Edited by Tower Site's own Scott Fybush - and available now in print or as an e-book!

August 22, 2008

The Big Trip 2007, part XVI: Idaho Falls and Pocatello, ID

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 Twelve - Tuesday, September 4, 2007

For any ordinary tourist, the route from Twin Falls to eastern Idaho is pretty simple: head east on I-84 to I-86, and it's less than two hours to Pocatello.

We, of course, aren't ordinary tourists, and so there's some extra driving on this last full day of Big Trip 2007 - after seeing the Flat Top Butte site north of Twin Falls, we continue north on US 93, then east on US 26/US 93 through the Craters of the Moon National Monument under a steady drizzle, and then east on US 20 through Arco, the first town in America to be illuminated by nuclear power. (That pioneering reactor, at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory, is open to the public at certain times; this, alas, isn't one of them.)

Just a few miles east of the labs, not far from the US 20/26 split (26 bends south toward Blackfoot, while 20 takes the northern route into Idaho Falls), we turn off at a scenic overlook with a nice view up to East Butte, home to most of Idaho Falls' FM and TV transmitters. The tower on the right up there is also, I think, the oldest site - CBS affiliate KIDK-TV (Channel 3), originally KID-TV and the oldest station in the market, now joined by KIDK-DT (Channel 26). The towers on the extreme left (the eastern edge of the butte) belong to the other TV signals up here: Idaho Public TV's KISU-TV (Channel 10)/KISU-DT (Channel 17) and ABC affiliate KIFI (Channel 8)/KIFI-DT (Channel 9). There's FM here as well: KID-FM (96.1) up at the KIDK compound, and "K-Love" outlet KLRI (89.5), along with commercial stations KLCE (97.3 Blackfoot) and KCVI (101.5 Blackfoot).

It's getting on to lunchtime, so we continue on to Idaho Falls, where after some fruitless searching for a Mexican restaurant that had been recommended to us, we end up instead at a nice little cafe in the small but well-tended downtown area.

After that, we head north again, retracing a short segment of an earlier part of the Big Trip routing as we make the 15-minute drive up US 20 to the little town of Rigby, Idaho. Back in the twenties, nobody here thought much of a young high school student named Phil. The kid kept to himself, mostly, and his teachers didn't much understand the complicated electronic diagrams he drew on the classroom blackboards.

You probably know the, er, "Rest of the Story" - Phil was Phil Farnsworth, or "Philo T.," to give his full name, and he'd go on to be the first to demonstrate a working electronic television system, then get his spirits crushed by a patent battle with RCA and die in obscurity (or at least in Fort Wayne, if that makes any difference), only to become the hero of a Broadway play that would open and close later in 2007 to critical acclaim but little box-office action.

And while Farnsworth would fade from public attention, those same folks in Rigby who wouldn't give him the time of day 80-some years ago now revere him as a local hero and tourism magnet. There are signs along US 20 proclaiming the town the "birthplace of television," and the county history museum is now the "Farnsworth TV & Pioneer Museum." In there, among the rooms decorated by historical societies in each of Jefferson County's small towns, there's a room filled with a very miscellaneous collection of old TVs, Farnsworth photos, and some retired gear donated by the local TV stations. While Philo didn't come back here much, his widow, Pem, returned to dedicate the room a few years back, and her picture is prominently displayed.

This area north of Idaho Falls has two AM stations of its own: up in Rexburg, another 12 miles up US 20, KRXK (1230) relays Pocatello's ESPN Radio outlet, KSEI (930). (We actually saw this one eight days earlier, on the way from Salt Lake up to Bozeman.) And just east of Rigby, we find the tower of KIGO (1410 St. Anthony), one of several Spanish-language stations in the market.

Our tour of Idaho Falls itself begins on the west side of town, just a couple of blocks from the interchange where US 20 (bound for West Yellowstone) and I-15 north (heading up to Butte, Montana) split off. Next to a hotel on Lindsay Boulevard, we find the studios of country giant KUPI (99.1) and its sister stations, classic hits "Arrow" KQEO (107.1) and soft AC "Sunny" KSNA (94.3 Rexburg), owned by Sand Hill Media.

That's one of four commercial clusters in the market - the others are Pacific Empire Communications' oldies KGTM (98.1 Rexburg) and hot AC "Hot 106" KBJX (106.3 Shelley), with studios downtown that we missed; Clear Channel's news-talk KID (590) and country "Bull" KID-FM (96.1), later sold to Gap Broadcasting; and Riverbend Communications, which we'll see in a moment.

The Clear Channel studios are in an industrial park in a rural area north of Idaho Falls off US 20, about three miles southwest of the KID(AM) transmitter, which is off the side of US 26 not far from the point where that road turns east and begins twisting and turning up into the hills en route to Jackson, Wyoming, the ski town an hour or so away. KID's three towers are arranged in a triangle, running 5 kW non-directional by day and 1 kW from all three towers at night.

From KID, we can look to the east and see the Iona Butte FM site off in the distance, home to KGTM 98.1, KUPI 99.1, KBJX 106.3, KQEO 107.1 and a couple of noncomms - "Air 1" outlet KAIO (90.5) and SOS Radio religious station KSQS (91.7 Ririe).

Two more AMs are up here on the north side of town, closer to downtown in the area where US 20 and 26 converge. KSPZ (980 Ammon) is another Spanish-language signal, while KBLY (1260) is one of the Riverbend stations, simulcasting the news-talk lineup of KBLI (690 Blackfoot), which we'll see in a bit.

As US 26 (N. Yellowstone Highway) turns toward downtown Idaho Falls, we pass the studios of KIFI-TV (Channel 8), at 1915 N. Yellowstone. The other Idaho Falls TV station, KIDK (Channel 3), is on the southeast side of town, with its blocky "Broadcast Park" studio tucked behind a commercial strip on E. 17th Street, announcing its presence with a big roadside sign that I think once said "KID Radio-TV."

That would be it for Idaho Falls, except for one thing - that bit about the Mexican restaurant we were looking for at lunchtime.

As we were headed out of downtown after lunch somewhere else, we spotted it, right where Business US 20 (West Broadway) crosses the Snake River. With nothing better to do later on that evening, we drove back up here from Pocatello for dinner, which was excellent - and as we walked back to our car afterward, we spotted one more Idaho Falls studio, home to KEZQ (92.9 West Yellowstone),

Idaho Falls is about 80 miles from West Yellowstone, and even if KEZQ were on the air (it wasn't, throughout our entire trip), it would barely make it here, so we'll chalk this up as an oddity and move on.

Our next stop, as the clouds thickened and the rain kept falling, was about 25 miles to the south, in Blackfoot, Idaho. That small city halfway between Idaho Falls and Pocatello is home to the aforementioned Riverbend Broadcasting cluster - news-talk KBLI (690 Blackfoot)/KBLJ (1260 Idaho Falls), plus AC "Classy 97" KLCE (97.3 Blackfoot), modern rock "K-Bear" KCVI (101.5 Blackfoot), top-40 "Z103" KFTZ (103.3 Idaho Falls) and country "Hawk" KTHK (105.5 Idaho Falls).

It's here that the lines between the Idaho Falls and Pocatello radio markets, 50 miles apart and nominally separate, really blur: KLCE and KCVI transmit from up on East Butte with Idaho Falls' KID-FM and channels 3 and 8, yet are "home" to the Pocatello market, while KFTZ and KTHK hit both markets from a site east of Shelley, south of Idaho Falls. And when you add in the AM simulcasts and the fact that it's one big TV market, it's pretty hard to think of these sister cities as separate radio worlds.

In any case, after stowing our gear at the motel and setting up the DVD recorders for one last evening of TV newscasts, we head out in the drizzle to see the radio and TV stations of Pocatello. (To Boston radio and TV fans, the city should be best known as the birthplace of WBZ-TV icon Jack Williams; inexplicably, there are no signs at the city limits announcing that bit of historic significance!)

We'd actually passed the studios of NBC affiliate KPVI (Channel 6) and its Fox sister KFXP (Channel 31) as we stopped in Pocatello for gas a week earlier; the building at 902 E. Sherman is pretty hard to miss, being just a block or so from Business I-15 through the east side of downtown.

Just a few blocks to the south, at 259 E. Center Street, we find Clear Channel's outpost in the market. This little building started out as home to KWIK (1240 Pocatello), and now also houses classic rock KPKY (94.9 Pocatello) and hot AC "Star" KLLP (98.5 Chubbuck), as well as modern rock "Edge" KPPC (92.1 Pocatello), which Clear Channel operated as an LMA, but which Peak Broadcasting bought outright after picking up the Clear Channel stations a few months after our visit. And further blurring those market lines, there are also signs out front for KID/KID-FM in Idaho Falls, which makes sense when you consider that KWIK and KID simulcast anyway.

A thick tangle of railroad tracks separates this part of Pocatello from the city's west side, and crossing to the west takes us past the Idaho Wireless stations at 436 N. Main - country "Cow" KOUU (1290 Pocatello), country KZBQ (93.7 Pocatello) and hot AC "Core 104" KORR (104.1 American Falls) - and the Pacific Empire cluster a block away at 544 N. Arthur - sports KSEI (930 Pocatello) and classic rock KMGI (102.5 Pocatello). Here, too, the lines with the Idaho Falls market blur, since the sign out front also mentions KSEI simulcast KRXK (1230 Rexburg), as well as Idaho Falls FM signals KGTM 98.1 and KBJX 106.3.

Five AM sites dot the hills just north of Idaho Falls, and it's here that we head next as the rain keeps falling. The weather is so cruddy, and the sites so unimpressive, that we apparently failed to take even a single photo of the KWIK (1240) tower, or the nearby stick of religious talker KRTK (1490 Chubbuck). North of KWIK, and right alongside I-15, we find the two-tower array of KOUU, then in the process of upgrading to 50 kW days (and a whopping 24 watts at night!). Visible in the distance just south of KOUU is Pocatello's newest AM station, KPTO (1440), which was testing with a repeating loop of music and no IDs, at least none that we heard.

The oldest station in town - indeed, the oldest in eastern Idaho - is KSEI, whose two-tower site up on N. Philbin Road dates to 1946, 20 years after the station itself signed on the air. Today, KSEI operates with 5000 watts day and night, directional only after dark. Oh, and that two-bay batwing on top of the closer tower? That would be the old KSEI-FM, which signed on out here in 1948 on 96.5 and didn't last all that long.

The skies began clearing at this point, and we saw a nifty double rainbow as we headed north to Idaho Falls for dinner. And we never did make it to either of the Idaho Falls TV/FM sites. Just west of downtown, Howard Mountain is home to KZBQ (93.7), KLLP (98.5), KMGI (102.5), KORR (104.1), plus Idaho State University public station KISU (91.1), religious KZJB (90.3) and the market's CW outlet, KPIF (Channel 15); east of downtown is a site shared by KPVI (analog 6/DT 23) and KFXP (Channel 31).

And under clear skies the next morning, we start the last day of Big Trip 2007 an hour south of Pocatello at the last Idaho stop we'll make. Not far from the Utah border, we come to the small town of Preston, home to KACH (1340) - and by now we're in the Logan, Utah radio market, which we'll explore in some detail in next week's thrilling conclusion to the Big Trip!

In the meantime, make a note next Wednesday to stop by our sister site TopHour.com, where we make our own market definitions when we feel like it, and check out the sounds of the (ahem) "Idaho Falls-Pocatello" market!