Building a legend

From the time of the FCC decision which solidified the Brennan’s construction permit, to the first broadcast on 690 would take just over a year.  Still to be done – the building the massive Brennan transmitter, construction of the 299 foot tall broadcast tower and the building of iconic symbol of the station, the Radio Country Club of the South.

During the comparative hearings of 1948, the family had committed to provide $100,000 in funding to build the station.  The building capitol was in the form of personal savings and gifts to each of the Brennan sons from their father’s sale of some real estate holdings in Alabama and Florida.  Additional funding would come from loans to Bill from his cousin William Stelzenmuller and aunt, Mrs. L. R. Aldridge.  Bill had also secured a line of credit for $17,500 from the Ack Radio Supply Company of Birmingham for the purchase of equipment.  But those were 1948 dollars, and nearly ten years had passed.  The successful partnerships which the Brennan’s held in WVOK and WBAM would help to bridge the inflationary financial gap.

Bill Brennan’s original application had listed a transmitter site which was located on the northwest side of Jacksonville, in the general vicinity north of Stone Mountain Industrial Park and just to the west of the Dinsmore area.   Cyril Brennan recalls that no work was ever done on that site. The reasons are varied and the specifics are lost to history.  What is known is that Billy Benns was bound to find the best transmitter site for WAPE.

Map shows the original CP site (never used), Baldwin night site and Orange Park day site.

In Billy’s possession was what only could be called the most sensitive and accurate radio of its day; one which could pick up distant stations well beyond the capability of any normal set.  This portable measuring device would also tell you the signal strength of each radio station. This is known by engineers as a field strength meter, and it looks like a table top radio with a meter on its face, all placed atop a five foot pole.  Armed with his meter, ground conductivity charts and maps, Billy Benns set out to find the best potential transmitter sites in the area. 

Billy’s search was no doubt thorough.  With the application for night time power still in limbo, the priority was to find a suitable site on which to build the 25,000 watt transmitting plant which had been authorized for daytime operation.

A part of an AM stations signal travels through the earth; this is called the ground wave.  The coverage of the ground wave is determined by a stations power, directional pattern – if any, broadcast frequency – the lower on the dial the better – and the actual conductivity of the earth.  The conductivity of the earth is represented on government maps by a set of numbers, the higher the better.  The maps used by the FCC are the averages for broad areas.  The overall conductivity of coastal northeast Florida is an eight.  Compare that to a relatively poor “two” for the sandy soil of the Orlando area.  Billy’s measurements allowed him to pinpoint with the greatest accuracy the areas with the best conductivity.  He did this by tuning his field strength meter to stations near 690 and comparing the incoming signal levels as he went to the different locations.

His search would lead him to a low-lying area known at the Moccasin Slough between Westover Road and Highway 17 in rural Clay County, one mile south of the Orange Park city limits.  There were two very important geographical factors which would make this site ideal – 1) it was in a flood plain where the water table is generally two feet below the surface and 2) was adjacent to the St. Johns River.  These two unique conditions would combine to catapult the signal of WAPE up and down the southeast coast following the St. Johns River to the south and the Intracoastal Waterway north as far as Washington, DC.  What would be known as the Orange Park site, future home of the Radio Country Club of the South would be recognized in an FCC action which was announced on December 30, 1957 when radio station WJFL would be granted a construction permit to install a new transmitter for auxiliary purposes only, to change the location of the auxiliary transmitter to that of the main, and most importantly, to modify the original construction permit which was issued in February of that same year to change the antenna, type of transmitter and transmitter location. 

Orange Park site before WAPE construction

That same December day would be the end of WJFL.  The Federal Communications Commission had assigned the new call letters WAPE to the Brennan’s new station in Jacksonville.

The Radio Country Club of the South

The tract of land adjacent to the Moccasin Slough was a natural Florida habitat complete with brush, tall pines and the occasional cypress tree. A thick stand of native trees on its south side acted as a natural boarder between the Brennan site and the Slough. Parts of the land would transition to a floodplain swamp and a marsh.  Florida white-tail deer, bald eagles and the West Indian manatee called the land home.   This would soon be the home of a new species; the Big Ape.

Clearing of land for the new station began in early 1958.  Many of the tall native pine trees would remain on site and become a part of the natrual landscaping which would surrond the modern structure.  Credit for the overall concept of the building goes to Bill Brennan.  Both Cyril and Dan Brennan recalled how their brother Bill would concern himself with nearly every detail of the Orange Park design.  One detail which garnered a great amount of his attention was the wavy-triangulated ceiling and roof over the lobby portion of the building.

While ideas about the building’s design flowed from Bill, responsibility for the final details went to Jacksonville native and architect Curt Scheel.  As were most young men at the time, Scheel had a military background, having achieved the rank of Lieutenant in the Navy. He was discharged in 1946 and attended the University of Florida, earning his Bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 1950.  His first job out of college was as a draftsman with Sanford W. Goin, before starting his own firm in 1957.  It was from his office at 702 Hendricks Avenue that Scheel would design the WAPE building.  He would form a partnership in the firm Scheel and Logan in 1959.  That firm designed other structures around Jacksonville including Holiday Inns, apartment buildings and banks.  However, no other project would gain Scheel the notoriety of the WAPE building in Orange Park.

Architects rendering of WAPE Studios

The description of the building in “Florida Architecture” read like that of a luxury resort or fine hotel; “the free shape swimming pool…meanders into the interior of the lobby.”  The “extensive use of wormy chestnut and walnut paneling greets the eye giving an overall impression of modernity properly associated with…amusement of the multitudes.”  This truly was the Radio Country Club of the South.

Construction of the building with its concave marble façade, open-glass lobby, system of fountains and flagstone walks would be handled by the Smith and Ford Construction Company, General Contractors.  Behind the façade a concrete brick and steel frame quickly went into place.  The structure would be suitable for business in less than nine months.  The grounds of WAPE would be well-appointed with the details of exterior landscaping design completed by James Bryant, Landscape Architect.

WAPE under construction 1958. Note Bill Brennan's Thunderbird in front.

It was truly a building designed for radio. But not just any radio station; The Big Ape.  It was a fun building whose structure complemented the stations whimsical personality. WAPE, and all of the Brennan stations, were accessible to their fans.  This was in sharp contrast to most other stations of the day.  Drop-in tours were actually encouraged on the air and by signage facing Highway 17 in Orange Park. 

Finishing touches going on the WAPE lobby pool

Visitors were first greeted by an inviting circular drive whose path lead to the impressive free-form swimming pool in front of the building, complete with two diving platforms.  They could then choose to enter the stations lobby in one of two ways. They could swim under the lobby glass, or take the more conventional route through the two large gold-anodized aluminum glass doors.  WAPE announcer John Ferree also recalled “the framework for the metal canopy (which covered the walkway to the lobby) and the diving boards was of bent steel tubing painted sky blue. Impressive!”

Once inside, the eyes would have difficulty figuring out where first to set their sights.  Another Brennan family member created the full-color mural which  adorned the wall to the left as you entered the building. 

Donnave Brennan painting the WAPE mural

Donnave Brennan Lindsey, sister of Bill, Cyril and Dan had spent many years of her youth painting murals on the walls of her father’s barns. Before embarking on a notable career as a freelance artist, Donnave would also work for W. T. Grant in New York City.

The finished mural

This mural was designed to capture the musical sprit of the station and was complete with musical instruments, a tropical island with palm trees and The Big Ape.  The most modern furniture of the day completed the wall with multi-colored leather chairs.  Directly ahead, the receptionist greeted all from a well appointed walnut desk.  The open feel of the building continued from there, for behind her station was a wall of glass with a vista to the pine trees and the 299 foot WAPE tower in the back.

To the right visitors could catch a glimpse of where the magic happened.  Sound-proofed windows gave an unobstructed view of the WAPE main studio, where on many occasions people would find themselves on the air.  While the uninitiated may not have known what they were seeing, the mighty Brennan transmitter was also a part of the scenery through the back studio glass.

A rare photo of the studios at night. Notice the open view through the lobby to the studio and the transmitter visible on the right.

Just in front of the studio glass to the visitor’s right, there was a door which led back to the studio and transmitter area.  It was through that door and to the right where another right turn would take you into the well-equipped WAPE studios.  It was state of the art for the day with the console set up to the front, Ampex reel-to-reel tape machines, multiple turntables and Collins “ATC” tape cartridge machines for the playback of commercials and jingles. On the back wall behind the announcer was a nearly floor to ceiling record rack to hold 45’s.

WAPE's first solid state air studio console

From that same hallway a turn in the opposite direction lead to one of the radio engineering wonders of the day, the massive Brennan transmitter which generated a distinctive sound and signal for WAPE that could be heard from West Palm Beach, Florida to Wilmington, North Carolina. 

Back in the main lobby, a door to the left led back to the area containing the executive office. Modern design was the dominant statement made by the offices furnishings.  Each wall had something different for the eye; sandstone colored brick to one side, wormy chestnut paneling on another and the third a sliding panel which lead to an executive apartment.  A 1959 article in Time magazine said that the sliding panel was activated by a special hidden pushbutton under Bill Brennan’s desk.  John Ferree recalls a more practical arrangement of being able to activate the door by pushing it in the right place.  Either way, it was a place of privacy with no windows in any of the rooms.

Bill's office

The apartment housed a living room, bedroom and bath for the visiting owners use.  There was a particular sight to behold.  Bill called it “Play Pretty,” a frosted-glass wall behind which colored lights changed and flashed in time with the music on WAPE. “On low notes,” Brennan explained in the same Time magazine article, “the low part of the panel lights up, and so on. When there are chords, the whole wall goes crazy.”

The “musical wall”

A chance meeting with Bill Brennan

Many of WAPE’s early employees would join the station during the construction period.  One long-time staff member was engineer Wayne “Don” Woollard.  Don shared his story about how timing, geography and engine trouble led to his working at WAPE.  Don had always been interested in radio in one form or another.  He was on-the-air in Radio Production in High school 1948-1952, and worked as an engineer at KDON in Salinas CA as a record starter for the announcers in the booth as a young kid.

Woollard joined the Navy right out of High School because he had been promised Electronics Training school.  As things go in the military, Don came out of boot camp and was offered Electricians school instead.  He took that course, and upon completion went to the South Pacific aboard a patrol craft for a few years.  Eventually Don was assigned to a concrete floating dry-dock that was based at Adak Alaska.  It was that dock that was due to be towed to a mothball fleet anchorage at Green Cove Springs Florida. 

Don found the Florida of the late 50’s to his liking.  He married a local girl and when his enlistment was up, began a civilian apprenticeship as an Aviation Electronics Technician at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville.  He also began taking classes at the University of Florida in Gainesville.  It was while commuting from Jacksonville to UF, that he cruised the two-lane Highway 17 through Orange Park at least twice a day, watching the new building go up next to the Moccasin Slough. 

Here is where fate stepped in.  One day Woollard’s Chevy threw a rod right where they were building the WAPE studio Transmitter building.  “This happened to coincide with a visit to the (building) contractor by Bill Brennan,” said Woollard.  “I met Bill and chatted with him a bit, and I was pretty curious about this guy when he said they were building a radio station right here.”

“They were spraying concrete into the pool excavation while I was standing there,” continued Don.   “Bill was telling me that they needed to get that particular part of the job done as soon as possible to be able to fill the pool with water in order to keep it from ‘floating’ and popping out of the ground due to the high water table!  He was telling me all this stuff with a smile on his face.  I just knew he was pulling my leg.  He said they were going to build the ‘finest radio station in Florida right here.’  The whole site looked like it was going to be a motel-service station complex or something.  I never heard of anybody building a radio station.  Only RCA or Mutual, or CBS did things like that!”

Even though Woollard said his “first meeting with Bill Brennan had not gone well in the believability department”, his curiosity had been piqued.  But in need of a job, he began looking around at other sources of radio station work. 

The late 1950’s was a relatively busy time for the construction of new radio stations in northeast Florida.  In addition to WAPE, a new station was going up on 550 kc in Orange Park, WKTX had just been granted a license to operate out of Atlantic Beach on 1600 kc and a new station was on the way to Green Cove Springs.

Ben Akerman was the one-time Chief Engineer and current General Manager of WGST-AM in Atlanta.  Akerman had set his sights on station ownership and began applying for licenses in the southeast.  In November of 1956, he was issued a construction permit for a 1,000 watt station to operate on 1580 kc from Starke, Florida – about 40 miles to the southeast of Jacksonville.  Just over one year later, in January of 1958, Akerman applies for a new construction permit on 1580 kc, but in Green Cove Springs – about 26 miles due east of Starke and 25 miles south of downtown Jacksonville.  A new construction permit is granted and the call letters WGRC are assigned in August of 1958.

This is where Don finds work, and in 1958 is hired on as Chief Engineer.  There were immediate challenges, even for an engineer with Woollard’s expertise.  Once again, Akerman is granted extensions on his new construction permit.  Even with these extensions, he never takes the station on-the-air.  In February of 1959, the outstanding construction permit and station assets are sold to Frank Van Hobbs of Chattanooga, TN for $1,500.  The license for WGRC was granted in October of 1959.

Woollard kept busy even while at WGRC and was still involved in his apprenticeship, still going to school in Gainesville, had one child at the time, and ran a little TV shop out of a 15 foot travel trailer on weekends to make ends meet. 

Don still passed the WAPE construction almost every day.  It was the in the fall of 1958 and the building was nearing completion.  One day he stopped by and met Taze Tisdale, an engineer working on the project from WBAM.   Woollard continues the story; “He was unloading a bunch of stuff out of the back end of a pick-up truck.  We carried most of it back to a room that would eventually be the engineering room, air conditioning equipment and news room.  The electricians had just installed the relay lighting system where you could turn on any of the lights in the building from any room in the building, and I was fascinated by the complexness of this gadget.” 

Woollard would continue his regular visits to WAPE and be hired-on as a part-time engineer and announcer.  Don would go full-time as an engineer in 1959 after Fred Irons returned home to California.


2 Responses to Building a legend

  1. Don Woollard says:

    This is a great job. It is kindling many memories I had forgotten. I can hardly wait for the conclusion.

    Don Woollard WAPE Engineer 1958-1967

  2. John Ferree says:

    Outstanding! I was fortunate enough to work in this building for about five years and you are telling me many things that I didn’t know. What I was keenly aware of at the time, however, was that the building was not only beautiful to look at and an open and positive environment for creative work but was also functionally perfect.
    “Honest” John Ferree WAPE DJ, 1967 – 1972

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