by SCOTT FYBUSH
Until earlier this year, there were three states in the continental U.S. that were conspicuously missing from your editor’s travel history: North Dakota, Arkansas and New Mexico. Barring some sort of surprise travel (hopefully with snow tires and a warm parka), I’ll end the year with only one of those states – North Dakota – missing from my tower-travel map.
For this week’s installment of Site of the Week, we present the first peek at what turned out (speaking of surprise travel) to be the first of two visits to New Mexico in 2011 – and while there are lots and lots of fascinating things to show you from New Mexico, we have to start with the state’s oldest and most powerful signal, as well as the first New Mexico appearance on the Tower Site Calendar: Albuquerque’s KKOB (770).
Some history? Well, of course: when KOB signed on April 5, 1922, replacing amateur station 5XD, it was nowhere near Albuquerque. The station’s original city of license was Las Cruces, way down south near the Texas border, where the New Mexico College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts was one of many state schools to start a station in those heady early days of radio.
Ralph Goddard, the school’s dean of engineering (and a native of Waltham, Massachusetts), was the driving force behind the founding of the station, so much so that he used “The Development of the Southwest’s Broadcasting Station KOB” as the topic for his doctoral thesis at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1929. The degree was granted just months before an accident inside the KOB transmitter on December 30, 1929, electrocuted Goddard, ending a promising career in radio. Goddard was just 42 years old.
At the time of Goddard’s death, KOB had just recently relocated from 760 kc to 1180 kc, running 10,000 watts with a pending upgrade to 20 kW, implemented in 1930. By then, the station had begun commercial operation, and it wasn’t long before the college decided the cost of operating a high-power commercial station was too much to bear. In April 1932, KOB signed off for the last time from the Las Cruces campus, and by October it was back on the air from a new home hundreds of miles away in Albuquerque, now under the management of the Albuquerque Journal, which bought the station outright in 1936.
KOB’s temporary Albuquerque home atop a downtown hotel didn’t last long at all: by the end of the decade, the station was getting ready to move to a new transmitter site north of Albuquerque.
The site move came along with a frequency change: the 1941 implementation of the NARBA treaty wiped out the 1180 kc channel on which KOB had been operating. While most of the pre-NARBA channels saw all their occupants move en masse to the same new frequency (the “table method”), 1180 was an exception: its pre-1941 occupants were scattered to new homes around the dial, with New York’s WINS relocating to 1000 (and then quickly to 1010), Macon’s WMAZ to 940 and Minneapolis’ WDGY to 1130. As for KOB, it was assigned to 1030, where it was licensed to run 50,000 watts by day and 25,000 watts at night, a new power level implemented in July 1941, when the station dedicated its new site, complete with a shiny new RCA 50E transmitter.
But KOB didn’t stay on 1030 very long: there were immediate “interference issues,” which can be read in hindsight (we suspect) as the powerful Westinghouse lawyers complaining that Boston’s WBZ, which moved from 990 to 1030 by the “table method,” had been effectively downgraded from class I-A to I-B when it was forced to share its channel with KOB, 2200 miles to the west. In October 1941, the FCC – apparently without any formal application from KOB – issued a “special service authorization” designating the Albuquerque station to operate instead on 770, again with 50 kW by day and 25 kW at night.
And that touched off one of the longest legal battles ever waged before the FCC, since NBC was none too happy about being forced to share the 770 frequency on which its Blue Network flagship, WJZ New York, was operating. For the next four decades, the two stations would continue to spar over the use of the 770 channel, even as they took on new owners: KOB went to Minnesota-based Stanley Hubbard in 1957, while WJZ became WABC, flagship of the new ABC network.
I could expend pages and pages on all the legal wrangling, but the highlights are these: after a decade and a half of “temporary” operation on 770, the FCC in 1956 ordered KOB to directionalize its nighttime signal, followed in 1958 by an order that both KOB and WABC should directionalize as class I-B stations. The courts stepped in again in 1965, finding that the reduction in status for WABC disadvantaged ABC against the I-A nondirectional flagships for CBS and NBC in New York. Nine long years of legal bills later, a 1976 Report and Order officially restored WABC to I-A operation, albeit on what was now officially a “broken” clear channel shared with KOB as a II-A…whereupon Hubbard upped the ante with an application to make KOB the I-A nondirectional facility on 770, with WABC again downgraded to directional II-A operation. That application was finally tossed out by a federal court in 1980, putting an end to the mess and establishing de jure the operation that’s continued de facto since the late 1950s: by day, Albuquerque runs 50 kW, non-directional, remaining at 50 kW at night with a deep null toward New York. (That null runs right up I-25 to Santa Fe, 40 miles or so away, but in the 1980s KOB installed a 1 kW synchronous repeater in Santa Fe that’s used only at night to provide service to the state capital.)
Having expended all that effort, Hubbard sold KOB (and KOB-FM 93.3) to Price Communications in 1986; since Hubbard kept KOB-TV (Channel 4) and the rules didn’t yet allow for shared calls, the radio stations became KKOB and KKOB-FM. Price sold the stations to Citadel in 1994, and they changed hands again this year to Cumulus along with the rest of the Citadel holdings.
Lots of history, to be sure…but you’re here to see a transmitter site, right?
When KOB built this site in 1941, it was far to the north of any settled parts of Albuquerque. Even today, the location on 2nd Street NW, eight miles north of downtown, has a rural feel to it, though it’s just across the Rio Grande from the booming suburb of Rio Rancho to the west, and just a mile or so from I-25 to the east. (I-25, in turn, hugs the foot of mighty Sandia Crest, which rises thousands of feet above the valley floor; from the KKOB AM site, we can get a nifty telephoto view eastward all the way up to the TV-FM tower farm, including the KKOB-FM tower, up atop the Crest; we’ll see it up close in a future Site of the Week installment.)
The 1941-vintage adobe-style transmitter building is still here, complete with most of the original lightning-bolt “KOB” logo that adorned the doorway. A visitor in 1941 would have walked inside to be confronted by the RCA 50E transmitter filling most of a wall; it was supplanted three decades later by a Harris MW50 transmitter to the right of the doorway, which is still there as a backup.
The 50E went away a few years later (it was salvaged, though, and now lives at the Bolack Electromechanical Museum up in Farmington, N.M., where we’ll see it, too, in a future Site of the Week installment), and the space it once occupied is now filled, partially at least, by the Harris DX50 that’s now KKOB’s main transmitter.
Several racks of STL and processing gear sit across from the DX50, along with the phasor for the night signal and another 5 kW transmitter that wasn’t connected to anything when we visited in April.
To the right of the transmitter room, a narrow passageway leads down into an emergency shelter, where some rudimentary studio gear could (at least in theory) keep KKOB on the air in the event of the unthinkable; for lesser emergencies, there’s a hulking generator out back as well.
And that brings us out to the towers. The 645-foot daytime tower just north of the transmitter building goes almost all the way back to 1941, while the 443-foot tower to the west is a more recent addition; I believe it went up in 1985 when KOB upgraded to 50 kW nighttime power. (The bases for an earlier tower can still be seen to the northeast of the transmitter building, as well as above at right.)
There’s one more “only-in-Albuquerque” story about those towers: the big one suffered damage a few years back after being hit by a hot-air balloon. The KKOB site is just a mile or so from the home of the annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, and on the last day of the Fiesta in October 2004, a Smokey Bear balloon with three people on board slammed into the top of the tower. The pilot and his two young passengers escaped safely: after the station cut power to the tower, they climbed all the way down the ladder to the tower base, where they were rescued by a power company’s insulated ladder truck. Crews from Advanced Tower Services in Albuquerque then removed the shredded remnants of the balloon and later rebuilt the top of the tower, which was twisted by the impact of the balloon.
We’ll have more of our 2011 New Mexico adventures in future Site of the Week installments later this winter – not only the new home of the old KOB RCA 50E and the Sandia Crest FM/TV site, but also KKOB’s downtown studios and its Santa Fe synchronous relay…plus much more from Grants and Gallup to Tucumcari and Los Alamos and beyond. And in the meantime, join us over on sister site Tophour.com next Wednesday for some fun Albuquerque legal IDs, too!
Thanks to KKOB chief engineer Bill Harris for the tour!
The KKOB tower site is one of many you’ll find featured in the all-new Tower Site Calendar 2012, available now from the all new Fybush.com store!
Next week: WHAM, Rochester, NY