May 8, 2009

Bakersfield, California (part II)

Ah, California!

For a tower-hunter based in upstate New York, the Golden State has always held a special appeal, especially during those long, gray winter months (and even on this rather gray, damp first day of May.)

Over the course of a couple of decades, we've taken the opportunity to visit stations all over California, including pretty much everything up and down the coast from Sonoma to San Diego. But even with all those trips (and a year of living near the Nevada border in rural Inyo County), our survey of California's tower sites was still missing some big swaths of the state.

In addition to northern California - and, yes, Chico, Redding and Eureka, we still intend to get up your way someday - we found ourselves missing most of the Central Valley, the broad, flat expanse of farmland that stretches south from Sacramento through Stockton and Modesto and Merced and Fresno and Visalia to Bakersfield.

That's a lot of territory to cover all at once, but our trip out to the 2008 NAB Show in Las Vegas gave us a chance to chip away at a significant piece of it by heading south and west from Vegas on I-15 and California 58 and spending a day in the Bakersfield market.

In the first installment of our recap, we focused on downtown Bakersfield and the areas immediately north and east, where FM towers and a handful of studios sit amidst oil wells in the rolling hills that lead up, eventually, to the mighty Sierra Nevadas.

This week, we look at what's south and west of the highways that bisect Bakersfield - highway 99 running north and south (and just west of downtown), highway 58 running east and west (and just south of downtown).

Just west of the 99/58 interchange, there's a warren of office parks lined up along the south shore of the Kern River, including a nondescript building that's home to Clear Channel's cluster and others that house American General Media's Bakersfield stations and Lotus' small cluster. There's also a low-slung, very modern building that houses Univision's interesting cluster here. The cluster is anchored by one full-power station, KUVI (Channel 45), that's broadcasting not in Spanish but in English, carrying My Network TV, a relic of its previous ownership, which was tied in with the Buck Owens group. There are also three LPTVs based here - KABE-LP 39, with Univision, and KTFB-CA 4/KBTF-CA 31, with Telefutura.

A mile or so to the north, in an industrial area just west of Highway 99, we find one of the main reasons we made this trip: the southernmost of a small and unusual group of towers that were built up and down the Central Valley a few decades back.

Yes, that's a teeny-tiny Blaw-Knox diamond tower transmitting the signal of KWAC (1490) from the middle of a construction company's yard at the dead end of Standard Street - or at least it was, for as we one of the construction company's employees told us while letting us inside the fence to get some closeups of the tower, it was about to be torn down with the expiration of the station's lease.

(He also asked if we wanted to buy the tower, which would have been tempting if it weren't on the wrong side of the country...)

KWAC (which currently carries ESPN Deportes for owner Lotus) was slated to move to a diplex on the KGEO (1230) tower, which we'll see in a moment. I don't know if it's made the move yet or not, but at least that cute little Blaw-Knox has now been documented for posterity.

(The other baby Blaw-Knoxes, incidentally, were at KSTN in Stockton, where they still stand as towers 2 and 3 of the directional array, and at KJUG in Tulare, which has since moved to a new site.)

From KWAC, we move to the south side of the 58 freeway, where we find a batch of five AM sites all lined up within about three miles of each other. KGEO, on Belle Terrace near South P Street, is the westernmost; it's the market's ESPN Radio affiliate, and part of the American General Media group. Less than a mile to the east, where East Belle Terrace ends at Madison Street, we find the three towers of Clear Channel's KBFP (800), which simulcasts "La Preciosa" with KBFP-FM (105.3) - but rewind three decades or so and you'll find that this facility was Buck Owens' KUZZ, before Owens upgraded KUZZ to 970 (now KHTY) and then to its present 550. KBFP runs 1000 watts by day, 440 watts at night - and yes, there are three towers here, though the two in the distance lined up a little too close in our picture, taken from the north end of the array.

Two more non-directional AMs are lined up right along the south side of 58 as we move east: Gore-Overgaard's KLHC (1350) does Spanish-language religion from a site on Feliz Street just east of Cottonwood Road, while KERN (1410) sits right off the highway at the end of Oswell Street. Since our 2008 visit, American General moved KERN's calls and news-talk format to the former KERI (1180 Wasco-Greenacres), flipping 1410 to religion under the KERI calls. The move gave KERN a big 50 kW daytime signal, but 1180's nighttime 10 kW signal doesn't cover the heart of Bakersfield as well as 1410's 1 kW does from close in.

There's one more AM in this cluster along highway 58: dirt roads off South Fairfax Road lead back to the two towers of KUZZ (550), the AM side of Buck Owens' country giant. 550 was once KAFY, the local top-40 giant, though it had long since ditched that format when Owens swapped his 970 facility for the superior 550 in 1984. With 5 kW and a fairly loose set of DA-2 patterns so low on the dial, the 550 signal blankets most of the southern Central Valley from here - but of course most of KUZZ's audience long ago switched to KUZZ-FM on 107.9.

We wrap up Bakersfield at the south end of town, where a residential neighborhood has grown up around the three towers of Buckley's news-talk KNZR (1560), the city's lone class A AM signal. This was KPMC for many years, owned by the Pioneer Mercantile Company, and it grew out of early TV experiments (under the W6XAH call) in the 1930s, when the spectrum above the top of the AM dial at 1500 kc was still available to experimenters.

KPMC ended up sharing a frequency with another experimental station, W2XR in New York, later WQXR - and today, those two stations on 1560, now KNZR and WQEW, continue to share the channel. Indeed, WQEW still enjoys an unusual license condition that allows it to operate on its daytime facilities until sunset at Bakersfield, three hours after darkness falls at its New York City transmitter site. (Also unusual is KNZR's power level: unlike most class A signals, which run 50 kW fulltime, KNZR uses 25 kW by day, 10 kW at night.)

That's it for Bakersfield, but we're tacking on a few pictures here from somewhat later in the trip, because they almost fit with the Bakersfield market. The Antelope Valley is just a short drive from Bakersfield, east on 58 and then south on California 14, and we spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon there watching the Lancaster JetHawks, the class A California League affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, take on the Lake Elsinore Storm at, yes, "Clear Channel Stadium." The JetHawks lost, 12-4, but we got to see Jonathan Papelbon's younger brother, Josh, with his unusual sidearm delivery. (The Sox have since shifted class A affiliations, and Josh is with the Salem Red Sox in Virginia this year.)

The stadium sits right off the 14 freeway on the south side of Avenue I, and from its parking lot we can look north across Avenue I to two nearby AM sites, one owned by Clear Channel, one not. The Clear Channel site is Fox Sports affiliate KAVL (610 Lancaster), putting out 4900 watts by day from three dogleg towers, 4000 watts at night from the three inline towers. The two-tower site to the north is Gold Coast Broadcasting's KOSS (1380 Lancaster), which had just flipped to talk when we got to the Antelope Valley back in April 2008.

There's still more to show you from this trip - namely, the Los Angeles experience that came after Bakersfield but before the San Diego, Tijuana and Palm Springs sites we've already featured on Tower Site of the Week - but with the clock running down (again) to the final (we hope) days of analog TV (for real, this time?), we'll spend the next few installments back east, featuring a few more analog TV sites before they're all gone.

(But in the meantime, check out next Wednesday for more Bakersfield legal IDs...)