August 22-29, 2001

The Big Travelogue: Part Four

There's nothing like a good road trip to get a feel for the state of radio these days. From June 23 until July 7, your editor (accompanied by Boston Radio Archives creator Garrett Wollman) hit the road to see what's on - and in - the air across a broad swath of mid-America.

For the next few installments of Site of the Week, we'll be recapping the many highlights of what we like to think of as The Big Trip, 2001 edition. Come along...

Click here for part one

Click here for part two

Click here for part three

Tuesday, June 26 - The sun is beginning to set as we drive south on US 61 from Maquoketa and our quick stop at KMAQ and KMAQ-FM, but we're trying to stay on schedule by seeing at least a bit of Quad Cities radio and TV before dark. Crossing the toll bridge from Davenport, Iowa into Rock Island, Illinois, we make it to the big concrete tomb that encases CBS affiliate WHBF-TV (Channel 4) just as it's getting really dark out. The WHBF building is crowned by a big self-supporting tower that apparently once held WHBF-TV's own transmitter, but now carries only a public radio translator.

We check into our hotel in Bettendorf, Iowa just in time to catch the very end of the 9:00 news on Fox affiliate KLJB-TV (Channel 18), which I'd somehow forgotten about, but with plenty of time to set up the VCRs for all three 10 PM shows and to grab some dinner.

Wednesday, June 27 - A very long day dawns with tape rolling on the Quad Cities radio market and an early call to begin our tower-hunting. First up is a site just a few miles from our Bettendorf lodgings, the tower farm that began as the transmitter site of WOC (1420), Davenport's oldest radio station.

WOC dates back to the early 1920s and the Palmer School of Chiropractic, which remains alive and well on Brady Street in downtown Davenport (more on that in a moment). In the eighty or so years since, it's survived a shotgun marriage to Des Moines' WHO (the two shared a frequency and a transmitter through much of the thirties) and a series of owners. Today, it's Clear Channel's news-talk outlet in the Quad Cities, and it's far from alone at this transmitter site.

Who else is here? For starters, the former WOC-TV, now KWQC (Channel 6) and the former WOC-FM, now WLLR-FM (103.7), accompanied by WHBF-TV; public radio WVIK (90.3 Rock Island), and religious WDLM-FM (89.3 East Moline), not to mention the DTV counterparts of KWQC and WHBF-TV. I think it shakes out like this: WDLM-FM is on the tower at the far left. WOC uses the three painted towers, with the one in the center carrying the other FMs and the original channels 4 and 6 antennas. The tall unpainted tower in the middle is a newer tower carrying the TVs, I believe.

From here, we head south into Illinois once more, this time to the line that divides Rock Island from Moline. It's here, across from a nursing home, that we find another old-time AM.

The former WHBF (1270) is now WKBF, but Cumulus never changed the calls on the transmitter building when it bought the station, which now runs adult standards off the bird.

We note a group of engineers taking measurements around the site while we're taking our pictures, so perhaps there's some work to be done here. (And we wonder: is that another old WHBF-TV antenna on the tower to the right of the building?)

Heading south towards the Quad Cities Airport, we pass the area's ABC affiliate, WQAD-TV (Channel 8), licensed to Moline. The New York Times owns this one...but it's a long way from West 43rd Street in Manhattan to Park 16th Street in Moline...

(A final note on Quad Cities TV: Public TV in the market comes from WQPT, Channel 24 in Moline, which maintains a second simulcast transmitter at its Black Hawk College studios for KQCT, Channel 36.)

From WQAD we drove south for 20 miles or so on I-74 until we reached the big Illinois-side cluster of TV and FM sites. On US 150, just a mile or so east of I-74, a line of towers includes WQAD itself, WQPT, WHTS (98.9 Rock Island, the old WHBF-FM) and WXLP (96.9 Moline).

Not far away, off the highway near the hamlet of Coal Valley, Illinois, we saw the studio of religious WDLM (960 East Moline) and WDLM-FM (89.3 East Moline), sitting next to the two towers of AM 960.

Also near here, but not on our agenda, is the site of all-sports KJOC (1170 Davenport), which was once KSTT and a major top-40 voice in this region, back when a highly-directional AM signal could do that sort of thing.

Returning to Rock Island (through a lot of construction), we passed the site of Moline-licensed 1230 AM. This station has been through a variety of calls and formats, ending up a decade or so ago as WLLR(AM), simulcasting the country format of WLLR-FM when it was on 101.3 Moline.

The era of consolidation brought a frequency swap between WLLR-FM and KUUL, the oldies station that had been on 103.7 in Davenport (the old WOC-FM), and that in turn meant 1230 switched frequencies to simulcast, relaying WLLR-FM from its new 103.7 home (and breaking away on weekends for NASCAR races!)

The tower sits behind this Elks party hall, which is called "Twin Towers" in honor of the KUUL stick and the adjacent cell tower. I guess they don't have too many other landmarks in the area...

Passing through downtown Rock Island again, we crossed that toll bridge once more to Davenport for a drive up Brady Street, one of the main drags in town.

Across from the Palmer College campus, this fifties-style building is still home to KWQC-TV. I'd love to have seen it when that sign said "WOC" back in the day, and when radio was in here as well. It's still a nifty studio building, and quite safe from flooding in its perch high on the slopes above the Mississippi (remember that the blocks nearest the river suffered terrible flooding just last year!)

A few blocks north on Brady is the Cumulus studio complex, which includes KJOC, WXLP, KUUL, WLLR and Muscatine-licensed KBOB (99.7).

If it looks a bit somber, there's a darned good reason: it used to be a funeral home!

(Clear Channel, the other big group owner, has all its stations in an office park somewhere near the highway in Bettendorf...)

Almost directly across the street from Cumulus, an office building crowned with a self-supporting tower is apparently a former 106.5 (KCQQ Davenport) transmitter site, now used for an auxiliary transmitter and a noncommercial translator relaying KUNI from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

While our time in the Quad Cities was finished, the day was far from done, as we headed north to I-80 and then west an hour or so to the next market on the schedule: Iowa City/Cedar Rapids/Waterloo.

It's easy to know when you've arrived in the market: right next to the second Iowa City exit are these two towers, Clear Channel news-talker KXIC 800. They were doing Cubs baseball when we passed through, and we didn't hear anything legal-like at the top of the hour, alas.

KXIC's studios are at the base of the towers, shared with classic rocker KKRQ 100.7 ("The Fox.," serving Iowa City and Cedar Rapids).

Check out the KXIC logo on the building - if you had a station on AM 800 located right next to an I-80 offramp, you'd use that logo, too!

We drove through the college town of Iowa City (the administration building of the University of Iowa is the former Iowa territorial capital!) listening to the student station, KRUI (89.7), and a student jock who was just filling in during summer break, which might explain why she was playing Japanese pop music and doing her breaks in Japanese - not what you'd expect to hear on the radio dial in Iowa at all!

The University of Iowa has two more radio services to offer. On FM, KSUI (91.7) is a pretty standard public radio outlet, largely classical music for an audience that stretches across most of eastern Iowa. On AM, though, there's something special. WSUI (910) is one of a handful of noncommercial AMs that date back to the 1920s, when many midwestern land-grant schools obtained radio licenses and then fought to maintain them in the face of the big commercial interests.

Many of those signals ended up being relegated to daytime-only status, and WSUI was no exception. It eventually won some night service from a three-tower array, but its big signal is the daytime non-DA 5 kW. In fact, the whole station has been non-directional since a storm a few years ago that took out two of WSUI's three towers. Shown at right is the remaining tower, which is apparently being used at low power at night on special temporary authority. WSUI has a CP to rebuild its old array, as well as a CP (likely a typo) to recreate the old array 50 miles east in Bettendorf!

Keep driving south of town and you'll come to a station that most Site of the Week readers have probably heard.

KCJJ, which operated for years on 1560, was one of the very first stations to move to the expanded band in the nineties, and its new signal on 1630 kHz was, for a time, about the only thing on the X-band to be heard on the East Coast. With a format of 80s-heavy pop music, it quickly became a DX favorite, and has remained so even as the band around it has become cluttered. As for the old 1560, it went dark for a bit, then returned to serve Iowans without X-band radios. It's now KCJK, though you'll only find that out once an hour.

From there, we stopped to tune in Iowa City TV (WB affiliate KWKB, Channel 20, and Iowa Public TV's KIIN, Channel 12), then drove north for half an hour on I-380 to Cedar Rapids.

After stops south of town at Kirkwood Community College, home to jazz station KCCK 88.3, and the four-tower array of religious KTOF 1360 (with former FM sister KHAK 98.1 still perched on one tower), it was in to downtown for lunch and a studio.

Lunch was a Dairy Queen; the studio was KCRG-TV (Channel 9) and sister all-sports station KCRG (1600), in this big brick box. KCRG is the market's ABC affiliate, and the calls stand for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which still owns the stations.

North of town, outside the suburb of Marion, WMT (600) puts out a killer signal from three very tall towers and a transmitter building that looks like an old farmhouse. (Remember, we're getting into the part of the country with really good ground conductivity, so a 5 kW station low on the dial carries better by day than many of the big 50 kW blowtorches on the coasts!)

We passed WMT's studios on the way up. Even though WMT and WMT-FM (96.5) are now owned by Clear Channel and have long been separate from WMT-TV (now KGAN, channel 2), all three stations share a building on Old Marion Road, across from the huge Simmons Rockwell plant. WMT-TV's old tower next to the building is now used only as WMT-FM's transmitter site (and for STL and ENG purposes by KGAN, the market's CBS affiliate).

KCRG's three towers are east of Cedar Rapids and south of Marion, just east of US 151. Is that an old channel 9 antenna on one of the towers?

Time constraints kept us from seeing the final AM in town: KMRY (1450), a wonderful locally-owned adult standards outlet that was a good listen for much of the afternoon, but there was time to keep going north on I-380 (past the tower of CHR KZIA 102.9 and AC KDAT 104.5) to the tower farm up in Walker, halfway between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, some 30 miles to the northwest.

These very tall towers are home to KGAN, KCRG-TV, Iowa Public TV's KRIN (Channel 32) and Pax outlet KPXR (Channel 48), as well as public radio KUNI (90.9 Cedar Falls); a few miles north (and beyond our range this day) is Waterloo-licensed KWWL, the NBC affiliate on channel 7. Its tower is also home to Waterloo FM KFMW (107.9), which we're told has 16 bays at 1850 feet up on the tower. Wow...

We didn't visit Waterloo itself, so we missed out on stations like KWLO (1330) and KWOF (850, simulcasting with KTOF on 1360). not to mention nearby Cedar Falls and X-bander KCNZ (1650, simulcasting still with KDNZ 1250).

You say there's another AM in Waterloo? Well, of course - but KXEL 1540 knew what it was doing when it built its transmitter site six decades ago. In order to serve multiple markets (while still protecting Bermuda!), KXEL put its two towers in Dysart, Iowa, about 20 miles south of Waterloo and not much farther from Cedar Rapids.

For such a potent signal, the site really isn't all that impressive from the outside. The two towers are fairly short, as befits a 1540 kHz station, and the building has clearly seen better days.

Inside, we're told, is a veritable museum of old transmitters, with a Westinghouse 50kW unit and an old Gates VB50 keeping the current Harris DX50 company.

From Dysart, our early evening found us heading south towards I-80, then west through Brooklyn, Grinnell and Newton to a sunset stop at Iowa's most scenic transmitter site -- but that, and the rest of Des Moines, is a story for Part Five, next Wednesday!