Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
"Ventura Highway, in the suuuuuuun-shiiiine...." - America, 1972
OK, if you want to get technical about it, that big early-seventies AM radio hit was actually about a southbound drive down US 101 from Lompoc, not the route we were taking heading north from Los Angeles on a sunny April morning two years ago. But after surviving yet another freezing northeast winter, we'll take our California in the spring any way we can get it - and this particular way involved a northward jaunt from San Diego and LA to spend a couple of days seeing some new sights along the road up to Santa Barbara.
But before we could get to our roll-down-the-window-and-blast-the-70s-AM-gold moment along the coastal freeway and then to our actual arrival later that night in Santa Barbara came the pictures we're showing you today, from a brief stop to visit with several stations in Ventura itself.
Don't tell America songwriter Dewey Bunnell, but when "Ventura Highway" hits the real-world city of Ventura, it turns into a typical Southern California freeway, lined with strip malls and office parks, including the one just off the Telephone Road exit where we find 1376 Walter Street, home to Cumulus' Oxnard-Ventura cluster.
Even though this was, as I recall, a Saturday, then-CE J.D. Strahler kindly agreed to show up to give us a look at this studio complex, home to four stations: sports KVEN (1450 Ventura), AC KBBY (95.1 Ventura), country KHAY (100.7 Ventura) and rhythmic top-40 KVYB (103.3 Santa Barbara). The Ventura piece of the cluster came together in the mid-1990s under McDonald Media Group, which moved KVEN/KHAY and KBBY from separate studios into this facility around 1998. Cumulus bought the McDonald stations in 1999 and (as we'll see in more detail in a subsequent installment) took advantage of 103.3's enormous signal footprint to make it a de facto part of the Ventura/Oxnard market later on.
The original stations here - KVEN, KBBY and KHAY - have all their air studios lined up in a neat row along one side of the facility (mostly on automation this Saturday afternoon, though there was a live jock on either KBBY or KHAY); KVYB's studio, added later, occupies a former production room just off the back entrance.
KVEN and KHAY didn't have to go very far to get here when they made their move a decade and a half ago. Their previous studio location was just a few hundred yards down the street from the current Cumulus facility at the corner of Market and Walter, and KVEN's transmitter is still located at the old 3897 Market Street site, which makes for a nice short studio-transmitter link indeed.
KVEN is a most interesting AM facility indeed, having been one of those rare directional Class C (ex-class IV "graveyard") stations. Its two-tower array was in use in the early part of the era in which those class IV signals were able to go from 250 watts to 1000 watts by day; back then, the use of the directional antenna allowed KVEN's daytime kilowatt to be pulled in from the ocean and pumped out more effectively along Ventura County's landmass, but by the late 1970s KVEN had reverted to a more traditional non-directional signal, today with 1000 watts day and night.
Smartly, KVEN left the second tower standing, and today that tower carries a variety of rental tenants and is detuned against KVEN's main tower next to its former studio building.
That lovely coastal sunshine was rather obscured by some chilly coastal fog when we stopped by in 2012, so we'd point you to a previous Tower Site of the Week installment from 2004 to see more views of the KVEN array, as well as some of the other Ventura AMs we didn't visit on this trip. (And yes, we're know we're predictable in our listening habits on these trips...)
In 2004, we didn't get inside the "Tower Square" building, but this time we did, and what we found inside was a compact transmitter room and a storage/workroom filled with vintage equipment. (The rest of the former studio building is now leased out to, of all things, a tractor-trailer driving school, which explains the big rigs parked on the streets surrounding the building and towers.)
KVEN's main transmitter these days is a Harris MW-1, but the star attraction here is that lovely old Collins transmitter, now on backup duty but still very much operational (and my, do those tubes glow pretty...)
The rest of Cumulus' transmitter sites are at a rather greater distance from the studios, and it would take the better part of a day to visit them all - so we focus on one particularly interesting FM site in the remainder of our time here with J.D.
From Ventura, highway 101 "north" actually goes almost straight west as the coast makes its big bend out toward Santa Barbara, but a northward turn on the Ojai Freeway (State Route 33) takes us truly northward through a valley between coastal mountain ranges. Rising up through the orchards and pastures along the freeway, we make a turn off to the west to follow a fire road up to the top of Red Mountain, where two clusters of FM signals sit a short distance from each other.
The other big cluster operator in Ventura, Gold Coast Broadcasting, is well-represented up here at the first group of signals we encounter. The self-supporting tower here, which went up in 1998, carries class B1 KOCP (95.9 Camarillo) and class A KFYV (105.5 Ojai), as well as an former-main-turned-aux for full B KCAQ (104.7 Oxnard), which now makes its main home at the other end of the market up at South Mountain. There's a translator up here as well, K259BI (99.7), relaying KTYD (99.9) from up in Santa Barbara.
Before this self-supporter was up here, there was an older tower with a curious history of its own. I'm pretty sure this was the precise site of KKOG ("Kalifornia's Koast Of Gold"), an independent station that launched in December 1968 with ambitious plans to broadcast a lineup of entirely live and local shows to Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Of course, those counties were already heavily cabled, with access to seven or more stations from Los Angeles plus Santa Barbara's KEYT (Channel 3), all of which were full-color while KKOG chugged along in glorious black and white; the unsurprising upshot is that KKOG lasted less than a year, fading into obscurity just short of the nine-month mark.
After KKOG disappeared, 104.7 (then KPMR) came up here; I think the short flagpole-style towers next to this site were earlier auxes for 104.7 and its sister stations, though they don't appear now as licensed facilities.
From the Gold Coast site, we can look across some pleasant orchards and past the stubby microwave tower where KFYV used to be and where KCRW translator K271AC (102.1) now lives. (Before Santa Monica-based KCRW had the translator here, it had a full-power relay, KCRU 89.1 Oxnard, which is now over on Laguna Peak near Point Mugu; K271AC actually relays KCRU, of course.) And past the K271AC tower, we can see another taller guyed tower in the distance, the longtime home of KHAY (100.7), Cumulus' entry up here.
These days, KHAY is just one of three stations on this tower. In addition to its BE transmitter, this compact block building also houses the QEI transmitter of KDAR (98.3 Oxnard), which is Salem's closest station to its corporate home base in nearby Camarillo. (Salem also owns the tower!)
And the lowest-powered station up here is Entravision's KSSC (107.1 Ventura), which runs just under a kilowatt of output power from that little Harris tucked away in a rack in the corner. This was part of Big City Radio's ambitious simulcast plans a decade ago, and its current facility here was built to be synchronized with 107.1 signals in Arcadia and way down the coast in Fallbrook, at the border of the LA and San Diego markets.
Where's everyone else on FM and TV in the market? KHAY's class B sister, KBBY (95.1), is up with KCRU at Laguna Peak, right on the coast south of Oxnard. That's also where KOCP was before it moved up here. KCAQ, as we noted, made the move from Red to South Mountain a few years ago. That relocation pushed its contours just deep enough into the San Fernando Valley to allow Gold Coast to pepper the northern end of the Los Angeles market with on-channel boosters. South Mountain is also where analog KJLA (Channel 57) and KBEH (Channel 63) operated; because this is part of the sprawling LA television market, those stations have migrated to Mount Wilson/Mount Harvard along with so many others.
Thanks to J.D. Strahler, then of Cumulus, for the tours - and to K.M. Richards for historic background!
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Next week: Santa Barbara, 2012 (part I)