June 6, 2008

The Big Trip 2007, part VI: Butte, Montana

It's become an annual tradition here at Tower Site of the Week - load up the tape decks and the DVD recorders and the cameras, line up a bunch of station tours, gather a few friends, and hit the road for as much as two weeks of in-depth exploration of the radio and TV environment in some scenic part of this great nation of ours. Then we come home and share it all with you, in pictures here on fybush.com and in audio (of legal IDs) over at our sister site, tophour.com.

"Big Trip 2007" covered parts of Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon over two weeks in late August and early September.

Day Five - Monday, August 27, 2007

After a much busier day than we'd expected in Bozeman, we finally headed west on I-90 rather later than we'd expected.

Fortunately, the next stop on our agenda, Butte, happens to be a very easy city for tower-hunters to visit, as long as they're not trying to get up to the mountains outside of town to see the TV and FM sites.

There are only two AM stations in Butte, and if that doesn't seem like a lot for a city that's among the most important in Montana, there's a good reason: there was once a third. In the heyday of Butte radio, from the forties through the early sixties, Butte listeners could enjoy KOPR on 550 (named for the copper mines that dominate the city), KXLF (part of the "XL Network" that also included stations in Bozeman and Helena, as well as Spokane and Portland) on 1370 and KBOW (named for Silver Bow County, where Butte is located) on 1490.

In 1964, KBOW bought KOPR's much more powerful 550 facility and relocated down the dial, closing down the 1490 signal for good, and today the remaining Butte AMs can both be found along I-15/I-90 on the southwest side of town. KBOW's three widely-spaced towers sit on Beef Trail Road, up where the land gently rises into the hills. The station uses 5 kW non-directional by day, 1 kW from all three towers at night. KXTL, the successor to KXLF, uses a single newish-looking tower near the I-15/I-90 junction for its 5 kW full-time non-directional signal.

Heading back into town from the 550 site, we find a significant chunk of Butte broadcasting lined up along just two blocks of Dewey Boulevard on the city's south side. The studios for KBOW and its FM sister, KOPR (94.1, picking up the calls of the old AM 550) sit at 660 Dewey Boulevard, almost next door to an office building that's home to three radio stations and a TV station. KXTL (1370), KAAR (92.5) and KMBR (95.5) occupy the front of the building, and around back is the small studio of NBC affiliate KTVM (Channel 6), a semi-satellite of Missoula's KECI (Channel 13).

From here, we can look up into the mountains east of Butte for a telephoto shot of "XL Peak," whose towers are home to all of the city's TV signals and all the FMs lined up here on Dewey.

From here, we head north, crossing I-15/I-90 on the way into Uptown Butte, the old center of town. Just north of the highway, at 1003 S. Montana Street, one of the most distinctive TV studio buildings in the country houses CBS affiliate KXLF (Channel 4). Yes, this is the former Butte train depot, and while we'd love to see how it's been converted inside, nobody's answering the phone while we enjoy some dinner at the little drive-in across the street.

ABC for Butte comes from KWYB (Channel 18), housed in a little office building on West Park Street a few blocks south of the old commercial center of Butte. (The Fox affiliate, KBTZ Channel 24, is operated in tandem with KWYB, I believe.)

Butte was once the biggest city between Minneapolis and Seattle, back in the mining heyday of the early 20th century, and a drive around town is a treat for any architecture buff, with lots of turn-of-the-century buildings that look like they belong in a much larger city. There's no question that this was a mining town; the Berkeley Pit mine adjoins uptown Butte immediately to the east, though it's been closed since 1982 and has been the site of a massive Superfund cleanup almost ever since.

It's getting dark as we finally head north out of Butte, en route to our overnight stop in Helena, but we can't leave out one more curious stop along the route north. Jefferson County, the mostly rural, mountainous county between Butte and Helena, took advantage of the new LPFM rules to assemble one of the most extensive emergency FM networks in the country. Seven LPFM signals line I-15 and I-90, covering the county with emergency messages - and some great old-time country music to fill the time when there are no emergencies. And one of them, on a hill overlooking a rest stop on I-15, didn't have a nearby town to serve as a community of license, so KEAJ-LP (100.3) ended up licensed to "Cell Site, Montana"!

That was too good for us to pass up, so we had to stop and shoot some telephoto pictures of the top of the hill. Look very carefully at the left side of the picture, right above the trees, and you can spot the little KEAJ-LP antenna up there.

And yes, we were sure to get a "KEAJ Cell Site" legal ID - just part of the fun you'll hear when you join us over on our sister site, Tophour.com on Wednesday!

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