March 13-20, 2002

"We Love L.A.," Part One

It's a typical upstate New York March as we get this installment of Site of the Week together - gray and chilly, just the sort of weather to inspire some of that California dreaming.

So how lucky are we to have a whole batch of pictures from a few days spent driving around Los Angeles last August? You decide...

Our tower visits began just a couple of hours after our plane landed at LAX, as we headed to a Dodgers game at Chavez Ravine (visiting ballparks is a regular addition to the big tower chases, you know...)

Before we pulled into the ballpark, we had to make a stop on the hillside overlooking the ravine, just north of downtown L.A., where we found the six-tower array you see at left. It's home to the 50,000-watter at 1580 on the Southern California dial, long known as KDAY and pumping out urban music.

KDAY, and its current successor, KBLA, called Santa Monica their city of license, but it's a good 20 miles from here to the pier and the beach. KDAY used to fudge things with a small studio out on the west side of town; with today's relaxed city of license rules, the only thing "Santa Monica" about 1580 is the legal ID during Radio Unica's programming.

A good ballgame and a good night's sleep later, we headed south in preparation for a weekend down south in San Diego - but not without catching a few more sites on the way.

Stop one: an homage to the legend that was "Boss Radio," the legendary KHJ at 930 on the dial. Back in the heyday of the Bill Drake top-40 format, the KHJ studios were next to the Paramount lot on Melrose (still home to the former KHJ-TV, now KCAL-TV), but even then, the 5,000 watt signal emanated from these two towers on Venice Boulevard.

KHJ's Boss Radio days came to an end years ago, with 930 flipping to an FM simulcast as KRTH(AM), then to Spanish under the calls KKHJ - but a couple of years ago, KKHJ's owners persuaded the FCC to let them return to the heritage three-letter call (their argument: "K-K" in Spanish is pronounced "Ka-ka," which is a euphemism for you-know-what!), so this site is once again just plain KHJ. And while the format is nothing like it was, there's still a connection here: right next door to the towers, KRTH-FM (101.1) still maintains its studios, pumping out many of the same tunes that made KHJ great. (They call them "oldies" now, of course...)

From KHJ, you can look south less than a mile to see a self-supporting tower and a newer guyed stick. Drive south on La Cienega Boulevard and you'll have no doubt what they are: the talk voice of KABC (790).

Like KHJ, this is a very old 5,000 watt regional signal, dating its history back to car dealer Earle C. Anthony, who operated this station as KECA, sister to his big 50,000-watt KFI signal.

While KFI was the Southern California flagship of NBC's Red Network, KECA helmed the Blue. And while KFI was never owned by its network, KECA did end up in the hands of the Blue Network, known to us today as ABC.

KABC's studios are in a low-slung beige building next to the towers, along with KLOS-FM (95.5), Radio Disney outlet KDIS (710) and, more recently, ESPN Radio outlet KSPN (1110). Until a few years ago, we're told, the KABC transmitter was housed in one of those classic Art Deco transmitter buildings on a part of this property that's now KABC's gated parking lot. One last bit of KABC trivia: the design of its talk studios, we hear, inspired the set of Frasier. (We didn't go inside to look...sorry!)

Heading south from KABC, we passed in the distance the transmitter sites of leased-time KTYM (1460 Inglewood) and a few of the little class A FMs that dot the L.A. basin (KRCD 103.9 Inglewood and KSSC 103.1 Santa Monica, if you must know), before heading into Torrance in search of L.A.'s second-best AM signal.

You've probably already guessed that we mean KNX (1070), which has used this site about 20 miles south of downtown L.A. since the 1930s in a variety of configurations.

In the fifties, CBS experimented with a directional antenna system here, in hopes of reducing the amount of signal the non-directional tower was radiating over the Pacific Ocean.

For whatever reason, the DA was not a success (unlike its cousins on the East Coast at WBZ and on the Gulf Coast at WWL), and KNX was back to non-directional operation in the sixties, just in time to become one of L.A.'s two all-news stations (we'll see the other one later in our tour.) There's still a second tower at the KNX site, but it's strictly for auxiliary use these days.

We arrived at the KNX site at an interesting moment: engineers were hard at work tearing out the old GE BT-50 beast that had occupied much of the back room at the site, preparing to replace it with a brand-new Harris 3DX50 digital transmitter.

In its last days, the GE had been a backup to a backup, playing third-string to a Continental 316 for primary backup use and the Continental 317 that was serving as KNX's main transmitter (and now serves as the primary backup, with the 316 as the fallback unit.)

When we pulled up at the City of Torrance park that surrounds the KNX site (CBS donated much of the land around the tower to the city a few years back, and it's now approached on a series of footpaths that surround softball fields in the park), the GE had already been hauled away, with the Harris due to arrive within a few days.

The engineers were kind enough to let us take a few pictures and to share a few stories of this very interesting site, including the tale of the vandal some years ago who decided it would be fun to cut one set of the guy wires that kept the main KNX tower in place.

There was so much tension on the guys, as it turned out, that when one set was cut, the entire tower literally jumped out of the walled enclosure at the back of the transmitter building, clipping just a bit of the parapet before landing outside on the ground!

It must have been quite a sight to see and quite a project to replace; in any case, the current tower is again safely enclosed within those ten-foot walls at the back of the building. The whole thing rests on that little base insulator, which allows it to flex a bit with the winds (and the earth, this being southern California!) while the guys hold it securely in place. And check out those spark gaps, too! (Yes, we were treated to a demonstration...)

Another bit of history: in the front room of the transmitter building, above the Continental 317's cabinets, sits that shiny "KNX TRANSMITTING PLANT" sign. It used to sit outside the building, in a more innocent era, and was then left to sit forgotten in a back corner of the building until engineers pulled it out a few years back and refinished it.

From KNX, we had to hit the road for the San Diego area and the wedding that was our primary reason for making the trip.

But fear not - we returned to Los Angeles a few days later to take in many more sites, and you'll see them in the next installment, coming next week!

(And we won't neglect San Diego and Tijuana, either; they'll be featured in future installments of Site of the Week...)