December 24-31, 2004

We (Still) Love L.A.: Mount Wilson (part two)

It's Tower Site Calendar 2005 season right now here at, which gives us a chance not only to showcase the images featured in next year's calendar - but also to do some Very Special Tower Sites of the Week that relate to next year's calendar images...and just maybe, a preview of Tower Site Calendar 2006.

For the last few years, the calendar has featured at least one image each year from one of our favorite markets, Los Angeles. The nation's number-two market (or if you count by revenue, as many LA radio folks do, the number-one market) has a little of everything - nifty directional arrays, huge I-A clear channel AM signals, antique "hammock" AM longwires (KYPA 1230, "Miss November" in the 2005 calendar), and one of the most impressive mountaintop TV/FM sites to be found anywhere.

That I-A clear channel is, of course, KFI (640), and it was in the headlines this past week for all the wrong reasons: at 9:45 on the morning of December 19, 2004, a Cessna 182 flew into the top of KFI's 760-foot tower in La Mirada, California, killing the pilot and his wife and sending the tower crumpling to the ground.

(Our broadcast history colleague Barry Mishkind has many photos of the wreckage at his site, and there are more at Paul Sakrison's site and still more at Marvin Collins' pages.)

We featured KFI in one of our earlier "We Love L.A." segments, way back in March of 2002, and we feature it here again, with fond memories of this 57 year old tower (and profound relief that nobody on the ground was killed and none of the buildings that surround the tower seriously damaged) before we head on up the highway to Pasadena and La Canada-Flintridge, and then up the road to that impressive mountaintop TV/FM site.

That would, of course, be the legendary Mount Wilson, over a mile above sea level (5715 feet at the Mount Wilson Observatory, to be exact), yet within sight (on a clear day) of the entire Los Angeles basin and the Pacific Ocean beyond. That's something like 10 million people within the line of sight of this mountaintop, which means it was no surprise that it's the site of choice for nearly all the FM and TV stations that serve this magnificent market.

There are, in reality, five groups of towers that make up this site, each one distinctly visible (and all but one readily accessible by road) as you make the long drive up from the valley below. (It's only a few miles as the crow flies from the summit of Mount Wilson to Pasadena, directly below, but the twisty drive up the Angeles Crest Highway and Red Box Road takes the better part of an hour from La Canada-Flintridge, where the highway begins.)

Last week, we visited the two most prominent clusters of towers, the Mount Alta site at the peak of the mountain and the Fox cluster of towers just to the east. This week, we take in the three other sites that make up the Mount Wilson experience: the CBS compound, the small cluster between CBS and Mount Alta and the Mount Harvard site to the south.

The CBS Compound

There's only one tower on all of Mount Wilson that's guyed, painted and lit, and it's the very first one you see as you drive up Red Box Road from the junction with the Angeles Crest Highway (CA 2) down below.

This nearly one thousand foot tower (296 meters, to be exact) carries KCBS-TV (Channel 2), descendant of the oldest TV operation in the west. W6XAO was the experimental TV station that belonged to Don Lee, the Cadillac dealer who was a driving force (pun not really intended) in West Coast radio of the twenties and thirties. W6XAO began operations in Hollywood, moving up to "Mount Lee" above the Hollywood sign in 1940. After the war, W6XAO became commercial station KTSL ("Thomas S. Lee," Don Lee's son) on channel 2, still operating from Mount Lee as an affiliate of the new DuMont network. (Lee's company pioneered FM in Los Angeles from here as well, via K45LA, the ancestor of today's KRTH 101.1.)

But while Mount Lee was an impressive site from which to serve the immediate Los Angeles area and the San Fernando Valley on the other side of the Hollywood Hills, it was far less useful than the much higher Mount Wilson for coverage of greater southern California, and so Lee purchased the land known as "Deer Park," east of Mount Alta. As Marvin Collins recounts in his excellent history of Mount Wilson, Thomas Lee died before KTSL could be moved up to Wilson, triggering a sequence of changes up here in 1951 in which the Don Lee operation (by then a subsidiary of General Tire/RKO) bought what had been KFI-TV (Channel 9) from erstwhile archrival Earle C. Anthony (it soon became KHJ-TV) and sold KTSL and the Deer Park site to CBS, which was extricating itself from a partnership with the Los Angeles Times in KTTV (Channel 11). (KTTV ended up with the DuMont network for the next few years.)

CBS put channel 2 on from Deer Park on October 28, 1951 from a relatively short tower, dubbing it "KNXT" to match its KNX (1070) radio operation. I'm not quite sure when the tall tower came to exist here, but by the time it did, KNXT had changed calls yet again, becoming KCBS-TV. (The KCBS calls came into use on CBS' AM 740 in San Francisco; the FCC's grant of the KCBS-TV calls on April 6, 1984 heralded a new era in which co-owned stations could share calls on different services in different markets.)

Eventually, the KCBS-FM calls would come to live here as well, on the 93.1 outlet that shares this site and that was originally KNX-FM, later KKHR ("HitRadio 93") and KODJ ("Oldies"), and now does classic rock as "Arrow 93." Another FM, KZLA (93.9), leases space on the CBS tower and operates from an outbuilding on the site.

Though the KNXT calls haven't graced southern California in two decades, they live on, we're pleased to note, in an emblem attached to a cabinet of channel 2's Larcan transmitter - though it bears noting that this Larcan is new enough that it never operated as KNXT.

Time hasn't exactly stood still inside the KCBS-TV/FM building, but it has a nice feeling of vintage television, with that rather impressive control desk looking into the transmitter room that holds the KCBS-TV Larcan and the KCBS-FM BE FM35Bs. Around the corner, in the back of the building, sits KCBS-DT's channel 60 transmitter. (KCBS drew a short straw in the DTV allotment game, since channel 60 is out of the "DTV core" and channel 2 is undesirable for DTV operation, but the coming of TV duopoly bought the station a second chance: it's now co-owned with KCAL-TV 9/DT 43, and it's likely that at the end of the transition period channels 2 and 60 will both be returned and KCBS and KCAL will operate on 43 and 9, or perhaps 9 and 43, respectively. And yes, we note the irony that the very same channel 2 that Don Lee sold off to acquire channel 9 half a century ago is now under the same ownership...)

Between CBS and Mount Alta

As the road from the CBS gate (constantly monitored by video and audio from inside the KCBS building, which is always staffed) winds up to Mount Alta, it passes several smaller sites. It's here that we find Pacifica's KPFK (90.7), running a rather impressive 110 kW from just 46 meters above the ground. At a much more impressive 863 meters above average terrain, though, KPFK holds the crown as the single most potent FM signal in the United States, though it wastes a fair amount of that signal over water.

Next door to KPFK is KMZT, the latest incarnation of Saul Levine's rather defiantly independent Los Angeles FM that was earlier all-jazz (as KKGO) and later went all-classical (upon the demise of an earlier all-classical operation, KFAC-FM 92.3). And Univision Radio's KLVE (107.5) is here in this cluster as well. Just up the road is the former site of KCOP (Channel 13), now a bare tower awaiting a new tenant after channel 13 decamped to the Fox compound, where we saw it last week.

Mount Harvard

We covered Mount Alta in detail last week, so this time we'll skirt the hilltop on the ring road, ending up at the parking lot on the west side of Alta, where a gate blocks the twisty road that leads down, down, down and then up, up, up to the neighboring peak that is Mount Harvard.

Marvin's historical pages inform us that before the construction in the 1930s of the Angeles Crest Highway and Red Box Road, the access to Mount Wilson was via a much twistier road that came up from Pasadena to Mount Harvard, and I believe the present-day road from Wilson to Harvard follows that same route.

With the exception of the one distant view below, my pictures of Mount Harvard actually predate the rest of the Wilson photos in the collection. Those were taken on a beautifully crisp afternoon in October 2004 - but that was my second visit to Mount Wilson. My first was in April 2003, when I got to go down the road to Mount Harvard and see what was inside. Unfortunately, a heavy fog covered the mountain that day, making a return trip essential to gawk at the towers.

But even with towers fogged in, the transmitter buildings can be pretty neat to see by themselves, and the facility that SpectraSite has constructed at Mount Harvard is a remarkable one.

For one thing, it's perched right on the edge of the mountain, to the extent that the road leading to the site was being rebuilt the day I visited, with engineers carefully cantilevering it out from the hill to allow it to go around the building to the side where the air conditioners are. We actually had to park somewhat short of the building and walk the rest of the way, if memory serves.

Once you're over on the upper hillside, looking at the rather distinctive multiple-arm tower that's home to KSCI (Channel 18), KRCA (Channel 62) and KVEA (Channel 52), you're actually looking at the top story of the building, where three big high-ceilinged rooms hold transmitters for each of the UHF stations that call this site home. (There's more coming, at least digitally: when I visited in 2003, NBC was planning to put KWHY-DT 42 and Pax's KPXN-DT 38 here, and there's a pending application to move KPXN's channel 30 analog signal here from Mount Baldy, off to the east.)

A quick bit of TV history: KSCI has, for many years, been the premiere Asian-language station for L.A., broadcasting blocks of programming in Chinese, Korean and Japanese; KRCA is Liberman Broadcasting's Spanish-language independent, which signed on in the nineties; KVEA is the Telemundo outlet for Los Angeles, the descendant of Kaiser Broadcasting's independent KBSC, which also did some time as a subscription-television outlet. KSCI moved here from another site to the east; KBSC/KVEA had been over on Mount Alta before this site was built.

Downstairs, the building houses power-handling equipment, several of the LPTVs that serve the market, some transmitters used by certain three-letter federal agencies, the main XM repeater for the market, and the transmitter for KUSC (91.5), the University of Southern California's classical station. KUSC uses a short tower perched on the edge of the hilltop across the parking lot from the TV tower - and since our 2003 visit, SpectraSite has built another self-supporting tower on the site, providing additional tower space for a market that always seems to need it.

(In the distant image of Mount Harvard, shot from the Fox compound in October 2004, the big TV tower's at left (with, it would seem, some additional DTV antennas that weren't there in 2003), with KUSC at the right and the brand-new tower in the middle.

And with that, we say goodbye - for now at least - to this most magnificent of tower sites, but not before pausing at dusk to look down.

On a clear day, you can easily see from here out to the Pacific Ocean, more than a mile below and some 25 miles to the east. Even on a somewhat smoggy October evening, the setting sun over Los Angeles is a remarkable sight, reminding us of the millions and millions of people who, though they may not know it, depend on this mountaintop for so much of their broadcast news and entertainment.

Special thanks to Marvin Collins, Mt. Wilson historian extraordinaire; to the engineering staff of KCBS-TV/FM, especially Ray Mascho (who's retired since my 2003 visit to his site, where he talked to me at length about the history of Mount Wilson); and to Vikki Amrine and Larry McClung of SpectraSite for showing me Mount Harvard!

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