasting Company constructed a 350-foot transmission tower on Mack Road near the site of Mercy Hospital for the FM station.

The red and white painted tower is still there, but the FM signal, now WREW-FM is sited elsewhere.

On Feb. 14, 1964, WFOL-AM made its debut playing country music with 1,000 watts of power at 1560 on the AM dial. Nationally known country music artist Luke “Pappy” Tipton became the Program Director of the AM station. Shortly afterwards, power was increased to 5,000 watts. WFOL-AM was a daytime only station that was required to leave the air between sundown and sunup each day to avoid interfering with other stations on the same frequency, most notably “clear channel” WQXR in New York City.

This required the AM station to leave the air as early as 5:15 p.m. during winter months thus restricting the potential for evening drive time commercial revenue. The station was somewhat unique in that the FCC allowed it to operate before local sunrise with lower power and a directional signal, hence the need for four additional towers and a companion FM station to continue programming after local sunset.

In 1965, the call letters of both stations were changed to WCNW with country music being simulcast on the FM side. The call letters WCNW according to local lore, stood for We are Country aNd Western. The popularity of WCNW-AM/FM grew in the Greater Cincinnati area so quickly that by 1966 WCNW-AM/FM had 51% of the country music listenership in the tri-state area. By 1972 though, Cincinnati’s WUBE-FM took the ratings lead as the area’s leading country music station. As a result, on March 1, 1972, the station ownership changed the call letters of the FM station back to WFOL and reverted to the original the “beautiful music” format.

In 1970, the station moved to a new building at the end of Michael Lane adjacent to their six AM towers. A number of local talents began their careers at WCNW including Fred Slezak, Bruce Sommers (later to be known as the Truckin’ Bozo Dale Sommers on WLW-AM), Gary Gabbard, Fuzzy Fred Hubbard and Vaughn Allan. Perhaps the most beloved WCNW DJ was Cincinnati television personality Bonnie Lou, otherwise known as Mary Jo Okum. Bonnie Lou was known for her work on TV as co-host of the Paul Dixon Show, performing regularly on the Ruth Lyons 50-50 Club, the Bob Braun Show and as a regular performer on the Midwestern Hayride on WLWT-TV. Bonnie Lou left WCNW in 1974 so that she could devote more time to her on-air duties on the Bob Braun Show.

In November 1975, Follmer sold both WCNW-AM and WFOL-FM to Broadcast Management Corporation of Cincinnati. The call letters of the FM station was changed to WLVV and the format was altered to easy listening music, billing itself as Love FM 95. On July 30, 1979, BMC changed the format of WCNW-AM to southern gospel.

In 1980, BMC sold WLVV-FM to Heftel Broadcasting and the station became WYYS-FM, “Yes 95,” playing top 40 rock music. Included in the sale was the transmitting tower located on Mack Road. The new station operated out of a studio in Forest Park. Today the station is known as WREW.

In 1985, BMC sold WCNW-AM to Vernon Baldwin who was a major advertiser on the station. Baldwin was the owner of Tidy House Furniture, later known as Plaza Home Furnishings and would buy time for his store and play gospel records. He invited his customers to “Come on down and see Cousin Vern.” Baldwin constructed a studio inside his store that permitted him to broadcast his commercial spots. Baldwin changed the format to a combination of southern gospel and religious programming.

Vernon Baldwin would go on to acquire other stations and formed a regional network including WNLT-FM (Delhi Hills, OH), WKLN-FM (Wilmington, OH), WVRB-FM (Nicholasville/Lexington, KY), WWLT-FM (Manchester/London, KY.) and WKYB-FM (Burgin, KY). Those stations have since been sold. Baldwin passed away in 2011 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease.

The only remaining locally owned radio station left in Butler County is WMOH-AM in Hamilton, which is also owned by the Baldwin family.

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