April 28, 2006

Towers from the North Country: The Big Trip, 2005

Part XII: La Crosse, Wisconsin


Once every year or so, your editor gets together with other similarly radio-crazed folk for an event that's become known as "The Big Trip" - a week (or more) of dawn-to-dusk (and sometimes beyond) traveling in search of interesting new sites to showcase here on Tower Site of the Week, in the Tower Site Calendar, and so on. It's a chance for us to meet people we've only corresponded with via e-mail, and to gather airchecks and legal IDs for our new content partners at www.tophour.net, too. (In our version of a sitcom crossover episode, we're posting the legal IDs from each Friday's Tower Site installment the following Wednesday on Tophour - check it out!)

Our Big Trip in August 2005 took us all over Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it wrapped up on Sunday morning, August 21, when we awoke in La Crosse, Wisconsin after a late-night drive from Madison and the annual Midwest DX Get-Together.

With a plane to catch that afternoon in Minneapolis, several hours away, our Sunday morning visit to the towers of La Crosse had to be both brief and early, and so it was that we set out from the hotel nice and early to see what we could see before the town woke up and found us there.

Heading south from our hotel, in the northern suburb of Onalaska (near where I-90 crosses the Mississippi into Minnesota), our first stop was the two-tower site of the city's oldest radio station. WKBH signed on in 1923, and settled down in the early thirties with 1000 watts on 1380. It moved to 1410 as part of the big NARBA shifts of 1941, and was soon running 5,000 watts, with a nighttime directional signal, from the site on Gillette Street northeast of downtown that the station still uses today.

It's not WKBH anymore - those calls went away in the seventies, when the station took its current calls of WIZM, paired with what's now top 40 WIZM-FM on 93.3. But it's still a nice old facility, and a big signal.

Heading downtown, past the single tower of WLFN (1490) next to the La Crosse River, it doesn't take us long to find the State Street studios of Mid-West Family Stations, which encompasses WIZM and WIZM-FM, as well as sports WKTY (580) and three more FMs - classic hits KCLH (94.7 Caledonia MN), rock WRQT (95.7 La Crosse) and country KQYB (98.3 Spring Grove MN).

Just a few blocks away on South 6th Street, we find the studios of La Crosse's CBS affiliate, WKBT (Channel 8). It started life as WKBH-TV back in the fifties, and today serves viewers in both La Crosse and Eau Claire, seventy miles or so to the north, though its news coverage focuses very much on the La Crosse side of this sprawling TV market.

Our next stop takes us south about six miles on the riverside road that carries US 14, US 61 and Wisconsin 35 out of town. Just after the two US highways split away from 35 (and the river), we find the five towers of WKTY (580) on a spit of land that juts into one of the wide parts of the Mississippi. WKTY uses all five towers day and night, with 5 kw days and 740 watts at night. (It was a kilowatt fulltime when it signed on, apparently from this very site, in 1947.)

From here, we turn north again, following Wisconsin 35 back through the sleepy downtown and up to Onalaska, where we find the studios of one of the two stations that now uses the WKBH calls. Classic rock WKBH-FM (100.1 West Salem) is owned by Mississippi Valley Broadcasting, and it shares this little white building on 35 (aka Second Avenue North) with standards WLFN (1490), oldies KQEG (102.7 La Crescent MN), AC WLXR (104.9) and country WQCC (106.3). (It also has a sales agreement with sports WFBZ 105.5 Trempealeau, which also operates from this building under the "La Crosse Radio Group" banner.)

The WKBH calls also live on at a non-co-owned AM station, licensed to Holmen on 1570 and broadcasting Starboard's "Relevant Radio" Catholic programming from a tower very near this building.

It's getting to be time to head for the airport and our flights home, so we head north on 35 to US 53, which begins as a freeway going north from La Crosse but soon turns into a rural two-lane highway, depositing us in the little town of Galesville, some 20 miles north of La Crosse.

This is where WKBT built a tall tower (1627 feet) in 1964, in an attempt to better serve viewers both in La Crosse and in Eau Claire, which is still about 50 miles north of this site. It's a pretty good guess that most Eau Claire viewers watching WKBT (which serves as the CBS outlet for both markets) are getting a signal from satellite or cable, just as La Crosse viewers looking for NBC end up with Eau Claire's WEAU (Channel 13) via some means other than the off-air signal.

(Two observations here: first, La Crosse viewers have another over-the-air NBC choice, a channel 67 translator across the river in La Crescent, Minnesota, that relays KTTC from Rochester, which does not appear on cable. Second, while ABC and Fox came much later to the Eau Claire-La Crosse market, viewers of those nets get a local over-the-air signal in both cities. For ABC, it's two sister stations, WQOW on 18 in Eau Claire and WXOW on 19 in La Crosse, each of which does its own local news. We didn't have time to see the WXOW facilities, which are on a bluff on the west side of the river, in La Crescent, Minnesota. For Fox, it's a simulcast of WEUX on 48 in Chippewa Falls-Eau Claire and WLAX on 25 in La Crosse. WLAX's tower is also over in La Crescent, as are the public stations - Wisconsin's WHLA-TV 31, WHLA 90.3 (news and classical) and WLSU 88.9 ("Ideas") and Minnesota's KXLC 91.1 - and WIZM-FM on 93.3. We'll have to get up there on a future visit.)

One final stop concludes our 2005 Big Trip, and it's a bit anticlimactic: about 15 miles north of WKBT, we pass through the little town of Whitehall, and there, off the side of US 53, is the studio building for WHTL (102.3), "Wisconsin's Heartland."

The oldies station's STL dish is aimed up at a nearby hilltop, where its transmitter is located. But for us, there's no more time for towers - we're bound for I-94, a few miles away, and the quick two-hour drive through Eau Claire and back to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and home. (Whereupon we'll discover, a few months later, that most of our La Crosse airchecks didn't turn out well, so we have another reason to go back eventually, unless some kind soul in La Crosse takes pity on us and sends some tapes or CDs or MP3 files along.)

And with that, we bring our 2005 Big Trip to its conclusion. (Well, almost - our recap of the legal IDs from the trip still has one more installment, coming May 3 at tophour.net.)

We're already gearing up for Big Trip 2006, coming to a city near you in September (if you live in Oregon or Washington, that is) - and in the meantime, we'll head back to more familiar ground next week, with the first of several Boston-area sites we've never featured before here on Site of the Week. See you then!

Thanks to everyone who contributed to making Big Trip 2005 a success!