July 23, 2010

Phoenix, 2009 (part II)

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 this week's Site of the Week brings you a look at a whole slew of sites in downtown Phoenix and the areas south and east of the state capitol.

For a city as young as Phoenix, there's quite a bit of interesting broadcast history to be seen downtown: a few blocks up North Central Avenue, for instance, the historic home of KOY, one of the city's oldest stations, still stands - but KOY is nowhere to be found here these days. The old "KOY Building" is now the "KOOL Building," housing CBS Radio's KOOL-FM (94.5) and KMLE (107.9) behind a new facade that went up here in the 1970s, covering up what was once some fine broadcast Art Deco, or so I'm told.

The KOY/KOOL building sits almost directly across the street from another older building with a new facade: the erstwhile "KTAR Building" lost its radio occupant when KTAR (620/98.7) split off from KTAR-TV (Channel 12) in the seventies, with the TV station becoming KPNX and remaining here at 1101 North Central (at least for now; Gannett, which owns both KPNX and the Arizona Republic, is reportedly planning to move the TV station in with the newspaper.)

Arizona State University recently moved its Cronkite School of Journalism from suburban Tempe to downtown Phoenix, and that meant a shift of locations for its public TV station, KAET (Channel 8) - which now sits just a few blocks from one of Phoenix's oldest TV sites. The Westward Ho hotel was the original studio and transmitter location for KPHO-TV (Channel 5), as well as the studio of KPHO (910), and the old TV tower still sits prominently atop the roof, which should look familiar if you're a Hitchcock fan, since the Westward Ho was the setting for the opening scenes of "Psycho," before the action moved to the Bates Motel. (The former KPHO radio, later known as KFYI, stayed put in the vicinity of the Ho, operating from studios next door at 631 N. 1st Ave. until just a few years ago.)

A few blocks west, at 511 W. Adams, we find another venerable Phoenix broadcast site. Gene Autry's KOOL radio and TV boasted some of the biggest TV studios in the west at this location, and while KOOL radio has long since moved away (the AM station at 960 is now Salem's KKNT, which we'll see next week, while KOOL-FM on 94.5 is now in the old KOY building), the former KOOL-TV on channel 10 is still here, now as Fox O&O KSAZ-TV occupying almost a full city block behind a high wall.

From downtown Phoenix, we soon head out on a looping route that wil take us to most of the city's AM sites, starting with an unusually tall tower just northwest of downtown. KRIZ (1230) was a potent top-40 voice here in Phoenix all through the sixties and seventies, despite running just 250 watts, and its old building now sits vacant in front of the AM 1230 tower at 2345 W. Buckeye, along I-17 on the southwestern edge of downtown.

Today, 1230 (shown below at left) is part of the Clear Channel cluster, using the historic KOY calls and running a standards format.

After a quick stop at KRIZ/KOY, we zip eastward toward Tempe and a lunch at Ted's Hot Dogs, a Buffalo institution with a branch transplanted here to the desert, and after catching up with some radio friends, we check out the AM sites in nearby Mesa. At Radio Disney's KMIK (1580), we get lucky: the gate's open and contract engineer William MacDonald is on site - and happy to give a quick tour of this six-tower 50 kW plant, which was Buck Owens' KNIX back in the day.

About half a mile south of KMIK, there's an interesting and somewhat sad story: KXAM (1310 Mesa), with a two-tower array adjacent to a cemetery, is in its last days of broadcasting on this cloudy April day in 2009.

Its owners were then claiming they intended to shut the station down for good, sending some of its unusual independent talk shows to other small AMs in the valley - and indeed, we listened as the plug was pulled "forever" at midnight on April 16.

Some endings, however, are more permanent than others: a few months later, the old KXAM facility was revived under new ownership as Phoenix's all-Catholic radio station under new calls KIHP, a callsign that remains in use today.

By far the largest cluster of Phoenix AM sites can be found along a swath of dusty desert landscape that stretches south of downtown Phoenix along Baseline Road and Broadway. This is not tourist Phoenix - it's a poor part of town that's a mix of industry, agriculture and mostly Hispanic neighborhoods. At the eastern end of the tower cluster is another tall tower for a graveyard station: KSUN (1400) at 40th Street and Southern Ave. is Spanish now, but was once full-service KXIV. It sits just a few blocks from KFYI (550), one of the biggest signals in Arizona. The 550 frequency was historically KOY, which had a tower site at 12th Street and Camelback, northeast of downtown, that was redeveloped as a car dealership in the sixties, sending KOY down here to S. 36th Street between Southern and Baseline. (A later series of Clear Channel call swaps moved KOY to 1230 and brought the news-talk format that had been on KFYI 910 down to 550.)

Heading west on Baseline, we find the studios and transmitter of another Spanish station, KASA (1540), at 1445 W.Baseline, less than a mile north of still another Spanish outlet, KIDR (740), on Dobbins Road. (Somehow, we missed the chance to go around the corner to see KIDR on this trip!)

KPHX (1480), with a pretty four-tower array just south of Broadway at 23rd Ave. (in Phoenix, numbered streets run north-south to the east of Central, while numbered avenues run north-south to the west of Central) has been through plenty of formats over the years; it was doing standards during this visit, with LA jock Brad Chambers running his "Martini in the Morning" show. And the last of this cluster of towers, KMVP (860), can be found behind a junkyard at Broadway and 31st Ave. Part of the Bonneville cluster, KMVP had been running the sports format that moved to KTAR (620) when KTAR's news-talk moved to FM; it ended up being leased out to a religious broadcaster in addition to being used for some overflow sports programming from 620.

And we round out this installment of our Phoenix trip with two more shots from the east side: at 515 N. 44th St., near Sky Harbor airport, we find one of the newer TV studio buildings in town.

KNXV (Channel 15) was an independent and briefly a Fox affiliate before the big Fox/New World affiliation shakeup of the mid-90s rearranged the Phoenix TV dial. New World's KSAZ-TV (Channel 10) became a Fox affiliate, sending its CBS affiliation down the dial to former independent KPHO-TV (Channel 5). But the fallout from other affected markets ended up touching two more Phoenix stations: Scripps-Howard struck a lucrative affiliation deal with ABC (to avert the possibility of ABC being displaced by CBS at Scripps' WXYZ-TV in Detroit), and with KNXV being a Scripps station, it suddenly went from UHF indie to "big 3" affiliate, though it's never become a top player in the Phoenix market in a decade and a half with ABC. (The former Phoenix ABC outlet, KTVK channel 3, ended up as an indie and has done extremely well with that niche over the years.)

And there's one more east-side AM we can't forget: just down the road from the big KTAR (620) site we showed you in last week's installment, the Cross Cut Canal crosses under Thomas Road near 64th Street - and it's there that a single AM tower sits behind a lumberyard. KAZG (1440 Scottsdale) is a daytimer, and it's become the subject of message-board chatter far out of proportion to its position in the market. "Lumberyard 1440," as it's known on the boards, is "Arizona's Goldmine" on the air, playing a neat selection of oldies when it's not being leased out for talk shows or other paid programming, and we couldn't leave the area without getting a picture of the tower back there off Thomas Avenue.

In next week's Phoenix installment, we head up South Mountain - and wrap up the AMs on the north side of town, too - and in the meantime, check out our Phoenix IDs (and those of fellow traveler Garrett Wollman) over at TopHour.com!

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