November 9, 2007

Medium Trip '07, Part II: Mason City, IA

Over the course of 2007, your editor set foot in 20 of our 50 states, visiting broadcast facilities all along the way. And now that the season of travel has ended, it's time to settle back and begin recapping some of what we saw as we criscrossed this land of ours.

This week, we continue our recap of what we'll call "Medium Trip 2007," a 10-day family journey that began and ended in Chicago, taking in much of Iowa and a little of eastern Nebraska along the way, and in the process revisiting for the first time some of the territory from our original Big Trip back in 2001.

When we left off in our last installment, we were spending a Thursday morning and early afternoon heading north and west on I-380 and US 218 from Iowa City up through Cedar Rapids and Waterloo and Waverly, on target to make Mason City by early afternoon.

Our last stop before reaching Mason City was Charles City, about 20 miles to the southeast, where we found the little AM-FM combo of standards KCHA (1580) and soft AC "River" KCHA-FM (95.9), sharing a tower just south of town and a storefront studio right on the main drag in the pretty little downtown area. Back in late May, these stations were part of a Clear Channel cluster that was a major part of the Mason City radio scene, but that would soon change, as we'll see in more detail later in this Site of the Week installment.

A half-hour after our stop in Charles City, we were right in the bustling heart of Mason City, the commercial hub of northern Iowa, where our first stops had nothing whatsoever to do with radio.

Mason City, you see, was also the birthplace of Meredith Willson, the songwriter who created "The Music Man," and his boyhood home a few blocks from downtown has been preserved as part of a museum complex ("Music Man Square") that also includes a recreation of the downtown streetscape of the famous movie musical's River City, as well as display of artifacts from the musical and from Willson's life. It's small-town tourism at its finest, and a great way to pass a couple of late-afternoon hours.

If Mason City's big draw is all about the turn of the 20th century, then a spot about 10 miles to the west takes us five decades ahead in pop-culture history. That would be Clear Lake, Iowa, and anyone who knows anything at all about the history of rock and roll knows what happened there on a cold February night in 1959: The Surf Ballroom showcased the "Winter Dance Party," which included Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Holly, tired of a freezing, broken-down tour bus, chartered a plane at the Mason City airport to fly to the next show in Minnesota. The rest is legend: Holly's bandmates Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings giving up their seats to Valens and Richardson; the plane crash a few miles west of the airport that killed everyone on board; and all that came afterward, including Don McLean's classic "American Pie."

So it was at the behest of Mrs. Tower Site of the Week, a passionate fan of fifties rock and roll, that we paid the obligatory visit to the Surf Ballroom, a perfectly preserved slice of late-fifties architecture - and then headed north, past the end of the paved roads, to the edge of a farmer's field marked with a guitar sign, where a path leads about half a mile to the precise spot where that plane went down. It's marked today by a steel monument and plenty of offerings from the fans who make the trek out here. (And yes, that photo above really was taken by three-year-old Ari, who may not be very familiar with Buddy Holly's music, but who's got a fine career as a photographer ahead of her...)

From Clear Lake, we return to nearby Mason City - and to the radio and TV sites that we promised we'd show you in this week's installment. First up, right in the middle of town, we find the studios of Mason City's lone TV station. CBS affiliate KIMT (Channel 3) began its life in 1954 as KGLO-TV, the television adjunct to Mason City's oldest radio station, KGLO (1300), itself in turn the radio partner of the Mason City Globe-Gazette newspaper.

Of all Mason City's media, KIMT has the broadest reach, thanks to the geographically sprawling TV market of which Mason City is a part: it extends far into southern Minnesota, taking in not only the Austin-Albert Lea area 40 miles due north on I-35, but also Rochester, Minnesota, another 50 miles or so north and east of that. As a result, cable viewers in Mason City get their ABC from Austin (KAAL, channel 6) and their NBC and Fox from Rochester (KTTC, channel 10 and KXLT, channel 47, respectively, with an additional CW subchannel also provided by KTTC.)

KIMT is notable for another sad reason, too: back in 1995, its morning news anchor, Jodi Huisentruit, disappeared on her way in to work, a presumed abduction which has never been solved.

Next up on our broadcast tour of Mason City: a small office park off Highway 18 a few miles east of downtown, where a faux-Colonial structure was, at the time of our visit, the headquarters of the local Clear Channel cluster. Before the sale, that consisted of news-talk KGLO, country "Moose" KIAI (93.9), top 40 "Kiss" KSMA (98.7 Osage), classic rock "Fox" KLKK (103.7 Clear Lake), plus Charles City rimshot KCHA-FM (95.9).

With the exception of a few outlying sites - KIMT's 1500-foot tower, more than 20 miles to the northeast up near St. Ansgar, Iowa (the better to serve Austin and Rochester as well as Mason City); a new tower northeast of that for Iowa Public TV's KYIN-DT (Channel 18; the analog KYIN signal on channel 24 is on the KIMT tower); and class C3 KSMA's tower a bit west of the KIMT tower - most of the Mason City FM signals are pretty close to town, with many of them easily visible from Highway 18 just a few miles east of downtown.

Just a short distance from the former Clear Channel studios, we find the short tower of KUNY (91.5 Mason City), the 8 kW DA, vertical-only local relay of the University of Northern Iowa's KUNI (90.9 Cedar Falls); it's located on the community college campus that's operated jointly by UNI and several other colleges.

Continuing east on Highway 18 and a bit south, a 400-foot tower carries both the 12-bay antenna of Three Eagles Broadcasting's AC "Star" KLSS (106.1 Mason City), a 100 kW class C1 signal, as well as KRNI (1010), which was once KLSS(AM), but was later donated to the University of Northern Iowa to become another relay of KUNI, with 760 watts by day and 16 watts at night. (The tower's not really bowed in the middle; that's just an artifact of the wide-angle lens!)

And another mile or so to the northeast, we find the 800-foot tower of 100 kW class C1 KIAI (93.9), perched in a field amidst the rolling farmland of north Iowa.

Heading back into town, there are a few more radio studios to be seen: an office building downtown holds the small studios of TLC Broadcasting's KCMR (97.9 Mason City), a little class A signal that's one of the nation's last remaining beautiful music outlets, mixing that fast-disappearing format with local news and a bit of religion as well.

KCMR's antenna sits on a cellular tower just off US 65 south of downtown, adjacent to the site of 25 kW class C3 KLKK (103.7) - but before we get there, there's another AM transmitter site and studio facility to look at.

KRIB (1490) plays oldies from a tower on 19th Street SW that also holds the KLSS auxiliary antenna, and when we visited in May, the building in front of that tower was home to the entire Three Eagles cluster: KRIB, KLSS and "Eagle Country KY102.7," KYTC (102.7 Northwood, transmitting from up near the Minnesota border).

When Clear Channel exited Mason City in September, Three Eagles was the big beneficiary: it picked up KGLO and KIAI from Clear Channel, and it's in the process, as I understand it, of moving all of its studios from 19th Street over to the former Clear Channel facility east of town on Yorktown Pike, which will apparently leave this building vacant. This weekend, KYTC will flip from country to active rock, eliminating a format conflict with KIAI - and with Three Eagles' country KAUS-FM (99.9) up in Austin, Minnesota, which has a very good signal into Mason City (as do most of the other FMs from Austin and Albert Lea, and even a few of the more powerful Rochester signals.)

(The rest of the Clear Channel cluster - KCHA/KCHA-FM from Charles City, as well as KSMA and KLKK - went to Coloff Media, which was already a player in the market via KIOW 107.3 up in Forest City, northwest of Clear Lake. Coloff flipped KSMA from top 40 to country and moved it and KLKK to new studios in downtown Mason City a few weeks back; Coloff also got the former Clear Channel stations in Fort Dodge, which we'll see in next week's installment.)

Before we get to Fort Dodge, though, there's one more site to see as we head south on US 65 on a sunny Friday morning. The three-tower site of KGLO (1300) doesn't look as old as we'd expected for a station that's been on the air since 1937, and there's a good reason for that: these 198-foot towers went up out here in 1999, replacing an older site much closer to town that's since been developed. The old site, I'm pretty sure, was 5 kW DA-N; the new one is DA-2, using two towers to push the signal a bit northward by day, and all three towers for a much tighter north-aiming pattern after dark.

In our next installment, we'll head for some real small-town Iowa, as we visit places such as Webster City, Carroll and Denison on our way west to Omaha; before we get there, though, we hope you'll remember to stop by our partner site,, to hear the legal IDs of Mason City and vicinity, coming your way Wednesday, November 14.

Tower Site Calendar 2008 is here! Visit the Store now and get your calendar now!