The World-Famous Tower Site Calendar 2007

February 9, 2007

The Big Trip 2006, Part I: Tacoma and Olympia, WA

Once every year or so, when finances and schedules permit, your editor and a couple of his similarly-obsessed radio pals get together to spend a week or so exploring a corner of our great nation, packing our schedules as full as possible to visit as many interesting broadcast facilities as we can.

And then, a few months later, once we've caught our breath (and some much-needed sleep), we share it all with you here on Tower Site of the Week (and in audio form over on in a feature we call "The Big Trip."

The 2006 version of the Big Trip began and ended in Seattle, and along the way took us as far south as Eugene, Oregon and as far east as Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Day One - Thursday, September 21

Our little group met up near the baggage-claim area at the Seattle-Tacoma airport...and that's where we stayed for an hour or so, waiting and waiting and waiting for the last of the bags (mine) to come off the conveyor (complete, it would turn out, with one broken VCR, which would become problematic later that night in Eugene, but we're getting ahead of ourselves here.)

Once the bags were in and the rental car was procured, we wasted no time heading south to our first destination: the six-tower array on the east side of Tacoma, near the spot where I-5 crosses the Puyallup River, right behind the "SHEEP" sign, that's home to Clear Channel sports station KHHO (850).

What's a 10-kW day/1-kW night station doing with six towers, when it only uses two towers in its day array and three at night, and one of those is common to both arrays? Therein lies a tale, which is just what we like here at Site of the Week.

Back in 1999, you see, this site became home to a second station. Ackerley, which then owned both KHHO and KJR (950 Seattle), lost the lease on KJR's longtime 5 kW tower site at the Port of Seattle, and it soon embarked on an expensive and ambitious project to diplex KJR down here at the Tacoma site, some 30 miles to the south.

The transmitter building (painted green to comply with local zoning standards, which regrettably failed to specify any particular shade of green) became home to a pair of 50 kW transmitters and a new phasor for KJR, right across the hallway from KHHO's DX10. In addition to KHHO's existing four towers (a line of three for nights, plus a dogleg tower that forms the northern half of the two-tower day array), Ackerley put up two more towers to create a five-tower array for KJR. The new array used two of the three KHHO night towers, the KHHO day-only tower, a new tower between the two KHHO day towers and a new tower south of the KHHO night towers to create one big blowtorch of a lobe north into Seattle.

It was a clever idea, and it kept KJR on the air when the port finally sent the station packing, but it didn't quite put enough raw signal strength over Seattle and its northern suburbs to make the station's next owner, Clear Channel, happy. So a couple of years ago, KJR moved out again, diplexing on the Vashon Island site of Salem's KGNW (820 Burien) with 50 kW day and night and a far superior signal over most of the market and leaving some empty space in the transmitter building in Tacoma.

What about that "SHEEP" sign? Yes, the land around the transmitter site is rented for pasturage, and so anyone walking around the towers gets to be the object of curiosity for some four-legged tower guards.

About half a mile away from KHHO, on the other side of the Puyallup River, we make one more Tacoma stop, at a site so new it's not even on the air yet when we visit. Salem's KKOL (1300 Seattle) is another Port of Seattle evictee, and it's bounced around quite a bit, spending the last five years or so broadcasting from a temporary shipboard facility that we'll see later on our Big Trip agenda.

These four towers at the Port of Tacoma are the newest home of KKOL, running 50 kW days and 47 kW at night, and they came on the air a few months after our visit.

But with many miles yet to travel this first day, and the sky (thankfully) clearing up, we point the car south on I-5 and head for our next destination, Olympia, another 30 miles or so down the road. Our first Olympia stop is a rare triplexed tower, the tall stick shared by KBRD (680 Lacey), KGTK (920 Olympia) and KLDY (1280 Lacey) on Sleater-Kinney Road on the city's east side. KBRD and KLDY are interesting stations, running noncommercially as the legacy of their late owner, Skip Marrow, who programmed standards on "K-Bird" and classical on "K-Lady." A few months after our visit, the foundation established after Marrow's death sold KLDY, which is now doing Spanish religion, but it's using the proceeds to keep K-Bird chugging along with the standards, which seems pretty neat to us.

So, for that matter, does our next tour stop: Olympia's venerable KGY (1240), perched right on the water at the Port of Olympia...

Is this a beautiful radio station, or what? We'd wanted to see KGY for a long time, and sales manager Dennis Brown was happy to take a few minutes at the end of his day to show us around the compact two-story building sitting on pilings in the water.

I'm not sure how in the world I'd ever get any work done in the KGY air studio, which has that million-dollar view of Budd Inlet and the marine traffic heading in and out of Olympia, and a view out to the lobby, too, but it sure is a nice space.

The room includes a little desk for KGY's talk programming, and the transmitters are right there, too - a Harris MW1 for primary use and a nice clean RCA BTA-1R as a backup.

Down the hall from the air studio, there's a newsroom, a production room, and the studio for KGY's more recent FM sister, KGY-FM (96.9 McCleary), which runs mostly from a satellite service, but has a local morning show that uses this little room.

Upstairs, the general manager's office sits right above the air studio, complete with a telescope to better observe all the ships and birds going by. The rest of the second floor is the sales office, plus some storage space over the front of the building.

The AM tower sits right out in the parking lot, with a ground system extending into the water, giving this kilowatt on 1240 plenty of punch.

It's a great little local station, and we're as hopeful as can be that its owners work things out with the Port of Olympia, which has been trying to relocate the station so it can develop the area with new hotels and restaurants.

Another 25 miles heading south on I-5 and we're at our final stop of the day before the sun sets. On the south side of blue-collar Centralia, Washington, we find the short tower of KELA (1470), broadcasting the same Mariners game that was on KGY when we pulled out half an hour earlier. This building is also the studio of KMNT (104.3), which is the big country station for the area.

From here, we head on in the dark for another three hours or so before we pull in at our motel in Eugene, Oregon. We'll see that city's stations next week here at Site of the Week - but before that, check in at beginning next Wednesday (Feb. 14) to hear some of the legal IDs we captured in Tacoma, Olympia and Centralia.

Thanks to Dave Grytness for the KHHO tour and to Dennis Brown for our KGY visit!

The Tower Site Calendar 2007 is here! They're going to sell out, just like 2006 did - order today at the Store!