July 30, 2010

Phoenix, 2009 (part III)

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 one of the finest tower farms in America. South Mountain rises 2660 feet above sea level and more than 1500 feet above downtown Phoenix, providing a vantage point for FM and TV transmission unmatched by any other site in the market.

It's no wonder that TV stations began locating up here early in the market's broadcast history, nor is it any surprise that today South Mountain's 23 broadcast towers are home to nearly all the TV and major FM signals in Phoenix: 14 full-power class C FMs, another lower-powered noncommercial FM, several FM translators, 12 full-power TV stations and a slew of low-power TVs.

That's the view from the north, as we approach the top of the mountain on the nicely paved road that leads right to the transmitter-site gate (and how convenient is it that South Mountain is part of a city park, making access to this site about as good as it gets anywhere in the west?)

And that fine view above is the panorama from the south, looking over to the tower farm from a nearby parking lot at the top of the public road up the mountain. At the left is the outlier cluster of towers here, the pair of sticks just south of the main ridge belonging to KSLX (100.7 Scottsdale) and KZON (101.5). From left to right, here's how the main ridge of towers shapes up: there are several shorter towers used by government agencies, then two shorter (243' and 240') guyed FM towers, one used by KUPD (97.9 Tempe) and KNIX-FM (102.5), the other by KJZZ (91.5). The painted self-supporter next in line is the KTAR-FM (92.3 Glendale)/KPKX (98.7) tower, next to two painted, guyed towers home to public TV KAET (Channel 8) and NBC affiliate KPNX (Channel 12/RF 36), the erstwhile KTAR-TV. That fat tower at the center of the picture is one of the newer towers on the mountain, home to ABC affiliate KNXV (Channel 15) and Univision's KTVW (Channel 33). Next to the right (that would be heading east) is indie KTVK (Channel 3/RF 24) and its newer sister station, KASW (Channel 61/RF 49). The KTVK tower is also home to Telemundo's KDTP (Channel 39).

Moving east, there's a short tower that's home to KFLR (90.3), then the taller self-supporter of KSAZ-TV (Channel 10/RF 31) and KMLE (107.9 Chandler), part of a compound of towers that also includes KOOL-FM (94.5) and an aux tower for KSAZ. Among the antennas on the shorter towers to the right of the KSAZ aux is one for TBN's KPAZ (Channel 21/RF 20) - and then we get to the last set of tall towers on the mountain: My Network outlet KUTP (Channel 45/RF 26), CBS affiliate KPHO-TV (Channel 5/RF 17) and the candelabra that's home to Ion's KPPX (Channel 51). They're not clearly visible to the right of the candelabra, but there are shorter towers at this end of the mountain for the remaining FMs: KYOT-FM (95.5), KMXP (96.9) and KZZP (104.7 Mesa)/KDKB (93.3 Mesa).

We're up here in the company of an engineer from Bonneville, and that means we get to peek inside at least one of the buildings on the mountaintop: the one that's home to KTAR-FM (92.3) and sister station KPKX (98.7).

To fit two class C FM stations - with HD, no less - in a space originally designed for just one took some ingenuity. The combiner system for the analog and digital transmitter systems is hung from the ceiling, and the reject loads for the excess digital power ended up on the roof for lack of a better location.

Before we hit the winding road that leads back down into Phoenix (and we mean into Phoenix - the South Mountain park road is the southern continuation of Central Avenue, one of the city's main drags!), a few more notes about this site:

One of the arrangements between the broadcasters and the city provides that no more towers can be added to South Mountain, so any new tower that goes up must replace an existing tower that's removed. That's how KTVK, for instance, got a new tower built when it put KASW on the air in the nineties: it dismantled a much older auxiliary Channel 3 tower in the process.

And when you're up this high already, there's not much need for really tall towers: the very tallest stick up here, at 416 feet, is the KZON (101.5) tower. Ten others top 300 feet tall, with the rest considerably shorter.

After South Mountain, the rest of Phoenix's broadcast lineup is a little less exciting, but we've still got the better part of a day to see more of the sites, including a few more of the many directional AMs that dot the valley.

KGME (910) is the descendant of the old KPHO radio, and it's been at its present site on West Maryland Avenue, just west of the I-17 freeway, since long before there was an I-17 freeway. This four-tower array runs 5 kW fulltime, directional only at night, and it dates back to KPHO's 1949 move from 1230 to 910. The previous KPHO 1230 site at 2400 W. Buckeye remained in use after the move, and you saw it in last week's installment - it became the legendary KRIZ, and is now KOY, a sister station to KGME under Clear Channel.

Another site northwest of downtown is the ex-daytimer on 1280 located on West 38th Avenue. It's now KXEG, but the callsign on the roof of the old transmitter building still says KHEP, the identity the religious station used for most of its life beginning in 1956.

We didn't get a chance on this trip to visit a few other outlying AM sites to the north and west: KXXT (1010) and KNUV (1190) are out in Tolleson, 20 miles or so west of downtown Phoenix, and KNUV wasn't even on the air during our visit. KPXQ (1360) is the old Glendale-licensed KRUX, which was a big top-40 voice in the seventies, and its site is way out in Glendale, not far from the stadium where the Arizona Cardinals play. KKNT (960) and KFNN (1510) share a site way up north, and KFNX (1100 Cave Creek) is a few miles north of that. (At some point, we'll find and scan our photos from a 2001 visit that did take us by all those sites.)

While we didn't get to the transmitters of KKNT or KPXQ, we did get a quick tour of their studios, in an office park on East Camelback Road. These two legendary stations - KKNT is Gene Autry's old KOOL(AM) - are now owned by Salem, with 960 doing conservative talk and 1360 running religion.

And we wrapped up our whirlwind two-day swing around Phoenix with a stop in Guadalupe, a small neighborhood tucked around to the southeast of South Mountain, where I-10 takes off for the long ride south (though it's marked as "east" on the highway) down to Tucson. Just off the side of the freeway is the three-tower array of KDUS (1060), the Tempe-licensed sports station that's part of the Sandusky Radio cluster here. Its studios, and those of its sister FM station KUPD (97.9), are in a Southwestern-themed building next door to the towers - and yes, the old KUKQ calls for the AM are still on the sign out front!

In next week's installment, we get started on a look at the towers of Tucson, a brand-new market to Site of the Week - and in the meantime, check out our Phoenix IDs (and those of fellow traveler Garrett Wollman) over at TopHour.com!

Thanks to Aaron Farnham for the South Mountain visit!

- Find out when the new Tower Site is posted, and much more! Follow us on Twitter @NERadioWatch - and don't miss your chance to pre-order the all-new Tower Site Calendar 2011 at the Fybush.com store!