Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we're fully engaged in a "Big Trip" like the one we're in the midst of chronicling from the summer of 2013, there's not a lot of time for anything that's not radio or TV. We get up in the morning, aircheck morning-drive radio, hit the road bright and early, use up as much daylight as we can traveling and touring, and if we're lucky we get to squeeze in a few decent dinners or maybe a ballgame at night.
But if you've never gone through Austin, Minnesota before - and if it's a dreary, rainy day with some time to spare before the next station tour is scheduled - sometimes you've just got to make a stop at the SPAM Museum. No, we did not know ahead of time that this tongue-in-cheek tourist attraction includes its own mock "radio station," but once "K-SPAM" presented itself (a few exhibits ahead of the recreation of Monty Python's fabled "SPAM" sketch), we had to share it with you here on Site of the Week. And seriously, it's a fun (and free) little museum that takes itself precisely as seriously as it should...complete with free samples as you walk around.
Away from Hormel's legendary luncheon meat, there is indeed some radio to be seen in Austin. The city extends south of I-90, but if you instead head north of 90 on the east side of town, the farm country yields up the four towers of KQAQ (970), out at the corner of 245th Street and 555th Avenue. This was a late addition to the dial when it signed on in 1960, running 5000 watts by day and 500 watts at night from a very directional pattern generated by these four widely-spaced sticks. Over the years, it became KGHR (immortalized in an old sign at the former studio site here), then KNFX under Clear Channel, then returned to its original calls when it returned to local ownership a few years ago with a cool oldies format.
Head back through downtown Austin and south on Highway 105 and you come to the older of the two AMs in town. KAUS (1480) signed on in 1948 from this site on the south side of town, and it's been here ever since. Regional owner Three Eagles held the keys when we stopped in for an impromptu tour in 2013, but it's since sold to Dean Goodman's Digity group. (We'll see more of Three Eagles later in this Big Trip.)
On the AM side, "The Voice of Mower County" does a lot of local talk, sports and news over its 1000-watt signal; sister station KAUS-FM (99.9) does "US Country" over a big 100,000-watt signal from a tower west of here between Austin and Albert Lea.
(That's sports guy Clint Narramore in the production room shot below, and it took us both a few moments to realize that we had a NERW-land connection - he used to work in New York's Southern Tier at WEBO in Owego!)
The stations occupy a brick transmitter/studio building that's probably a little bigger than a small AM/FM combo really needs these days, but there's a reason for that: back in the early 1950s, the building was expanded when KAUS added a TV sister station, KMMT (Channel 6) in the summer of 1953. Channel 6 became KAUS-TV in the 1960s, and it moved out in 1974 to its own building just off the north side of the I-90 bypass. Subsequent owners changed the calls to KAAL ("Austin/Albert Lea"), and with a tower in the farm east of Austin and south of Rochester, KAAL is now the ABC affiliate for that entire sprawling Rochester/Austin/Mason City market we mentioned in last week's installment.
Under current owner Hubbard, KAAL's center of gravity has started to shift: while some newscasts still come from this facility in Austin, a satellite newsroom in Rochester was already producing several evening shows when we visited in 2013. This year, KAAL announced plans to build a new studio and newsroom in Rochester that will originate all of its newscasts starting in 2015.
This building in Austin will continue to house sales offices, master control and a few newspeople covering Austin and vicinity (news coverage of the Iowa side of the market seems to belong mainly to Mason City's KIMT, unless it's a big story), and we'll have to get back to this area at some point to see what a Rochester-based KAAL looks like.
After KAAL makes its move, there will still be one TV station based entirely in Austin: public broadcaster KSMQ-TV. Unlike public radio, for which pretty much all of Minnesota depends on the centralized service of Minnesota Public Radio, public TV around the state is highly localized. including some delightfully small operations. While channel 15 here in Austin started out back in 1971 as a school-run station, KAVT, it's been in community hands for a couple of decades now, with studio facilities tucked into the back of a building at Riverland Community College just off the I-90 bypass on the west side of town.
That's pretty much the entire station offices in that view above, from up in the storage loft at the back of the station. With much of its market getting primary PBS service from either St. Paul-based Twin Cities Public TV (KTCA) or Iowa Public TV's Mason City transmitter (KYIN, on the same tower near the state line as KIMT), KSMQ does a lot of local production, assisted by the state's "Legacy" funding. There's a room full of edit bays off to one side of the facility, next to the control room and studio.
And what's that tucked in the back of the rack room? It's the transmitter rack for KMSK (91.3), the Austin relay of Mankato State University's KMSU (89.7). KSMQ lost its STL tower, a 440-footer over at the edge of the campus, in a storm the winter before we arrived; it took only a day to rig up a replacement STL path to get the signal out to the KXLT tower in the Ostrander tower farm to the east, where KSMQ's transmitter is located. (KSMQ has lots of ties with KXLT's sister station KTTC: the KTTC Austin news bureau occupies a room off to the side of the KSMQ office area, among other things.)
From here, you could just about roll a bowling ball 175 miles west along the straight, flat I-90 corridor to the South Dakota state line, but we made some stops in the small towns that dot the landscape along the way.
It's only 20 miles or so to Albert Lea, where I-35 crosses I-90 amidst a landscape pocked with small lakes, and here we find the current studio for Austin's KQAQ (970), shared with its sister station KQPR (96.1 Albert Lea) in a storefront in the city's rather vacant-looking downtown. We didn't make it to KQPR's tower, south of I-90 east of Albert Lea not far from the KAUS-FM site, but we did go a little south of downtown Albert Lea to see the other tower in town, shared by Three Eagles' KATE (1450) and its sister FM KCPI (94.9).
The KATE/KCPI studios eluded us somehow, so it's off to the next radio town, another 35 miles or so down I-35. The roads into Blue Earth (where the dirt was actually just as brown as anywhere else) were under construction this summer day, so it took some maneuvering to find our way around to the studio/transmitter site of KBEW (1560), which is also the studio of KBEW-FM (98.1). KBEW signed on in 1963 (as chronicled in an exceptionally detailed and accurate Wikipedia article, the exception to the rule these days), spawned the original KBEW-FM (100.9) in 1965, then signed the station off again 11 years later when the station's then-owner, Clifford Hedberg, bought what had been KEYC-FM (99.1) in Mankato from the then-owners of KEYC-TV. The Mankato FM went silent, and it wasn't until the early 1990s that a new KBEW owner put a new KBEW-FM on the air from a site out to the west of Blue Earth.
Blue Earth is also the home of religious KJLY (104.5), part of a network of stations dotting northern Iowa and southern Minnesota; its current transmitter site is up north near Mankato, but its studio and former transmitter site still sit right alongside I-90 as we head west out of Blue Earth.
It's less than 20 miles from here to Fairmont, a pretty town nestled alongside a chain of lakes, where Woodward Broadcasting stakes its claim on the region's radio dial with an AM-FM pair.
KSUM (1370) and KFMC (106.5) share a site on West Lair Road on the far side of Hall Lake from downtown Fairmont.
"Ag Country 1370" dates its history back to 1948; today it runs 1000 watts day and night, using two of these three towers by day and all three at night; "Classic Rock 106.5" has been around since the 1980s, and today it's a 100,000-watt C1 signal that's easily heard up north in Mankato.
The next radio town heading westward is Jackson, another 30 miles along the way, but the studio/transmitter building of KKOJ (1190) and the transmitter of its sister station KRAQ (105.7) are a little out of the way and daylight is starting to run out, so we press on 30 miles more to Worthington. By now we're just 50 miles from the state line and Sioux Falls radio is nearly local, but Worthington still has its own local radio scene.
Normally, these Worthington stations - news-talk KWOA (730) and country KUSQ (95.1) - can be heard over in Sioux Falls, too, but things were far from normal when we pulled up at the studio/transmitter site on the west side of town to see not much tower at all.
Ir turns out an ice storm in April 2013 had taken down most of the tower here, leaving KWOA operating from a longwire strung between two phone poles and KUSQ running low power from a single bay mounted on the remaining stub of the tower.
Two more FMs have studios, but not transmitters, here: rocker KITN (93.5 Worthington) and top-40 "Party" KZTP (104.3 Sibley IA).
And we finish our southern Minnesota jaunt in the last radio stop along I-90 before it hits the border: Luverne, just a few miles shy of South Dakota, is home to KQAD (800) and KLQL (101.1). Both stations signed on in 1971 using this studio and transmitter site on County Highway 9 east of town. KQAD's 500-watt, two-tower signal (dropping to 80 watts at night) still transmits from here, but the former KQAD-FM 100.9 moved sites to a taller tower north of town when it moved to 101.1 in the 1980s.
From here, it's on to Sioux Falls - but we'll save that fun for next week's installment.
Thanks to KAUS's Ed Brady and Clint Narramore, KAAL's Wendell Nelson and KSMQ's Matthew Bluhm for the tours!
WHAT'S ON THE 2017 TOWER SITE CALENDAR COVER?
That's for YOU to decide.
We have so many beautiful photos set for the 2017 Tower Site Calendar. Several of them would make great covers. So this year, we want your input!
Check out the three following pictures, then cast your vote in the box below them. After that, send your name and preferred email to Lisa to receive your coupon for $1 off anything in our store and be entered in our drawing for a free 2017 calendar -- which is now on sale.
COVER CHOICE ONE
And don’t miss a big batch of southern Minnesota IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Big Trip 2013 part 5 - Sioux Falls, South Dakota