December 16, 2005

Mount Wilson, Revisited and Annotated (part I)


For the next few weeks, we're featuring some of the images you'll find in our new Tower Site Calendar 2006, along with some stories and extra pictures from each visit. This week (and next), we return to one of our very favorite sites anywhere in the country.

Yes, that's Mount Wilson, high above Los Angeles. You've seen it here on Tower Site before - a year ago, in fact, when we devoted a two-part series to the fascinating history and lore of this imposing site. If you missed it, you might want to go back and revisit it to get the lay of the land. (Part I - Part II)

Most of the pictures we showed you last year were from an October 2004 visit to the mountain, which left us both impressed and eager to learn more - specifically, to be able to figure out which antennas on which towers belong to which stations. That's a more difficult task than you might imagine, since there's no overall site manager up here, and since the landscape is constantly changing.

So we were extremely fortunate, on our return to the mountain in April 2005, to have a couple of outstanding tour guides. We went up to Wilson with Burt Weiner, a veteran of the LA radio engineering scene. Burt has worked on many of the stations up here, and he's best known on Wilson for installing (and operating, for many years) the very first amateur repeater up there.

Burt, in turn, introduced us to Larry Lopez of Angeles Crest Services, who provides contract engineering services to many stations up here - and Larry patiently stood with us and pointed out antenna after antenna as we furiously sketched the whole scene for later reference. Any errors in this week's Tower Site are no doubt in my transcription, and not in Burt and Larry's narration - and will be corrected promptly if anyone's kind enough to point them out.

OK, then: let's look at some towers, shall we?

We're focusing this week on the central part of Mount Wilson, the area known as "Mount Alta." It was here that the first TV signals were sent forth, from KTLA (Channel 5), about which more next week, and even now it's the hub of activity on the mountain. We park the rental clunker at the back of Mount Alta, near the KABC/KLOS building that we profiled last year, and with Larry as our tour guide we head right into the middle of the tower farm, to see everything we can see.

In this week's installment, we'll be hanging out behind two of the older buildings on Mount Alta: the "Poole Building," built in the fifties by FM and TV pioneer John Poole for KBIG (104.3) and KBIQ (Channel 22), and the "Post Office Building," aka the "Allcom Building," which has the interesting distinction of housing the most RF-saturated post office in America, zip code 91023, with counter hours daily from 10:30-11:30 AM. From each building, transmission lines now extend to multiple towers, and the space between them has been filled in over the years with more buildings and towers. (For instance: behind the Poole building, above, you can see the Univision building, originally built for KMEX, channel 34. Those RF warning signs and fences are new - it was in the KMEX driveway that the FCC found higher-than-acceptable RF levels that led to some stiff fines against several Mount Wilson broadcasters a couple of years ago.)

Above and at left, you can see the view from the area between the Poole and Allcom buildings, a veritable sea of towers and antennas. Here's how they break down:

The westernmost flank of Mount Alta is dominated by the KCAL-TV (Channel 9) tower, a tall self-supporter that's also home to KCAL-DT (Channel 43), KRTH (101.1) and KPWR (105.9), the latter using an ERI cog-wheel antenna that we somehow failed to get a good picture of. (It's facing away from us, towards Los Angeles, below the 101.1 aux antenna in the photo above.)

Next to it, directly behind the Poole building, a shorter self-supporter is home to channel 22, the descendant of Poole's KBIQ. That station never made it on the air with programming, eventually going dark, with the channel being reactivated a few years later as KWHY. Today, KWHY is a Spanish-language independent, owned by NBC. Its tower is also home to KWHY-DT (Channel 42) and to a backup antenna for KZLA (93.9), whose main site is over at the KCBS-TV compound that we saw in an earlier installment.

Two KBIG towers flank the Poole building: a four-bay main antenna sits on a short mast on the west side of the building, with a ten-bay aux on a short tower on the east side. Height's not a big deal here - with 105 kW ERP at 2893 feet above average terrain, KBIG lives up to its name with one of the largest superpower FM signals in America. Only KPFK (90.7), to the west on Wilson, and KVYB (103.3) up in Santa Barbara are bigger.

Behind the Poole building and the channel 22 tower sit two of Alta's tallest towers. Univision has the only candelabra on Mount Alta, a fairly recent addition that's home to KMEX (Channel 34), KMEX-DT (Channel 35), Telefutura outlet KFTR (Channel 46) and KFTR-DT (Channel 29) on its tines, as well as auxiliary antennas down below. Next to that sits the tall KABC-TV tower, famous for its stairway that climbs the full height of the tower. (We saw the transmitter room there in our 2004 Mount Wilson profile.)

Next to that sits a solid three-sided self-supporting tower that holds some of Wilson's newer arrivals. At the top of this tower sits TV Azteca's KAZA (Channel 54), licensed to Avalon on Catalina Island, more than 50 miles away. Below that is a UHF master antenna, one of the few shared antennas on the mountain.

This is primarily a DTV antenna, carrying digital signals for KDOC-DT (Channel 33), KOCE-DT (Channel 48), KJLA-DT (Channel 49) and KXLA-DT (Channel 51) and analog signals for KXLA (Channel 44) and KOCE (Channel 50).

The combiner for the signals sits above the Allcom building, in a structure that's literally suspended above the roof by a system of braces that carry its weight to the ground, since the Allcom building itself couldn't handle the weight. You can see some of the bracing in the "Looking west" picture above - right next to the base of the fat pole that supports the antennas of KDOC (Channel 56), a fairly recent move to Wilson from Orange County, as well as an auxiliary antenna for KHHT (92.3) and the main antenna for public radio KPCC (89.3), whose 600-watt signal still qualifies as a class B way up here.

I'm pretty sure that one of these two towers - either the channel 54 self-supporter or the channel 56 mast - was originally the channel 46 tower. Channel 46's original building, from its years of home shopping and other programming that predated its current Telefutura affiliation, sits behind these towers, next to the KABC building.

Are we done with Mount Alta yet? Not hardly! Next week, we'll continue working our way east, checking out the Allcom building, the new ATC building, and digging way back into history at KTLA.

Special thanks to Burt Weiner, Larry Lopez (Angeles Crest Services) and Roger Knipp (KDOC) for our Wilson visit!

LIKE THAT MOUNT WILSON PICTURE? You should see it in printed form, sans annotation, in the 2006 Tower Site Calendar! Click here for ordering information!