August 26, 2011

KNBR, San Francisco, CA

One of our favorite radio towns is, alas, one we don't get to as often as we'd like - San Francisco and the Bay Area. So when a family event drew us westward in January 2010, we jumped at the chance to add a couple of days to the agenda to do some catching up on sites (and radio friends) we'd been meaning to visit.

Near the top of the "must-visit" list was a site we'd seen several times from the outside (and even featured in the Tower Site Calendar) but had never visited on the inside: KNBR (680).

Back in 2005, when we last made it out to San Francisco, we even featured some exterior shots of KNBR right here on Tower Site of the Week - and if you click that link, you'll learn much more in detail about the history of this venerable site and its unusual segmented tower, as well as get to see it from the outside in daylight.

But that's not the same as a good inside look, and that's what we got on a warm San Francisco night in January 2010, when engineers Chuck Bullett and John Buckham welcomed us inside KNBR's transmitter building at the end of a long day of tower and studio visits, which we'll continue in future Site of the Week installments.

When NBC built a transmitter building in the 1930s for what was then KPO, they did it right: this is a massive two-story structure that was designed to house an RCA 50,000-watt transmitter and the staff needed to support it.

Back in the day, you'd have driven down a very long, very empty road eastward from Highway 101 (the bayshore highway heading south from San Francisco) down to the end of the Redwood peninsula where the site sits; today, that drive goes past miles of offices and townhomes before arriving at KNBR. And back in the day, you'd have pulled up in front of the building and entered through the prominent front door into a stairwell leading down to the ground floor and up to the transmitter hall; today, we pull around back and enter through the garage into the ground floor. Where maintenance engineers once toiled in suit and tie, the ground floor today is a warren of small storage rooms (some still filled with wooden drawers of parts from the NBC era).

Even the stairwell is now used for storage: look carefully in that picture above and you'll see a metal "N" that apparently came from the old NBC Radio City studios at 420 Taylor Street. (You can learn much more about that magnificent facility at Fred Krock's magnificent tribute site, part of Barry Mishkind's Oldradio archives.)

Upstairs, the original GE-turned-RCA transmitter that once filled most of the second floor is long gone, and today's visitor walks up the stairs to be greeted by several rooms that divided up the original transmitter space. To the right is a big workroom/rack room; straight ahead is the current transmitter room, occupied now by a Harris DX50 as the main transmitter and a somewhat rare MW-50C, the last of the MW-50 line, as the backup.

Off to the side, there are additional rooms upstairs that were used as sleeping quarters. I don't believe the KPO/KNBR site, close as it is to San Francisco, ever had engineers living here full-time, but it was just remote enough from the city in its early years that engineers needed to bunk here on occasion. (It's likely, too, that engineers and security forces were stationed here during World War II, considering KPO's prominence as the West Coast hub of the NBC network.)

KNBR's current studios, at 55 Hawthorne Street in downtown San Francisco, are nowhere near as historic as the transmitter site out in Belmont, but they're still well worth a visit, which we did the next day. KNBR has been at this location since the 1990s under a succession of owners that's included Susquehanna and now Cumulus, and over the years what started as a one-floor facility for KNBR and sister station KFOG (104.5) has grown to include a second floor for newer additions KTCT (1050 San Mateo) and KSAN (107.7 San Mateo).

As the Bay Area's first (and until recently, only) sports-talker and the flagship for Giants baseball, Warriors basketball and Raiders football, KNBR is a major player in the market - so much so that it spawned a second program stream: KTCT is branded on-air as "KNBR 1050." and its studios one floor up from KNBR are essentially identical to the KNBR facility: a control room facing into a big talk studio along the front of the building, with windows looking out into the hallway and lobby. Down the hall from each AM station is a bullpen area for sports news and updates and office space for the hosts - and each AM station's FM sister has studios on the corner of the building, looking out on the South-of-Market neighborhood.

Around the corner on each floor are production studios for the stations and engineering racks and offices, and then the hallways lead back into sales and promotion and the management offices. (We didn't make it out to the KTCT transmitter, but we did see KFOG at Mount Sutro and KSAN at Mount San Bruno, and we'll show you those in an upcoming Site of the Week installment.)

We caught the Cumulus stations just before some big changes: a few months after we visited, Cumulus swallowed up Citadel, which had acquired the ABC Radio group that includes two more prominent San Francisco stations, KGO and KSFO - and the coming-together of those two clusters in San Francisco is likely to lead to some studio moves sooner or later, so it's a good thing we saw this facility when we did! (We saw KGO and KSFO, too, and you'll see those soon in Site of the Week as well.)

Thanks to KNBR's Chuck Bullett and John Buckham for the tours!

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