September 24, 2010

El Centro and California's Imperial Valley

When most people think of California, it's not Imperial County they're thinking of. Tucked into the state's remote southeast corner, off the beaten path for pretty much anyone who's not headed from San Diego to Tucson, the Imperial Valley is a dusty, dry, painfully impoverished, often hellishly hot flat place without much of anything to draw your average tourist.

So it was almost a given that we'd get there sooner or later for Tower Site of the Week, right? Actually, we got there twice in 2009 - once in April, spending a night in El Centro on the way from Tucson to Las Vegas (not very directly, obviously) as part of the "Spring Trip 2009" we've been in the process of chronicling here, and then once more in the blazing heat of August, on the way from Yuma up to Palm Springs, to pick up a few stray sites we'd missed the first time.

El Centro is the commercial hub of the Imperial Valley, and it's where we found most of the area's broadcast activity during our April visit. The city was just 21 years old when it got its first radio station. KXO signed on here in 1927, and it's been here ever since, running oldies on its AM signal at 1230 and adult contemporary on KXO-FM (107.5), which joined the family in 1976. (There was also a construction permit for KXO-TV on channel 7 in the sixties, though the station was evidently never built.)

Today, KXO anchors the rundown business district on Main Street, next to the archway that rises over Main at the corner of Fourth Street, and as we'll see shortly, it's pretty much the only local English-language secular radio voice in the county these days.

For religious radio, we look one block south and a couple of blocks to the west to find the studios of KGBA (1490 Heber)/KGBA-FM (100.1 Holtville). KGBA-FM broadcasts in English, while the AM station is in Spanish, serving the Hispanic audience that dominates the county. (El Centro is just eight miles or so from the Mexican border, and the airwaves here are full of stations from the fairly sizable Mexicali market just across the border, served by something like a dozen AMs and as many FMs.)

The domestic commercial Spanish-language radio scene is pretty much owned by Entravision, which has a sizable studio complex along Highway 86 (N. Imperial Avenue) just north of downtown. There's both radio and TV here: Univision outlet KVYE (Channel 7), which finally brought that allocation to life in 1996; Telefutura affiliate KAJB (Channel 54), licensed to Calipatria to the north; Spanish adult hits "Jose" on KSEH (94.5 Brawley) and KWST (1430 El Centro) and regional Mexican "Radio Tricolor" on KMXX (99.3 Imperial).

KXO's old AM and FM transmitter site was located south of downtown, within sight of the I-8/Highway 86 interchange, but that tower (which dated to 1976 and the debut of the FM) collapsed in 2004, apparently due to corroded guy wire anchors (there are pictures of the aftermath here.)

Rather than rebuild at the old site, KXO picked a new site on Villa Road just northeast of downtown, within sight of the KWST (1430) tower on Dogwood Road, and by the time of our visit in 2009 there was only an empty field to be seen at the old KXO location, and a shiny new 296-foot tower was waiting to greet us at the new site.

I'm not sure what those FM bays are on the KWST tower, though I suspect they might have been an earlier 94.5 site. Also out this way, on the eastern end of Main Street, we find El Centro's LPFM: KYFC-LP (95.3) is "The Edge," pumping out Christian rock from the Youth for Christ center here.

Continuing out East Main Street another mile or so into the farmland (this area produces much of the nation's lettuce!) brings us to Highway 111, where two tower sites flank the intersection. On the west side is the self-supporting tower of KUBO (88.7 Calexico), part of the "Radio Bilingue" network of noncommercial Spanish-language stations; on the east, a somewhat taller tower carries KGBA-FM (100.1).

From here, we jump south a few miles to Calexico, right on the border, and forward a few months to August, when we finally made it there to see what there was to see. Coming in from Yuma on Highway 98, we approached town by way of KQVO (97.7), which was once a commercial Spanish-language station but was purchased a few years ago by San Diego public broadcaster KPBS, which now uses it as a relay of KPBS-FM (89.5) to bring NPR to the Imperial Valley for the first time. (There has never been local public TV here; El Centro gets San Diego's KPBS-TV on cable, while nearby Yuma sees KAET from Phoenix.)

Once upon a time, Calexico had a local AM station of its own, and if you're driving north out of town on Highway 111, the main road between Calexico and El Centro, you might believe it's still there, if you look to your left and see that big red "KICO" sign by the side of the highway. That building's empty now, and the tower out back apparently won't be there forever, either: in 2007, KICO (which had been doing Spanish-language sports talk) was sold to the KGBA folks, becoming KGBA(AM) with Spanish-language religion. It changed city of license to Heber and moved to a new tower site (which we somehow still missed seeing) along Highway 86 between Calexico and El Centro, and now this site sits silent.

Let's move north again (and back to our April visit), shall we? Returning to the I-8/111 junction and heading north six miles or so brings us to another intersection with several FM towers. Entravision's KSEH (94.5) and KMXX (99.3) share a newish-looking tower along Keystone Road just west of 111, and as we approach Brawley from the south, there's another FM tower on our right: KSIQ (96.1 Brawley).

KSIQ was about to be in the headlines when we visited: its owner, Cherry Creek Broadcasting, had already applied to move two hours west to the much more lucrative San Diego market, trading its booming 50 kW class B signal for a much smaller B1 signal licensed to Campo, with an on-channel booster carrying the signal right into San Diego. That move was still almost a year in the future when we visited, so KSIQ was still cranking out nonstop hit music here as "Q96."

On the diamond-shaped plaza in the middle of downtown Brawley, we even found the studios shared by KSIQ and then-sister station KROP (1300 Brawley), complete with the Q96 studio - empty on a Saturday morning - right there in the window.

When KSIQ went west, KROP went silent, leaving the Imperial Valley with no country station and no access to Dodgers games - and presumably leaving this storefront downtown empty, too. (KROP was later purchased by a local operator and returned to the air late in the summer of 2010 with talk programming.)

The KROP tower north of town off 111 sits in an unusual spot: it's right next to the clubhouse at the Del Rio Country Club, a patch of welcome green in this dry desert landscape.

We'd see it twice in 2009: once as the northernmost point on our April excursion around the Imperial Valley before turning back to El Centro and eventually to Yuma (and then up the Colorado River valley, a trip we'll share with you in next week's installment), and then again in August on the way up to Calipatria and then past the strange, sad Salton Sea en route to Palm Springs.

Every town's got to have some sort of tourist hook, and Calipatria's claim to fame is its depth - at 184 feet below sea level, it boasts that it's the lowest town in the Western hemisphere, and it backs up that assertion with that flagpole shown at the left. It's 184 feet tall, of course, putting its tip right at sea level, and it comes with the somewhat debatable label of "world's tallest flagpole," which is evidently not at all true.

Calipatria's 7,289 souls have their own TV station, as we noted earlier, though KAJB operates from studios in El Centro and a transmitter up on Black Mountain northwest of Yuma. (Its move from analog channel 54 to DTV channel 36 displaced an LPTV station that had been operating from the KSIQ tower, meaning that tower is now evidently completely vacant.)

Calipatria really does have its own radio station: Radio Lazer's KSSB (100.9) is a little 3 kW/66' class A signal that doesn't quite get south to El Centro in any useful way. (Indeed, its very basic tower behind the Calipatria water plant didn't even quite trigger the autofocus on our camera correctly!)

And that, with the exception of that pesky new KGBA (1490) tower and of course all those signals so tantalizingly close across the border in Mexicali, is about as much of the Imperial Valley as we can show you. In next week's installment, we continue the "Spring Trip 2009" series with still more exotic destinations hopscotching the state lines of California, Arizona and Nevada: Blythe, Quartzsite, Parker, Lake Havasu City and Laughlin. And in the meantime, we're about to begin shipping Tower Site Calendar 2011 to those lucky folks who've pre-ordered...and to you, too, if you get your order in quickly. We'll have lots of Imperial Valley and Mexicali IDs for you to listen to starting Sept. 29 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!