June 27 & July 4, 2008

The Big Trip 2007, part IX: From Wallace, Idaho to Spokane, Washington

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Tower Site of the Week will resume July 11.)

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 - Wednesday, August 29, 2007

One of the longest driving days of this trip took us from Missoula, Montana 200 miles west to Spokane, Washington, then south another 100 miles or so to the Lewiston, Idaho/Clarkston, Washington market - and along the way, it produced some of the most memorable visits of the trip.

The most memorable of them all - possibly one of the most unusual sites we've ever encountered in hundreds of thousands of miles of tower-site driving - came about 15 minutes after we crossed the Montana/Idaho border heading east on I-90. It's there, in the small town of Osburn, Idaho, that the interstate actually crosses through the middle of an AM directional array.

This is KWAL, Wallace, Idaho, and as far as we're aware, this is the only place where an interstate crosses through an AM DA. (It's one of only a few places where a major road of any kind passes through an array; other prominent examples include San Diego's KFMB 760, where state highway 52 separates two towers from a third; WDAE 620 in Tampa, astride the Gandy Bridge; KTSA 550 in San Antonio, where busy Eisenhauer Road divides the array; and WPEN 950 in Philadelphia, where a city street separates two towers from a third.)

In this case, the radio station long predated the highway. KWAL was founded in 1939, calling itself "Silver Dollar Radio" after the silver mining that was the backbone of the economy in this mountainous region. Inside the red and white building just off the highway in Osburn, theer are still vestiges of 1939 - the main air studio is elevated, and looks out through a big plate glass window into what's now the front office of the station, but was once the live performance studio where local bands came to play. (There's even an announce booth, just visible on the left side of the office picture.)

In the main studio, the old GE transmitter is now out of commission, and there's a little BE tucked in just to its left to power KWAL's 1,000 watt signal, which is non-directional by day from the tower out behind the building and quite directional at night, using both towers to create a figure-8 that pumps the power southeast and northwest, protecting older 620 signals in Portland and Phoenix and Regina, among others.

Today, KWAL runs an locally-automated country format, with its small staff devoting most of their time to ad sales and gathering local news. But we're not really here for the programming, are we? No, our real mission here is to see this unusual directional array and to learn the story of how it ended up like this, and here it is: the town of Osburn is tucked into an extremely narrow east-west canyon between tall mountains to the north and south. When I-90 came through here, there was literally no available land where KWAL could move that would still allow it to aim its pattern up and down the valley to hit its city of license, Wallace, five miles east, and nearby Kellogg, a few miles west.

So the highway went about the only place it could go - right between towers one and two. There was supposed to be a culvert under the highway big enough to walk through, to make sure transmission lines could be repaired down the road if need be, but when we headed across the highway at the Osburn exit, then down the narrow frontage road that runs west to tower 2, we found what actually ended up getting built: a pipe about 2 feet across to carry transmission and sampling lines from the swamp behind the building under the highway and out to the tower north of the interstate. It's quite a site, and quite a sight. (The view in the big picture is from the passenger seat on I-90 westbound; the studio and tower 1 are to the left, south of the highway, while tower 2 is to the right, north of the highway.)

KWAL was just the start of an adventurous day of unusual facilities. From Osburn, our route took us west on I-90 into the resort town of Coeur d'Alene, where we stopped briefly downtown to catch a glimpse of the "KXLY North Idaho Broadcast Center," home to a news bureau for Spokane's KXLY-TV and to studios for two stations KXLY owns over here on the Idaho side of the market, KVNI (1080) and KHTQ (94.5). Our destination, however, was the KXLY mothership studio another 20 miles west, on the north side of Spokane, where director of engineering Tim Anderson was waiting to give us a tour of that facility and of KXLY's AM transmitter site.

We'd seen both of those facilities from the outside during our 2006 Big Trip, as well as an unexpected inside visit to the KXLY-TV/FM site up on Mount Spokane, and after we'd put up those pictures, Tim invited us to see the rest. The big KXLY studio facility spreads out over two floors. Upstairs is a cluster of air and production studios for KXLY's FM signals, KZZU (92.9 Spokane) and KXLY-FM (99.9 Spokane); downstairs, there's a big newsroom that's open to the KXLY-TV studio, forming the backdrop for Channel 4's newscasts.

Alert viewers might notice the assignment desk way at the back of the newsroom shot, and really alert viewers might notice two radio studios flanking the desk back there. One is for KXLY's news-talk AM signal on 920, while the other is for KXLX (700 Airway Heights), the sports station in the cluster. (That studio even has TV cameras in it, so sports director Dennis Patchin's afternoon talk show can be simulcasted on KXLY-TV's sister station, KXMN-LP.)

After our studio tour and a pause for lunch, we follow Tim out to the south side of Spokane, into the Moran Prairie tower farm that so fascinated us back in 2006. At the time, we'd shot pictures of KXLY's majestic Art Deco transmitter building only from a distance, but this time we can get up close to the building, which was constructed in 1936-37 for KXLY's predecessor, KFPY. (Spokane radio historian Bill Harms has pictures of the building in its earliest years on his Spokane Radio History website.)

After decades as an exceedingly simple operation - 5000 watts, non-directional day and night - things got much busier here a few years ago. In 1998, KHDL (630 Opportunity) moved to this site from its longtime home in Spokane Valley, east of Spokane proper, diplexing into the 460-foot KXLY tower with a day power of 530 watts and a night power of 53 watts. (It soon became KXLI, then took its current calls, KTRW; it's now owned by local station owner Tom Read.)

In 2003, a new 360-foot tower went up next to the 1936 tower, allowing for yet a third station to come to this site. The former KMJY (700 Newport) moved about 50 miles south into the Spokane market, changing calls to KXLX, changing city of license to Airway Heights, and operating with 10 kW days from the big tower and 600 watts at night from both towers.

But wait - there's more! In 2004, KXLY increased its daytime power to 20 kW, still non-directional from the big tower day and night.

So, yes, that does mean there are three signals all sharing the big tower, and that means a big set of Kintronics ATUs and reject filters at the base of the tower to handle all the RF coming from the rows of transmitters in the newer addition to the 1936 transmitter building. It's quite the facility.

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 Tim Anderson for the tours!

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