The station is identified as 96.1 ESPN and carries both locally-produced play by play sportscasts and sports talk programs, as well as programming from the ESPN Radio network.
The frequency originally belonged to WHTC-FM, which went on the air in 1961, with an antenna on the WTHC-AM 1450 tower in downtown Holland, Michigan. During this time (from the station’s inception until the early 1980s), the station was generally being used as a simulcast to WHTC-AM.
In 1981, Michael Walton, of Milwaukee WI, purchased WHTC-AM and FM. By 1983, 96.1 became known as WYXX, with a new tower . After Walton assumed full control of the station, it became a fully automated pop formatted station that focused primarily on playing Billboard magazine’s top 100 hits. The all-hit format was softened to adult contemporary by 1987, to better compete with existing stations in the Grand Rapids market.
By 1994 the station was sold to Federated Media and once Federated had control of the station, a “Young Country” format was adopted. The call letters became WAKX. This format was also unsuccessful; it was not able to effectively compete with WCUZ-FM 101.3/WCUZ-AM 1230, the incumbent country juggernaut at the time. The format changed in 1997 to Hot Adult Contemporary and became known as “Mix 96.”
The station was later purchased by Clear Channel Communications and the station became known as “I-96” (taking its name from the highway Interstate 96 passing through Grand Rapids; the station’s logo also resembled an interstate highway sign). The call letters were also changed to WVTI. The format shifted from Hot AC to CHR as Continuous Hit Music, I-96. Clear Channel took control of rival station WSNX in the late summer of 1999; much of the “I-96” air lineup moved over to WSNX 104.5, which shifted from CHR/Rhythmic to CHR/Pop as a result, and “I-96” itself shifted back to Hot AC, which it would remain for the next six years. Initially, the station had moderate success as I-96, but as other local radio stations (including sister station WOOD-FM) began putting more Hot AC-oriented acts on their Mainstream AC stations, the ratings began to slide by 2005.
On October 18, 2005, the station flipped to a Jack FM clone called “MAX-FM”. It gained the call sign of WMAX from another Clear Channel operation in Chattanooga, Tennessee on November 16, 2005. The station initially was programmed with over 1500 unique songs drawing from various pop music genres. As time went by, the list was honed down to less than 600 songs and the music was more focused on the 1980-early 2000s time period. After a rather respectable ratings showing, the ratings heavily slid by early 2007.
On March 19, 2007, the station retooled itself into a Modern AC-leaning Hot AC presentation, known as “The NEW MAX-FM”, which lasted until January 31, 2008.
On January 31, 2008 at 3 PM, the station dropped the Hot AC format and began stunting with the sounds of a ticking clock interspersed with liners that were played every two or three minutes. Some of these liners were in Spanish and made reference to Regent Communications-owned WNWZ AM 1410 and cold, snow-covered cornfields in Hudsonville, MI, while others mentioned the time and date of 02/04/08 at 10:01 AM. Songs which served as clues to what the new format would be were played. The songs included Coldplay‘s “Clocks“; Elvis Presley‘s “Burning Love“; David Allan Coe‘s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”, and Hall & Oates‘ “Private Eyes“, among dozens of others. During the stunt, the station’s website showed a 12-second viral video clip influenced by the Cloverfield movie, with a message that pointed to the date of February 4, 2008 at 10:01 AM. A year later, WLHT-FM (owned by Regent, now Townsquare Media) would acquire the adult top 40 format that had been absent in Grand Rapids for more than a year.
At exactly the promised time, the ticking clock stopped, and the new format, which is known as Radio X 96.1, began. The Radio X presentation heavily centered on modern rock music from the 1990s, as well as featured selected songs from the mid 1970’s through the end of the 1980’s as well as current product. This type of format was also in use in several other Clear Channel operations across the country, but has been discontinued at some of the radio stations during the past several years.
On August 4, 2008, Clear Channel placed the station’s assets into an entity called the Aloha Station Trust in order to sell off the station. This was due to Clear Channel being above the ownership limits allowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These limits were imposed when Clear Channel was officially taken private by Bain Capital Partners on July 30, 2008. In December 2008, Clear Channel took back WMAX after Arbitron reassigned WMAX to the Muskegon market, and its sister station, WLDI in Fort Pierce, Florida, to its new market.
Legally, 96.1 is WMAX-FM, as the WMAX calls are used at a Catholic Christian radio station (not co-owned) at 1440 AM in Bay City, Michigan. In 1922, the WMAX call sign was used by a station in Ann Arbor, Michigan. From circa 1956-1986, the WMAX calls were used by AM 1480 in Grand Rapids. WMAX was an adult contemporary music station “Good MAX Music,” until flipping to an all-news format in 1976. WMAX had a local news staff of 11 reporters, known as “NEWSRADIO 1480,” before becoming a Christian talk/Gospel Music station in 1984. WMAX was reassigned from Grand Rapids to Kentwood when a new night-time directional array was added in 1984. WMAX later became a Contemporary Christian station, before becoming silent. AM 1480 became WGVU-AM in 1992, operated by Grand Valley State University. From 1992-1998, the WMAX call letters were used by an alternative rock 106.7 FM station in Rochester, New York.
Starting in June 2009, Clear Channel’s Grand Rapids operations began making plans to change the format of the radio station into one carrying ESPN-provided sports programming and local/statewide play-by-play game commentary.
On August 17, 2009 at midnight, the station began broadcasting sports-oriented programming, with a large share of the programs originating from ESPN Radio.