July 16, 2010

KTAR 620, Phoenix, Arizona

(originally featured Sept. 18, 2009)

Last fall, as we featured the sites pictured in Tower Site Calendar 2010 (still available in very limited quantities!), we showed off the fascinating history of Phoenix, Arizona's KTAR, with a promise that it would eventually be followed by the rest of the pictures from our April 2009 visits to Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, Arizona.

It took a little longer to pull all the pieces together than we'd anticipated, but those additional Tower Site of the Week installments will begin to appear next week, complete with accompanying piles of Arizona legal IDs on our sister site, TopHour.com.

But first, to set the stage (and because we're traveling this week, collecting still more photos and IDs across Ohio, Indiana and Michigan), a reprise of our KTAR installment: In April 2009, we returned to Phoenix on the way to the NAB Show for a longer, more-detailed look at some of the most interesting towers and studios in the Valley of the Sun - including one site we'd long wanted to get a closer look at: the two towers on Thomas Road, northeast of downtown Phoenix, that have brought the voice of KTAR (620 Phoenix) to most of Arizona since 1940.

It was actually midnight on New Year's Eve 1941 when this site signed on the air for the first time, providing a stronger voice for what was already a well-established station in Phoenix. As the plaque on the transmitter building attests, KTAR's roots go back to 1922, when the McArthur Brothers Mercantile Company put KFAD on the air. The small station became KREP in 1929 when the Arizona Republic took ownership, and then quickly changed calls again to KTAR. By 1940, it was running 1000 watts from an antenna atop the Heard Building in downtown Phoenix - but a further increase to 5000 watts required a nighttime directional antenna (to protect stations in Wisconsin, Florida and Texas) and a new site somewhere out of town.

In the small-town Phoenix of 1941, the corner of Thomas Road and North 36th Street certainly qualified - it was a rural area, miles outside the city and equally far from the little village of Scottsdale to the east.

The new towers were of unequal height - one is 304 feet tall, the other 404 feet tall - and between them, along Thomas Road, sat a swoopy, whitewashed Art Deco transmitter building with modern glass-block windows. It was picture-perfect, but it didn't last long. As Phoenix grew explosively in the next two decades, that big piece of land on Thomas Road went from rural desert to a busy commercial strip, and KTAR cashed in. In 1964, the station built a new transmitter building at the very back of the property, and then paved over most of the site to build a strip mall and parking lot that ran right between the two towers.

Today, there's a big Wal-Mart anchoring the plaza, with one tower in its front parking lot and the other out back, where a gap in the wall behind the service road opens into the enclosed area where the transmitter building sits. Inside, there's a Harris DX10 for backup and a BE AM10A for main use, as well as the phasor for the two-tower night pattern.

When we visited in April 2009, KTAR was in the midst of some big transitions. In 2004, Emmis sold KTAR and three sister stations to Bonneville, and in 2007 Bonneville acquired the last of Emmis' Phoenix stations, KKFR (92.3 Glendale) - and promptly moved KTAR's longtime news-talk format from 620 AM to 92.3 FM. (The KKFR calls and urban format were sold off to another broadcaster and relocated to a rimshot FM signal on 98.3, where they still reside.) With news-talk now on 92.3, the big 620 signal became all-sports, picking up the programming that had previously been on a weaker sister signal, KMVP (860) - and the 860 signal was leased out to a series of ethnic and religious broadcasters.

There was yet another change still coming when we stopped by in April: after many years in a two-story building at 5300 N. Central Avenue, KTAR and its sister stations were starting to build out new studios a few miles away. That construction work is nearing completion, so these are probably the last glimpses we'll have of the old KTAR studios and control rooms, which sit side by side (AM to the left, FM to the right) down a hallway from the big second-floor newsroom and office area.

The original KTAR-FM on 98.7 is still part of this cluster as well, though it's been through several callsigns over the years (KBBC-FM, KKLT and KPKX) and now does adult hits as "The Peak" from studios on the first floor.

We saw the 92.3 and 98.7 transmitter site up on South Mountain during this 2009 visit as well - but we'll show you that, and many other goodies from the Valley of the Sun, beginning next week...

Thanks to Gary Smith and Aaron Farnham of KTAR for the tours!

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