September 10, 2010

Yuma, Arizona, 2009 (Part I)

While we start settling in for cooler weather back east, we're still thinking about heat and sun. And if you want "heat" when it's cold in the rest of the country, there's one particular corner of America that almost always fits the bill. Want triple-digit temperatures in March, or October? In Yuma, Arizona, tucked away in that state's arid southwestern corner, you've got a good chance of finding it.

It wasn't quite that hot when we pulled in late one afternoon after the very long, very empty drive west along I-10 and I-8 from Tucson - we're talking four solid hours of pretty much nothing but empty desert here, with literally not even a single tower site (or legal ID) to be visited or collected along the way. But it was warm enough, and sunny enough, and after continuing westward another hour to spend the night in El Centro, California (you'll see those sites in our Sept. 24 installment), we returned to Yuma the next day to do some exploring in this very remote, but very interesting, little market.

TV first, because it's just so darned interesting: Together with El Centro, Yuma makes up one of the smallest and most unusual TV markets in the country, spanning two US states, two time zones (though they come into sync in summer when Arizona's Mountain Standard Time matches up with California's Pacific Daylight Time), and even extending into the Mexican states of Baja California Norte and Sonora, where viewers in Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado can watch Yuma-El Centro TV, and vice versa. It's only within the last few years that all of the "big four" TV networks have been represented here, and even that's only by virtue of a DTV subchannel. And the first TV station in the market, KIVA (Channel 11)? It went dark in 1970 after a 17-year run.

The oldest station still remaining in Yuma is on its third set of calls. KBLU-TV signed on in 1963 as a CBS affiliate, owned by Yuma radio station KBLU (then on 1320). When KIVA signed off in 1970, KBLU-TV moved a block east from Fourth Avenue, Yuma's main drag, into the former KIVA studio building at 1322 S. Third Street, and it's been there ever since under multiple callsigns (it became KYEL-TV in 1978 when the radio station was sold off separately, then became KSWT in 1991) and affiliations - it flipped to NBC when KIVA went under, then to ABC in 1988, then back to CBS in 1994.

In the meantime, channel 11 in Yuma was revived as a new license in 1988, when KYMA-TV came on the air. Its studios are in a somewhat newer section of town, just off the I-8/US 95 interchange east of downtown Yuma, and just like long-ago KIVA, it's the NBC affiliate for the market.

Station number three is actually licensed to El Centro: in 1968, KECC (Channel 9) came on as an ABC affiliate, then flipped to CBS after KIVA went away and KBLU-TV went to NBC in 1970. (Confused yet?)

KECC later changed calls to the present KECY, and its flip from CBS to Fox in 1995, combined with KSWT's flip from ABC to CBS, left the market without an ABC affiliate for more than a decade. The California side of the market got San Diego's KGTV on cable, while Yuma received Phoenix's KTVK (and later KNXV) - at least until 2007, when KECY launched "ABC5" via KECY's 9.2 DTV station. Unlike KYMA and KSWT, which maintain local news staffs, there's no local news on "Fox 9" or "ABC5" - or on KECY's other two subchannels, Telemundo (also seen on KESE-LP 35) and The CW.

All the Yuma/El Centro TV stations (including two more that we'll see in our El Centro installment) transmit from Black Mountain, about 20 miles northwest of Yuma; if we're reading the coordinates right, the sticks (from north to south in the long-lens photo above) belong to KECY, KSWT (now on RF 16), KYMA and those two additional El Centro stations, Univision affiliate KVYE (virtual 7/RF 22) and Telefutura outlet KAJB (virtual 54/RF 36). There's one FM station up there, too: Yuma-licensed Spanish religious broadcaster KYRM (91.9), near the KSWT tower second from left.

Yuma and El Centro are separate tiny radio markets, and the radio scene in Yuma is somewhat less turbulent than the TV world. The commercial stations fall neatly into two clusters: one that was part of Clear Channel and now belongs to El Dorado Broadcasters, and a smaller one belonging to local group Monstermedia. The Clear Channel/El Dorado group, at least as it appeared in 2009, included news-talk KBLU (560), country KTTI (95.1) and AC "Star 100.9" KQSR, all operating from studios at 755 W. 28th Street, on the south side of town near the Southgate Mall and the airport; Monstermedia's outlets were sports KJOK (1400, which has since flipped to country as KCYK) and hot AC "Z-93.1" KLJZ, broadcasting from studios at 949 S. Avenue B on the west side of Yuma.

Want to see some radio towers? We did, and in the course of an hour or so we made the circuit of most of the radio tower sites in town, starting way out east of the airport (and southeast of downtown) at the two towers on E. County 13th Street that are used by KTTI (a C2 facility), KQSR (an A) and religious KCFY (88.1A).

Just west of the airport, along South Avenue B (which forms the last piece of US 95 as it heads another dozen or so miles south to the Mexican border at San Luis Rio Colorado), we find the tower shared by KLJZ (a C1, the most powerful FM in town) and KJOK.

And circling back north again on Avenue B as it heads up Yuma's west side, we pass the current KJOK/KLJZ studios and, a block north, an old tower that was the in-town site of KTTI before it moved out to the farmland southeast of Yuma.

Continuing north on Avenue B brings us to the only directional AM in town, the two towers of KBLU (560). Despite how they may appear in the photo above, these towers aren't really bent - that's just wide-angle lens distortion. They are, however, separated by water: the "Main Drain Canal" separates the transmitter building and tower #1 from tower #2, with the transmission line carried on a little gantry above the water.

These 315-foot towers are a fairly prominent sight for drivers coming into town on I-8, which parallels the north side of the Colorado River just a few hundred feet north of the KBLU site.

There's some interesting history here, too: the KBLU calls, as we mentioned at the top of the page, began on Yuma's third AM station, a 500-watt daytimer on 1320, back in 1959. In 1969, KBLU/KBLU-TV owner Eller Telecasting merged with Phoenix's Combined Communications, which owned Yuma's oldest station, KYUM (560). KYUM had started out in 1940 on 1210, then moved to 1240 before sliding down the dial to 560 in 1951. After the merger, the KBLU calls moved to 560 (some guy named Lou Dobbs worked there for a while as a newsman before moving to TV in Phoenix), while 1320 was spun off to Arizona Western College. (We'll see what happened to it in next week's installment!)

As for the rest of the radio backstory here, such as it is: Yuma's second AM, on 1400, signed on in 1950 as KYMA (no relation to the present channel 11), adding its FM sister at 93.1 in 1972 (the FM was KJOK then, while the AM was KVOY). What's now KTTI came on in 1970 as Yuma's first FM station - a standalone, at that! - under the calls KALJ. KQSR came on in the late eighties, and KBLU nearly moved to Las Vegas a few years back, when then-owner Clear Channel held a construction permit, never built, to relocate the station some 240 miles north to "Nellis AFB, Nevada."

Rounding out the Yuma dial are a handful of other signals whose towers we didn't see: Spanish-language KCEC (104.5 Wellton) is on a hill east of Yuma, where I-8 cuts through Telegraph Pass on its way into town; later in 2009 it was joined up there by another Spanish-language station, KUKY (95.9 Wellton). And from just across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, Yuma is served by five AM and four FM stations, all in Spanish. (We thought we were hearing a fifth Mexican FM, on 90.5, but later learned from FCC enforcement notices that it was actually a Yuma-based pirate!)

And then there's one more English-language FM station in town: two decades after 1320 was donated to Arizona Western College, becoming KAWC, it added an FM sister - but that story, and the even odder tale of how we ended up back in Yuma in August (on purpose!), is one we'll save for next week's installment.

In the meantime, we're still taking pre-orders for Tower Site Calendar 2011 (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 Yuma and even San Luis Rio Colorado IDs for you to listen to starting Sept. 22 over at sister site, too!

- 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 store!