October 1, 2010

Up the Colorado River Valley, CA/AZ

There aren't a lot of spots in the US that are both as close to big population centers yet as remote, psychologically and culturally, as the little towns that line the Colorado River on its final stretch between California and Arizona before it peters out near the Mexican border.

From Phoenix, it's barely two hours of freeway driving west on I-10 to reach the small town of Quartzsite, Arizona; from Los Angeles, it's less than four hours (give or take traffic) east to Blythe.

But the real way to experience the remoteness of this odd little corner of desert America, I think, is to drive it at a right-angle to the interstates - which is just what we did in April 2009, heading north from El Centro and Yuma to an eventual arrival at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, four hours and a world away from Blythe, Quartzsite, Parker and the other little communities you'll see in this week's Tower Site installment.

Coming up from Yuma, the quickest way north would have been to stay on the Arizona side of the river, following US 95 some 84 miles north to Quartzsite, where US 95 crosses I-10; avoiding the obvious route, we cut up the California side, following county roads north past the Black Mountain TV tower farm to pick up California 78 into Blythe.

This small town just west of the river had radio as far back as the late forties, when KUCB signed on with a mighty 250 watts on 1450. Even then, Blythe was mainly a stop on the big east-west highway (then US 60/70 in those pre-Interstate days), but the little radio station here soldiered on, eventually changing calls to KYOR and adding an FM outlet on 100.3. The stations changed calls to KJMB/KJMB-FM in 1981, and the AM station left the air for good sometime afterward, leaving KJMB as an FM-only operation. And so it remains today, cranking out 36 kW/56' of what sounded to us like mostly-automated AC music from this facility at 681 N. 4th Street, at the end of a long dirt driveway that stretches over an irrigation canal to get here. I believe this was the AM site as well, back in the day.

From Blythe, it's only 20 miles or so east on I-10 (which shares the routing with US 95 briefly here) over to Quartzsite on the Arizona side, and as we're making that short drive, we're not sure we're going to find a station on the air when we get there. KBUX (94.3) in Quartzsite is a class A station, but it's not until we pull up in a modest neighborhood on the north side of town that we realize just what an interesting station we're dealing with. For KBUX, you see, is one of that very rare breed of mom-and-pop stations that are literally run out of spare bedrooms. Buck and Maude Burdette put KBUX on the air here in 1988, and since Buck's death in 2003, Maude Burdette has been running the station more or less solo from here.

It's a station that wouldn't work most other places - but when you consider that Quartzsite is populated mainly by elderly snowbirds spending the winter months in small homes or RVs, the KBUX music mix of old-time country, standards and beautiful music seems to fit perfectly with the market. (The KBUX website claims that Quartzsite's year-round population, pegged by the Census at somewhere south of 4,000, swells to "between 750,000 and 1,000,000" when the snowbirds and gem collectors converge during the annual Gem and Mineral Show in February; that figure seems rather high from where we sit.)

In any event, KBUX's mighty 205 watts/-161' from the telephone pole next to the Burdette home blankets the little valley where Quartzsite sits, and even if it doesn't get too far north as we head up Arizona 95 out of town, it's pleasant company for us, and probably for all those RVs baking in the sun along the roadside as we head up to Parker.

Parker, some 35 miles north of Quartzsite, sits right on the Colorado River, and boasts a surprisingly large complement of radio stations despite its even more remote location (no major east-west highways cross the river between I-10 at Blythe to the south and I-40 at Topock to the north, some 50 miles by road from here.)

Parker got its first radio station in 1974, when KZUL signed on here as a 1000-watt daytimer at 1380. In 1984, KZUL took the new calls KLPZ to commemorate the split, a year earlier, of the northern half of Arizona's Yuma County (including Quartzsite and Parker) into La Paz County, the first and only new county created in Arizona since statehood in 1912.

Today, KLPZ runs 2500 watts by day, 58 watts at night from its single tower next to the studio building on 6th Street, a few blocks north of downtown Parker, mixing country music with local talk.

KLPZ never added an FM station, though frequencies aren't hard to find here: there are three other FMs serving Parker, or at least there would be if all of them had been on the air this April Saturday afternoon. On the way up 95 into Parker from the south, we passed by the cell tower on a hill southeast of town that's home to KPKR (97.3). "River Rat Radio" signed on in 2008, playing classic rock on a 1.7 kW/928' C3 signal that gets up and down the river to reach almost to Blythe to the south and into Lake Havasu City to the north.

Licensed in 2002, KRIT (93.9) is a lesser C3 (8 kW/-154') from a tower just southwest of downtown Parker, but it was silent when we visited and is apparently silent again, with licensee Farmworker Educational Radio telling the FCC it's "unable to operate profitably in the current economic climate."

And there's a noncommercial station here: KWFH (90.1), at the Parker Community Lighthouse Chapel just a few blocks away from KLPZ, signed on in 1984, and today its 460 watt/-164' signal here is just one part of the "Alive FM" network that extends from Parker to translators in the much faster-growing string of resort communities that start in Lake Havasu City, 25 miles north of here, and extend up from there to Bullhead City, Laughlin and Kingman.

The growth of those towns - and of course the explosive growth of Las Vegas, another 100 miles or so further north - led to a decade or so of hopscotching station moves that yielded a batch of Las Vegas move-ins and a nearly-complete reshuffling of the Lake Havasu/Bullhead/Laughlin/Kingman FM dial. One such move a couple of years ago sent KFLG-FM (94.7) all the way south from Kingman, Arizona to Big River, California, a tiny town across the river from Parker, though the station's transmitter site only moved as far south as Lake Havasu City. (That move allowed KVBE 94.5 to slide in toward Las Vegas as a north-side rimshot, much to the delight of dance-music fans on message boards everywhere.)

KWFH holds an as-yet-unbuilt CP to move to 90.3, upgrading to 20 kW/873' and adding coverage north to Lake Havasu; KPKR may eventually slide to 95.7 to make it possible to upgrade a vacant FM allocation to the south at Blythe, but that proposal is hung up awaiting Mexican regulatory approval.

And rather than spend any more time in Parker pondering those questions, we chose to chase what was left of the day's light, continuing north on Arizona 95 to Lake Havasu City. That planned community (founded 1964) is home to the strange tourist trap that is the relocated London Bridge; it's also where we find KNTR (980), the town's first radio station (circa 1970), transmitting from a tower next to the school bus yard right down by the river north of the bridge. (The bridge, incidentally, doesn't span the river itself; it's actually a fairly little thing that crosses a man-made channel to a little spit of land extending into the river.)

With a little more daylight in Lake Havasu, we'd have spent some time chasing some of the other sites around town. KNTR is the only AM (and it's now on an FM translator at 97.1), and the rest of the market is very much an FM market, and an odd one at that: there are nine or ten primary stations spread out among Lake Havasu City, Needles, Bullhead City/Laughlin and Kingman, with oodles and gobs of translators carrying each station from its own hometown into the other cities. At some point, we'll have to get back down this way to see the FMs up above Lake Havasu City at Crossman Peak (that would be the aforementioned KFLG-FM 94.7, as well as KRCY-FM 96.7, which was once "KBBC" in honor of the bridge; KRRK 101.1 and KZUL-FM 104.5, plus a bunch of translators), as well as the in-town translators and studios.

As new as KNTR is, we've got two even newer AM sites to show you as we complete the Yuma-to-Vegas haul. Heading north in the dark after a late dinner in Lake Havasu City, we stop for IDs in Needles before finishing up a long Saturday of driving in Laughlin, Nevada. That casino town at Nevada's southernmost tip didn't even exist until 1964, and it wasn't until 1986 that it got a radio station. KROL (870) signed on with 10 kW days/1 kW nights from a three-tower site just west of the casino strip along the river in Laughlin, soon sharing its array with Bullhead City-licensed daytimer KRHS (1000). But the 870 facility eventually spawned an on-channel booster 90 miles north in East Las Vegas, and then migrated completely to the Vegas market, where it's now KLSQ (870 Whitney). The towers stayed behind, and today they're home to 1000 (now KFLG) and now to Bullhead's other station as well. What's now KZZZ (1490) started out in 1981 as KBAS, and its old site on the hill above Bullhead City, just across the river from Laughlin, is notable in TSoTW lore as the spot where we got a rental car stuck on a rock in the dark almost a decade ago. (That once-remote spot has now been paved over for the new parkway that loops around Bullhead and over the new bridge to Laughlin, which probably explains KZZZ's move across the river to the Laughlin site.)

One final stop on Sunday morning completed this trip for us: before settling into the hubbub of the NAB Show, we made time to go north of Las Vegas to see the city's newest AM site. KMZQ (670) signed on in the summer of 2008, running 30 kW days and 600 watts at night from this four-tower array on tribal land along US 95 some 20 miles north of the Strip.

And in the meantime, we're now 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 Havasu/Laughlin/Bullhead IDs for you to listen to starting October 6 over at sister site TopHour.com, 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 Fybush.com store!