September 3, 2010

Tucson, 2009 (Part II)

While we start settling in for cooler weather back east, we're still thinking about heat and sun: this week's installment continues our April 2009 visit to Tucson, Arizona (click here for part one, including the first preview of the pictures in Tower Site Calendar 2011, coming soon to a mailbag near you...)

Our second day in Tucson back in April 2009 started off bright and early with our one and only studio visit in town: the lone broadcast facility anywhere near downtown Tucson, the big brick house at 220 South Fourth Avenue that's home to funky community station KXCI (91.3). The calls spell out "91" in Roman numerals, and the programming on KXCI is eclectic, with a strong AAA lean. There's a production studio and offices downstairs, and up the big Victorian staircase we find the main air studio, a nicely-appointed (and big!) room surrounded by record and CD library space.

We didn't get tours at the big commercial cluster studios, of which there are three north of downtown: Clear Channel in a shopping center at 3202 N. Oracle, Citadel a half-mile north at 575 W. Roger Road (with the tower shared by KCUB 1290 and KTUC 1400 out back), and Lotus - not shown here - a mile to the west and just across I-10 at 3871 N. Commerce. (The fourth commercial radio cluster is Journal's, and we saw that in our last installment.)

Whilew we're up in this spread-out area north of downtown, we catch some TV studios as well: Fox affiliate KMSB (Channel 11, licensed to Nogales, far to the south) and My affiliate KTTU (Channel 18) are at 1855 N. 6th Avenue, in a neighborhood just north of downtown that was once home to most of Tucson's TV stations. In part one of our Tucson series, we showed you the new home of KGUN (Channel 9) in eastern Tucson; its old home was at N. 6th and E. Grant, a few blocks north of KMSB/KTTU. CBS affiliate KOLD-TV (Channel 13) spent many years at 115 W. Drachman, just a few blocks to the south, though it eventually moved way up north along I-10 to a business park in suburban Cortaro. (That Drachman Street site was also home to the tower site of KOPO 1450, before that signal moved to its current home south of downtown.)

And there's still one more TV station remaining in the neighborhood: NBC affiliate KVOA (Channel 4) is at 209 W. Elm, in what looks like one of those buildings that's been assembled through an agglomeration of additions over many decades. That tower out back used to be KVOA radio, Tucson's second-oldest station; it was here many years before the TV station signed on, operating first on 1260 and then on 1290 before being sold off, its calls changed to KCUB. (As seen above, it's now over at the Citadel plant on Roger Road, sharing its tower with the oldest signal in town, KTUC 1400.)

There's more radio in this neighborhood, too: off N. 1st Avenue just north of Grant, we find the tower of Tucson's daytimer on 690; it was KVOI when we were there in 2009, but later on it swapped calls and formats with KCEE, then on 1030. And moving east on Grant, we find a short tower behind a car wash just east of Country Club Road - this is KFFN (1490), part of the Journal cluster, and the descendant of the "new" station, KAIR, that signed on at 1490 in the 1950s after the original Tucson 1490, KTKT, moved down the dial to 990.

The ritzier parts of Tucson spread north and east from here, off into the hills, and it's a short drive east on Grant and north on Swan Road to one of Tucson's most intriguing sites: a three-tower array that looks like it should belong to an AM station, even though there's no AM station here, just a slew of two-way radio antennas.

There's a long, complex history behind this one: the station that was here began life in 1947 as KCNA on 1340. It was located right in the city back then, at 16th and Cherry, but in 1951 it moved down the dial to 580, up in power to 5,000 watts and way out of town to what was then the very remote "Swan Road Extension" up here. The station was later known as KTAN, but it found its greatest success as KIKX after being purchased by John Walton Jr. in the mid-sixties to replace his daytimer, 50-kilowatt KFIF (1550).

KIKX gave top-40 dominator KTKT a run for its money, but then fell prey to license challenges after a hoax in 1974 in which the station claimed DJ Gary Craig (yes, the same one who'd later make his career at WTIC-FM in Hartford) had been kidnapped. After ten years of legal fights, KIKX went silent, returning briefly in the late 80s as urban station KJMM before the site on Swan Road finally fell silent on AM for good in 1988. (We saw in our last installment where 580 eventually ended up, far to the north in Marana.)

Even deeper in the northeast Tucson hills, in a residential neighborhood off Sunrise Drive, is the array of KJLL (1330 South Tucson) - but its six unpainted towers are so skinny and so deeply tucked into the terrain that they're all but impossible to photograph clearly.

(This is a fairly recent site for this station, which began in 1957 as Tucson-licensed 500-watt daytimer KMOP. It moved up here in 1980 to go full-time, and the site was built by none other than Tucson's "eclectic engineer" Barry Mishkind, who tells me he was also the last person on the air at 1290 from the original Elm Street site...)

Our path this Friday will eventually lead us out of town to the north (though signed "west") along I-10, and that's pretty much where the rest of this installment takes us: just off the east side of I-10, a 724-foot tower on Zinnia Street holds the antennas of Spanish-language KCMT (102.1) and Journal's FM talker KQTH (104.1), among the few FMs that aren't up in the hills surrounding Tucson.

As for the old KFIF on 1550, that signal was donated to the University of Arizona, which turned it into KUAT(AM) as a noncommercial daytimer. It's now KUAZ, doing news and jazz with a simulcast on KUAZ-FM (89.1), and the AM site sits on the east side of I-10 north of Tucson.

Two more AMs finish off our Tucson radio tourism: also off I-10, just south of the KUAZ site, is the four-tower array of the Cortaro-licensed signal on 1030 that was oldies KCEE when we saw it, and has since become talker KVOI. And another couple of miles to the north brings us to the five towers of KFLT (830), a more recent addition to the Tucson AM dial. Religious KFLT started out in the late seventies on 1450, buying the old KOPO/KOLD radio frequency, then selling it in the eighties to acquire an unbuilt CP for 830. There's also a rimshot FM up here, Marana-licensed KOHT (98.3), just a little north of KFLT's five-tower array (and which we somehow missed photographing.)

And with all that Tucson tourism packed into about 22 hours, we still missed out on a few sites, most notably the big FM site in the mountains west of town and the TV sites at Mount Lemmon and Mount Bigelow, up to the northeast, but also a few stray AMs and FMs south of town in Sahuarita and Green Valley. We'll have to get back someday to check those out!

In the meantime, we're still taking pre-orders for Tower Site Calendar 2011, complete with a KTKT Tucson picture (shipment has been slightly delayed by some production glitches, but we're still expecting to be sending out the first calendars by mid-September) - and we'll have lots of Tucson IDs for you to listen to starting Sept. 8 over at sister site, too!

Thanks to King Daevid Mackenzie for the KXCI tour, and to Barry Mishkind for the historical background at (and for lunch!)

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