June 20, 2008

The Big Trip 2007, part VIII: Missoula, 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

After a nice lunch in Helena and two hours or so on the road heading west, we arrive in late afternoon at the last Montana city on our agenda. Missoula is the second largest city in Montana, and one of its fastest-growing, too - its population has doubled in the last quarter-century and now stands at about 66,000. As home to the University of Montana, Missoula is a wonderfully urbane college town, and it has a lot more radio than you might expect in a city its size.

Thanks to our chance encounter with Jim Bender in Bozeman the previous day, we'd ended up in touch with another Montana engineer, Todd Clark at the Clear Channel cluster in Missoula, and our first stop after checking in at our hotel was at the Clear Channel studios, on the south side of town.

Missoula is laid out roughly in a triangle - US 93 (Reserve Street) runs north-south along the western edge of the city, I-90 cuts from northwest to southeast, US 12 from southwest to northeast, and Clear Channel's studios occupy the second floor of an office building on South Reserve, near its end at US 12. (Clear Channel sold its stations in Montana to Gap Broadcasting later in 2007; for convenience, we'll continue to refer to them as "Clear Channel" here, since that's who owned them when we were there.)

These studios were built in 2002-2003 (you can see construction photos at Jim Bender's site), and so they were designed from the start to accommodate a large cluster. A long hallway of studios is home to the cluster's two AM stations, news-talk KGVO (1290 Missoula) and standards KLCY (930 East Missoula), as well as what were then three FM stations, country KYSS-FM (94.9 Missoula), modern rock "Blaze" KBAZ (96.3 Hamilton) and rhythmic top 40 "Energy" KENR (107.5 Superior). Another studio is used as a Missoula studio for KLYQ (1240 Hamilton), 40 miles or so to the south on US 93. (After our visit, the cluster added a new FM signal - "Griz Country" KXGZ 101.5 Frenchtown, and KLCY flipped to progressive talk under the calls KMPT.)

After admiring the fantastically neat wiring job that Jim and Todd did at the Clear Channel studios, it's time to go look at transmitter sites.

KGVO is the oldest AM station in town, having signed on back in 1931. Its current site on US 93, near the Bitterroot River a few miles south of the studios, dates back to 1949. In 1972, one of the pair of 210' guyed towers here was replaced by a 440' half-wave tower for better daytime coverage, when the station operates with 5 kW non-directional. (It adds the second tower at night for its northward-aimed directional 5 kW signal.)

Inside the concrete-block transmitter building, it's a trip right back to 1949: that's the original RCA BTA-5F taking pride of place in the main transmitter room; its companion control desk is just out of frame to the right. KGVO's current transmitter is a new Harris DAX that sits to the right of the RCA, dwarfed by its older sibling and even by the space it now fills. (That somewhat larger space was occupied by a Continental Power Rock that was installed in 1979; it's now in storage at the site.)

Part of the credit for maintaining this site so beautifully belongs to a former chief engineer: Tom McGinley, who'd later assume a prominent role as chief engineer of WPGC in Washington and who's now back in the Pacific Northwest as director of engineering for CBS Radio's Seattle cluster. Tom's from Montana originally, and KGVO was one of the first stops on his broadcast odyssey.

From KGVO, we head back into town up US 93 and out to the far western end of Missoula, where we see the other AM signal in this cluster. Known for many years as KYSS(AM), the East Missoula-licensed AM 930 signal was standards as "Classy 930" KLCY when we visited (as noted above, it's since flipped again). It changed city of license to East Missoula in 1984, when it added two towers and added 1 kW night service to its 5 kW daytime non-directional signal; the night pattern aims pretty much due east, taking in most of Missoula itself on its way to its city of license.

The current 930 transmitter is a BE AM6A of recent vintage, but there's also an RCA BC-1T that remains in use as a backup, having outlived the Gates BC5H that was supposed to have replaced it. (The Gates gave way to the BE in 2003.)

With thanks to Todd for the tours, we head off to see a few more sites before dinner. KGRZ (1450 Missoula), the city's ESPN Radio affiliate, has a nondescript tower behind a wastewater treatment plant near where US 93 crosses the Clark Fork River west of downtown, but it's almost impossible to get close enough for a good picture.

Off US 12 (Brooks Street) on the southeast side of town, two TV stations have their studios in close proximity. KPAX (Channel 8) is the CBS affiliate, part of the "Montana Television Network" that's based at KTVQ in Billings, and we find its building at the corner of Stephens and Regent, a block west of the little offices of Missoula's ABC affiliate, KTMF (Channel 23), also seen in Kalispell on an LPTV, KTMF-LP 42, recently moved from channel 59. (Like its sister stations in Butte and Bozeman, KTMF does only a single 11-minute newscast, nightly at 11; somehow, we failed to record that newscast, an omission we'd like to rectify if anyone from Missoula is reading this.)

Not far from those two TV stations, we find the studios of the other big cluster in town, which Cherry Creek Radio recently purchased from Fisher Communications as the Seattle-based company exited most of its radio business outside its hometown. This cluster includes two AMs - sports KGRZ (1450) and talk KYLT (1340) - and four FMs: country "Eagle" KGGL (93.3), top 40 "Star" KXDR (98.7 Hamilton), classic rock KZOQ-FM (100.1) and oldies KGGL (106.7 Pinedale).

KYLT's transmitter sits on a hill just north of downtown, across I-90, at a site that's also home to the University of Montana student station, KBGA (89.9) and several translators.

The tower is easy to see from most of downtown as we head west to our final Missoula stop, the West Main Street studios of KECI-TV (Channel 13), the city's oldest TV station. KECI signed on in 1959 as KGVO-TV, and for many years this building on the western edge of downtown, a block from the Clark Fork River, was home to both KGVO radio and television. The current calls date to 1978, when the radio station was sold off to separate owners. (By then, Missoula was a two-station town, with KPAX having signed on in 1970; KTMF didn't come along with full-time ABC until 1991, and Fox didn't come along until 2000, when Equity's KMMF 17 signed on. PBS comes from KUFM-TV 11, a satellite of Bozeman's KUSM-TV, and the CW is seen on a subchannel of KPAX-DT.)

KECI is the hub for "NBC Montana," which includes semi-satellites KCFW (Channel 9) up in Kalispell and KTVM in Butte and Bozeman. Most newscasts originate from here in Missoula.

We didn't make it up to either of the major mountaintop sites, alas: TV Mountain, north of Missoula, is home to KPAX, KECI and KTMF, while another nearby peak is home to big FM signals KUFM (90.1), KGGL (93.3) and KYSS-FM (94.9); Mount Dean Stone, southeast of Missoula (and just visible in the distance in the KPAX studio picture), is home to KUFM and KMMF, as well as most of the city's FM signals.

Want to hear most of Missoula's legal IDs? Join us over on our sister site, Tophour.com on Wednesday - and come on back here next Friday as we leave Montana behind and head west to Idaho and Washington!

Thanks to Todd Clark for the tours!

Tower Site Calendar 2008 is almost sold out! Visit the Fybush.com Store now and get your calendar now!