June 13, 2008

The Big Trip 2007, part VII: Helena, 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 Six - Tuesday, August 28, 2007

We arrived in Montana's state capital, Helena, quite late on Monday night, so our first view of the city in daylight came on Tuesday morning. With a relatively leisurely (by Big Trip standards) day ahead of us, we decided to do some actual tourism before plunging headlong into radio, stopping in to see Montana's statehouse, which sits just east of downtown.

One of the joys of visiting buildings like this in small states is the utter absence of the kind of overbearing security you'd find in Albany or Trenton or Sacramento - no metal detectors at the door, just a friendly hello and an invitation to wander around and see what all that turn-of-the-century mining money built for Montana's citizens. The only real disappointment came at the office of governor Brian Schweitzer; the famously accessible governor had stepped out for a bit, and his constant companion, a border collie named Jag, was also out of the office. "But you're welcome to take a peek down the hallway and see the governor's office," the receptionist offered, and so we did - noting the portrait and biography of Jag on the wall, and grabbing a souvenir Jag postcard on the way out, too.

In contrast to Butte's relative paucity of AM stations, Helena is well-stocked on the AM dial, and our first stop is a few miles east of town, just south of East Helena, where independently-owned oldies station KKGR (680 East Helena) sits along the lonely Montana City Highway.

Helena's lone directional AM sits about five miles north of town in the area known as Helena Valley. Oldies KMTX (950 Helena) runs 5 kilowatts day and night, using a single tower by day and all four at night, aiming a small lobe south into town and a much larger lobe up to the north. Was this array designed to serve Great Falls, 80 miles or so away? That's about the only explanation we can come up with. (And, yes, there are indeed two AM oldies stations in the market.)

Many of Helena's TV and FM signals originate from North Peak, a few miles north of the KMTX site, but instead of heading up there (or to the other FM/TV sites in the hills northeast and northwest of here), we head south, back into the heart of the city and past the former studio and transmitter site of KBLL (1240 Helena), the city's oldest station.

KBLL signed on in 1937 as KPFA, the "People's Forum of the Air," becoming KXLJ in 1945 as part of the regional "XL Network" that we've written about in previous installments. In 1958, KXLJ spawned KXLJ-TV (Channel 12), one of the nation's smallest TV stations, and our drive back into Helena on Montana Avenue took us past the site where Channel 12's Quonset hut studios and stubby tower once sat, though nothing now remains. In any event, KXLJ-TV's life was short and unsuccessful; the advent of cable TV a year into Channel 12's existence doomed the little station, which went off the air briefly, then returned when the owners won a court injunction barring the cable system from importing distant Spokane signals. Two years later, the cable company bought KXLJ and KXLJ-TV, restored the out-of-town signals to the cable system, and changed the calls to...KBLL. (Not for "K-Bull," as you might think, but "Cable.")

The TV station was sold off separately in 1973, and we'll catch up with it again in a bit. KBLL radio eventually ended up back near its AM tower on 11th Avenue, just a couple of blocks from the capital building; in 2004, the old AM 1240 tower came down and KBLL diplexed on the tower of the city's second-oldest station, KCAP (1340 Helena), on Henderson Avenue on the city's northwest side.

KCAP signed on in 1949, with calls standing for "CAPital," of course - but it was of particular interest to your editor because my career began at another "CAP" station, WCAP in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Armed with nothing more than that useless bit of trivia, we stopped in unannounced at the KCAP studios on East Broadway in downtown Helena to see about adding a bumper sticker or T-shirt to our collection, and the next thing we knew, we had a full tour of the place. KCAP is now owned by Cherry Creek Radio, part of a cluster that includes rocker KZMT (101.1 Helena), hot AC KHKR (104.1 East Helena) - and, yes, KBLL and KBLL-FM (99.5 Helena). (Later that year, Cherry Creek added a sixth station, putting new KHLN 98.5 on the air from Montana City as a soft AC station.)

"Z-101" gets the prestigious streetside window studio to the left of the door, while KHKR is running voicetracked from the studio to the right. There's a big office area in the middle, and additional space that's been added toward the back of the building for the two AMs and KBLL-FM.

That's our tour guide, Susan Clark, shown below in the KBLL(AM) studio, and in good small-market fashion she's not only a morning personality on the AM side, but also the afternoon jock on KBLL-FM. (No bumper stickers here, by the way, but we did get a stylish purple KCAP T-shirt and some ballpoint pens to take home!)

The studios of KMTX (950) and its sister station KMTX-FM (105.3 Helena) are a few blocks north of here, on the north end of downtown Helena - and look closely up above at the sign, which proudly proclaims "HD Radio" under the KMTX logos. Are there any HD radios in Helena?

And as we head for the west side of Helena and US 12 westbound toward our next stop in Missoula, we once again pick up the story of Channel 12. After the 1973 sale of KBLL radio, the TV station went through a series of call letters and owners - KTCM (Television for the Capital of Montana), KTVG, and finally, in 1985, KTVH. In 1997, Sunbelt Communications bought the station, and the next year it moved from the old Quonset hut to shiny new studios along US 12 (Lyndale Avenue), on the campus of Carroll College.

Today, KTVH is known as "Beartooth NBC" (for the nearby Beartooth Mountains), and operates two satellite stations in Havre and Great Falls. (You can read all about its history here.)

Oh - you thought you'd get out of Helena without a few words about yet another oddball tiny TV market? Nope - here's how it all plays out: with channel 12's 1975 transmitter move from the short tower in Helena to a commanding mountaintop site on Hogback Mountain, Helena and Great Falls began to congeal into a single TV market.

Great Falls' ABC affiliate, KFBB-TV (Channel 5), spawned an LPTV relay, KHBB-LP (Channel 21) a few years back, and there's even a local studio in a strip mall just west of the KTVH studios.

CBS for Helena once came from Butte's KXLF-TV (Channel 4), with the help of deep-fringe antennas, but recent years brought a satellite LPTV, KXLH-LP (Channel 25), which carries the local news from sister station KRTV (Channel 3) up in Great Falls. (Unless it's a morning or weekend newscast, in which case it all originates at KTVQ in Billings.)

There's a Montana Public TV translator up in the hills, and a local full-power VHF drop-in, KMTF (Channel 10), that began life in 2000 as a Fox affiliate, then flipped to Pax, then to the CW. (It occupies an office suite next door to KTVH, and operates under an LMA with Beartooth NBC.) And where does Fox land, then? Nowhere, if you're watching over the air - and for cable viewers, it's KDVR from Denver, via satellite.

All that, and it's still just lunchtime as we prepare to head out of town - so before hitting US 12 and I-90 for the haul west to Missoula, we stop at the Brewhouse Pub & Grill across the street from the KTVH studios for lunch. (Did we mention that the minor-league baseball team here is called the "Helena Brewers"?)

Want to hear most of Helena's legal IDs? Join us over on our sister site, Tophour.com on Wednesday - and come on back here next Friday as we finish up our Montana swing with the sites of Missoula!

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