Chances are that you have heard of a successful Christian radio network known as K-LOVE. In fact, it can be heard across the Valley on 102.9FM. While familiar to many, there are quite a few things you may not have realized about K-LOVE. First, it is a successful national network, broadcasting from California. What this means is that if you tune in to any station carrying K-LOVE, you will hear the exact same programming, no matter where you are. However, there is one thing that makes each K-LOVE station unique. It’s a short ‘station identification’ (or ‘ID’) that airs around the top of each hour. If you have listened to K-LOVE for quite some time here in Valley, you might have picked up on this. K-LOVE has what we refer to as ‘call letters’, and in the Valley, on 102.9FM, it’s ‘WLTK’.
Just over a year ago, WBTX celebrated fifty years of broadcasting, and we chronicled the history of the station here in The Chimney Rock Chronicle. Now, I would like to explore the perhaps lesser-known story of what was, at one time, WBTX’s sister station, WLTK-FM.
So, yes, even longtime K-LOVE listeners may have never heard the call letters ‘WLTK’. Every radio and television station across the United States has a four-letter ‘call sign’ issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). WLTK is an FM station that, since 2010, has carried the K-LOVE feed direct from California. But, it was not always that way…
Do you remember hearing phrases such as “X-103 The Cross”, “Light 103”, or even “Light 96 FM”? For over twenty years, before K-LOVE was picked up in 2010, WLTK was a ‘live and local’ (just like WBTX) radio station. In fact, it was broadcast from a studio adjacent to WBTX (separated by just a wall and a door). Just one difference: while WBTX programmed southern gospel (and continues to do so), WLTK was, from its first day on-the-air in December of 1989, a Contemporary Christian music station.
Our story begins with, as you might suspect, WBTX. Being an AM station means a far-reaching signal, but the compromise is a low-quality broadcast. (FM stations are opposite: higher quality, but smaller range). What you may not realize is that an AM radio wave is more powerful than you may think. It is suppressed by the ionosphere during the day. At night, the sun goes down, and the ionosphere disappears. Thus, the AM signal can travel even greater distances, well outside the confines of an FCC license. Therefore, the FCC requires AM stations to either sign-off completely, or reduce power in the overnight hours (WBTX does the latter).
The sign-on and sign-off times vary throughout the year, based on sunrise and sunset. In the summer months, WBTX can remain high-power well past 8:00pm. In the winter, though, WBTX must power-down at 5:00pm. This means less than twelve hours at ‘high power’. In the 1980s, instead of ‘powering down’, WBTX would simply sign-off, meaning a 5:00pm sign-off in December. Of course, this leads to a substantial decrease in revenue.
This situation was not exclusive to WBTX, but all AM stations. Thus, in the 1980s, the FCC introduced legislation designed to open available FM frequencies to AM stations. By the mid-1980s, WBTX was up for an FM frequency. Our General Manager at the time, Dave Eshleman, had been part of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) for a number of years, and was aware of a brand new and fast-growing format: contemporary Christian music (CCM). Sure, the new FM frequency could simply simulcast the WBTX feed (known as a translator), but the decision was made to launch an entirely new station: WLTK-FM.
The new tower was constructed just southwest of Singers Glen at the top of Little North Mountain. Meanwhile, back in Broadway, work was underway renovating a former engineer’s room into a then state-of-the-art studio complete with a stereo console, CD players, reel-to-reel tape decks, a turntable, and broadcast ‘cart’ machines. WLTK would also carry programs via satellite, and thus new dishes were installed out behind the WBTX studios.
As WLTK neared completion, some good news came about from the FCC. Initially, the FCC granted a Class ‘A’ construction permit (3,000 watts), but it became clear that the FCC was to grant permission to upgrade to a Class ‘B1’ (25,000 watts). And thus, WLTK would be able to operate at 96.1 MHz.
With the tower built, the studio complete, and the necessary FCC paperwork filed, it was about time for WLTK to go on-air. All that was left to do was to program the station. Spearheading WLTK, ‘Light 96 FM’, was to be a then-current employee of WBTX, Brad Huddleston. As a consultant, Brian Charrette (formerly of WQPO) was also hired. Brian and Brad would create the initial ‘brand’ of WLTK.
On Friday, December 8, 1989, WLTK-FM signed-on for the first time. Initially at 95.5 MHz, the move to the promised 96.1 MHZ would occur on May 21, 1990.
Next month, we’ll dive more into ‘Light 96 FM’, specifically its music and programming. 1989 marked the beginning of what would become just over twenty years of ‘live and local’ Contemporary Christian programming. The story of WLTK continues next month!