August 29 - September 12, 2001

The Big Travelogue: Part Five

There's nothing like a good road trip to get a feel for the state of radio these days. From June 23 until July 7, your editor (accompanied by Boston Radio Archives creator Garrett Wollman) hit the road to see what's on - and in - the air across a broad swath of mid-America.

For the next few installments of Site of the Week, we'll be recapping the many highlights of what we like to think of as The Big Trip, 2001 edition. Come along...

Click here for part one

Click here for part two

Click here for part three

Click here for part four

Wednesday, June 27 - After brief stops in Brooklyn (Iowa, that is) and Grinnell, our long day is drawing to a close on a dirt road just southeast of Mitchellville.

This mighty piece of steel is the legendary WHO, 50,000 non-directional watts on 1040, blanketing most of North America at night (thanks to its central location, WHO is one of the few I-A clear channel stations that never had a I-B authorization when the clears were broken down in the eighties) and much of the upper midwest by day (thanks to the incredible ground conductivity of this region).

It's easy to believe that the top of this tower once held the WHO-TV (Channel 13) antenna, though all the Des Moines TVs are now on very tall towers halfway between Des Moines and Ames (we'll see those soon). Look carefully behind the trees and you can see the auxiliary tower towards the rear of the property.

The building's not shabby, either; a transmitter palace very reminiscent of the old WKBW site that kicked off our journey just a few days earlier.

Looking to the east across the road (NE 120th Street), we can see another set of tower lights blinking in the distance. This is KKDM (107.5 Des Moines), a fairly recent C1 drop-in that was doing a nice local AAA format until Clear Channel bought it. Now it's CHR "Kiss" and the morning guy is in Los Angeles the night before...progress marches on!

While we're admiring the sunset, the portable VCRs in the car are rolling on central Iowa's two 9 PM newscasts, the Fox version on KDSM (Channel 17) and the newer offering from Pax outlet KFPX (Channel 39), produced by WHO-TV.

After some confusion involving our hotel reservation, we find a place to stay, roll tape on the 10 PM news from ABC affiliate WOI-TV (Channel 5, the former Iowa State University-owned outlet that's had a hard time achieving full competitive status since being sold off a few years back), and grab some dinner and a few hours of sleep.

Thursday, June 28 - The original plan had been to see Des Moines' towers and studios on Wednesday night, so we're theoretically a few hours behind schedule as we start off Thursday morning. After a quick stop around the corner from our hotel at the WOI-TV studio in West Des Moines, we're heading downtown by way of Grand Avenue. At number 1801 sits a big ugly concrete box that's home to WHO-TV (now owned by the New York Times Company) and WHO radio (along with its many Clear Channel sister stations). Across the street is KDPS (88.1), the Des Moines public schools radio station, but it's off for the summer.

Passing the other big cluster's studios (the former Saga group of KRNT, KSTZ et al), we're off to see our first new state capital of the trip. It's quite an ornate structure, isn't it?

A few blocks north and west is KCCI-TV (Channel 8), the CBS affiliate that was once KRNT-TV, part of the broadcast family of the Des Moines Register and Tribune. (The Register survives as a Gannett paper; the Tribune is long gone, alas.)

A tall self-supporting tower out back appears to be the former channel 8 antenna, we think.

The KRNT calls survive on the AM dial, as a locally-programmed standards outlet at 1350 kHz.

Its three towers sit on SE 22nd Street, across from an elementary school on the southeast side of town. This site is also listed as an auxiliary for KIOA-FM (93.3), the city's oldies outlet.

Our next destination takes us out to the east side of town, chasing an AM ghost.

1390 on the AM dial in Des Moines lived many lives: KCBC, KMRY, KJJY (sister to what's now KJJY-FM on 94.9 with country music), and finally KKSO, resurrecting the dead three-letter KSO call from 1460 when that channel became KGGO(AM). It also ended up with an expanded-band AM allocation, at 1700 kHz, and when that facility signed on a few years back as business radio KBGG, 1390 went dark for good.

The site on Dean Street, near the Iowa state fairgrounds, still shows signs of having been a four-tower array, with tower bases still clearly visible.

But only one of the four towers remains, and it's radiating only on the expanded band these days.

From here, we pass the now-vacant studios on Maple Drive that were once home to KBGG and KKSO (and KJJY) and turn south on the US 65 freeway, heading for a top-40 legend from days gone by.

Way out of town along state route 5, past the village of Hartford, we navigate a series of turns on little dirt farm roads that bring us to the six towers of AM 940, Des Moines' second most powerful AM facility.

In the sixties and seventies, this 10,000-watt signal was KIOA, the top-40 station for much of central Iowa.

By the nineties, the KIOA calls had migrated to FM on 93.3, with the AM relegated to a simulcast of the FM's oldies format. A few years ago, the AM dropped the KIOA calls to become KXTK, and since then it's flipped back and forth among different flavors of news-talk, alternating with simulcasts of the FM. But you can't argue with the history, and with the rusty Quonset hut transmitter building, especially with the temperature outside in the low nineties!

There's not enough time to go to an even more remote site, that of religious KWKY (1150) far south of town near Norwalk.

Instead, we head north again, to the facility at 3900 NE Broadway that was Des Moines' other three-letter call for decades.

KSO remained in use on 1460 through a variety of formats as late as the eighties, before succumbing to an FM simulcast as KGGO(AM).

Still later, 1460 would become a bargaining chip in the age of duopoly, as religious KDMI gave up its 97.3 FM signal to the Barnstable Broadcasting folks in exchange for use of 1460 AM.

Last year, KDMI finally disappeared for good, and now 1460 and the rest of the cluster is in Clear Channel's hands. As KXNO, 1460 is an all-sports outlet, a convenient sister station to the mighty WHO way down the dial (and way up the power scale!).

But while 1460's studios have long since moved downtown, leaving this building vacant, there's still something the big concrete bunker on Grand Avenue can't match: the swimming pool outside the studio building!

An old cooling pond? A relic of a long-forgotten tradeout deal? We don't know...and the water didn't look terribly inviting, anyway.

In any case, we were heading north again, up I-35 towards Ames by way of the little farm town of Alleman. It's here, along a couple of miles US 69, that all of Des Moines' TV stations and several of the FMs have placed their transmitters.

One tall tower carries KSTZ (102.5), the old KRNT-FM, along with Fox affiliate KDSM. Just north of that tower, an even taller one carries WOI-TV, its former sister station WOI-FM (90.1 Ames), WHO-TV, its former sister station KMXD (100.3, the local Clear Channel "Mix"), and public TV KDIN (Channel 11).

Just west of that one is a slightly shorter tower for KCCI-TV. And over to the north of Alleman, a brand-new piece of steel is the new home to DTV in the market, with just about every station holding a CP or an application for digital TV here. This tower is also home to the newest analog TV in the market, Pappas' KPWB (Channel 23), the WB affiliate that just signed on last year.

(As for the rest of the FM in the market, it's scattered in a variety of sites. Oldies KIOA-FM 93.3 is northeast of town, sharing a tower with KGGO-FM 94.9. KJJY 92.5, licensed to Ankeny, and KHKI 97.3 are both northwest. KLYF 106.3, a C3, is northeast and not far from the 1460 site, while several rimshotters enter the market from communities like Ames and Boone.)

Speaking of Ames, that college town is our next destination, and we're soon parked downtown in front of KASI (1430), Clear Channel's little local news-talker.

The KASI tower on the west side is nothing much to write home about, and we don't even bother with the Ames-licensed Des Moines rimshotters like KLTI (104.1).

But there is one more station in Ames that we have to see, and it just happens to be one of the oldest in Iowa.

WOI is another one of those old-line land-grant college noncommercial AMs that's been on the air since the twenties.

By day, it's a 5 kW nondirectional signal that covers most of the state from its tower southwest of town on the ISU Experimental Farm, and after dark the second tower pulls the 1 kW night signal away from Los Angeles and KFI.

This tower shows obvious signs of having once been WOI-TV (Iowa's first TV station, originally intended to go noncommercial once other commercial stations came on the air) and WOI-FM as well, and we suspect it can still serve as an auxiliary for the FM at least. WOI-FM, by the way, does the usual public radio classical thing, while the AM does news and talk, with the usual NPR fare intermixed with some rather dry agricultural and political talk shows. The studios are on the ISU campus, but we're on a deadline, so we head off to the west instead.

Boone, Iowa is perhaps best known as a destination for magazine subscription checks (at least, that's how we heard of it), but it does offer two directional AMs. Religious KFGQ (1260) and full-service KWBG (1590) both have two-tower sites south of town, but are otherwise unspectacular.

An hour north, though, sits one of the most impressive AM facilities in all of Iowa. Combine amazing ground conductivity with the lowest spot on the AM dial, and you end up in Fort Dodge, at 540 A Street.

This is KWMT, until fairly recently a daytime-only occupant of 540 kHz. That tall tower seen to the right (which is still far less than a half-wave on 540) also carries the FM bays of KKEZ, "Mix 94.5."

KWMT's night pattern drops the station from 5 kW down to a whopping 170 watts, most of it pointed south, away from Sasketchawan and in fact away from downtown Fort Dodge (though this site is less than two miles away, so KWMT still covers adequately after dark).

The calls aren't accidental; KWMT was indeed long co-owned with WMT over in Cedar Rapids, and the two are again sister stations under Clear Channel. Competing with KWMT and KKEZ for Fort Dodge ears are little KVFD (1400) and KUEL (92.1), from a tower just south of town.

After lunch, we're headed west again, out Iowa 7 through Pomeroy (passing KTLB 105.9 on the way) to the pleasant little college town of Storm Lake, approximately halfway to nowhere.

This little town has three radio stations to its credit: KAYL (990), doing standards mixed with old-time radio; KAYL-FM (101.7), doing live, local hot AC; and KBVU (97.5 Alta), a more recent drop-in that's programmed (with a modern AC format) by the students at Buena Vista College.

KBVU's sales operation is handled by KAYL in its downtown offices, and all three stations share a tower on the east side of town along Iowa 7.

From Storm Lake, it's a long drive west on US 20 to our last big Iowa market: Sioux City, along the Missouri River where Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota all come together.

East of town, we miss the turnoff for religious KTFJ (1250), and we glimpse briefly the stick shared by public radio KWIT (90.3), rocker KSEZ (97.9) and oldies KKMA (99.5 Le Mars).

We skirt the city on the new US 20 bypass to the south and west, crossing into Nebraska for the first time to see the AM sites on the south side of the market. Oldies KWSL (1470) has four towers just off the side of the US 75 bypass, and a few miles down we find country KMNS (620).

In addition to a funky old transmitter building just off the side of 75, KMNS has an unusual antenna configuration for its 1 kilowatt, DA-2 operation (helped along by being so low on the dial).

This four-tower array is really two three-tower arrays. By day, KMNS puts out its kilowatt in a "trillium" pattern, with nulls to the northwest, southwest and east-northeast, while at night, two of the day towers and one that sits unused by day create an irregular pattern with the major lobe pointing north-northeast towards Sioux City.

From here, we head north again, this time passing through downtown Sioux City, heading for the last AM site in the market. KSCJ (1360) is the old Sioux City Journal AM station, and today it's still running a full-service format, complete with local minor-league baseball the night we tune in.

Its unusual four-tower array sits on US 75 just where Floyd Boulevard (old 75), the "new" 75 bypass and the even newer freeway bypass (still under construction) all come together.

This is another strange-looking site, with towers arranged in a tall-short-short-tall configuration. KSCJ is non-directional by day with 5 kW, while at night it puts out a butterfly-shaped pattern.

Heading back down Floyd Boulevard toward downtown, we pass the studios of NBC affiliate KTIV (Channel 4), on a hill from which we can see the cluster of TV transmitter towers to the northeast of town.

Closer in to downtown is the old studio of KMEG (Channel 14), renowned as the last CBS affiliate to refuse to clear David Letterman's show at its usual time of 10:35 PM Central. (And that, friends, is why Sioux City was for a time the "home office" for the Letterman top-ten list). This unusual station, whose calls derive from its MEGawatt of visual ERP, was also one of the last CBS affiliates without local news (at least until the Detroit debacle...)

That's been rectified, and KMEG now does news and Letterman from a shiny new building just off I-29 in North Sioux City, South Dakota.

One more Sioux City site: ABC affiliate KCAU-TV (Channel 9) does its thing from downtown Sioux City, where what looks like a nice old building has somehow been swallowed by a concrete box. (Shades of WHO-TV, or perhaps KCAU's own sister station, WHBF in Rock Island?)

In any case, we're off to South Dakota with a few precious hours left before nightfall in which to see Sioux Falls..but that, along with the mighty WNAX in Yankton, is a tale for part six. And that, in turn, will have to wait a few weeks, since the Labor Day holiday and our trip down to New Orleans for the NAB Radio Show means no Site of the Week September 5 -- and we have a special, timely surprise planned for this space September 12. So we'll continue our trip September 19...