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Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: A mystery in the woods and a bit of broadcast history

Two red and white radio towers on a wooded, grassy lot against a blue sky
Courtesy photo
Midwest Communications, Inc
An undated picture of the 1560 AM radio towers at 9112 S. Westnedge Ave. in Portage.

Today we’re answering two questions. One is about a very long guardrail in an unexpected place. But first: Listener Janet Padilla wrote in to ask about a couple of radio towers in Portage. They stood on a grassy parcel near South Westnedge Park until last fall, and it turns out they played a big role in Portage broadcast history.

Property records led us to the owner, a company called Midwest Communications, which operates “81 radio stations in seven states,” according to the company’s Senior Vice President Peter Tanz.

“In Southwest Michigan, we have stations in Coldwater, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Holland,” he added.

And it used to have one in Portage powered by the two-tower array near the park. Tanz says the towers went back to the earliest days of radio broadcasting in Portage.

“In the 1960s it became a status symbol in almost any community in America that the community have its own radio station,” he said.

For Portage that was WTPS, The Portage Station, which went on the air in 1966 playing top 40 hits.

Broadcasting at 1560 AM, the station changed formats and call letters more than once. By 2020 it was WTOU, “The Touch,” an R&B station. But it had a problem.

“The 1560 AM site was what was called in the broadcasting business a daytime only station, a day-timer,” Tanz said. “The Federal Communications Commission never gave them permission to broadcast at night.”

Tanz said now, when it’s not hard to get a 24-hour license, “a service that can only be operated part time just isn’t practical to keep going anymore.”

In late 2020, Midwest Communications shut the station down. Engineer Antony Low captured its last moments on video. He stands in a narrow cork-paneled room that’s lined with boxy equipment.

Low waits as the station plays Whitney Houston singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl in the early 90s. The song ends, the crowd cheers, and Low presses a button, turning the signal off forever.

It’s a poignant moment, at least if you work in radio. But WTOU actually isn’t gone. These days it’s broadcasting on 1660 AM. Midwest Communications had the towers near South Westnedge Park demolished last fall, and put the site up for sale.

An unusual barrier

Now to Oshtemo, where listener Rob Crookston noticed something strange in the woods.

“It’s just on the border between the two parks,” he explained, referring to the Oshtemo Township Park and Kalamazoo College’s Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

It’s a piece of infrastructure common on roadways but rare in nature. On a snowy morning I went out to take a look, walking across the disc golf course until I saw it: an automotive guardrail. It had breaks to let hikers through, but otherwise continued through the woods, “into oblivion” as Rob put it.

Oshtemo Township Supervisor Libby Heiny-Cogswell knows what Rob is talking about.

“The entire boundary of the township park is surrounded with guardrail,” Heiny-Cogswell explained, when asked about the barrier.

She said the rail goes back a few decades to the founding of the park, when the township needed to mark the perimeter.

“The story was they got it free or next to nothing,” she said. “They somehow knew about this surplus guardrail. And that’s why they used it, to save money.”

It’s a lot of guardrail: the park is 70 acres. Heiny-Cogswell described the rail as not the most aesthetic choice for hikers. But it does let the wildlife through, she added.

Rob Crookston said it sounds like a practical choice.

“Hey, you can’t fault somebody for taking the inexpensive option,” he said.

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Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.