Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
True confession time: in many years of travel, all over the country and even the world, there are few towns that have so profoundly failed to make a good first impression as did Farmington, New Mexico on the Sunday night in April 2011 when our “Big Trip” came rumbling down the highway heading south out of Durango, Colorado. Maybe our expectations were set unjustifiably high by how pleasantly we’d been surprised by our day in Durango (chronicled here for your viewing pleasure.) Or maybe it’s just that Farmington on a dusty Sunday night when you don’t know a soul in town is simply not a very impressive proposition. Unlike Durango’s dramatic mountain setting, this is a flat, more sprawling commercial center, and unlike Durango’s vibrant restaurant scene, the options for a late Sunday meal in Farmington proved rather unimpressive. (In the end, if memory serves, we settled on Blake’s, the only-in-New-Mexico chain of fast-food joints famous for their green chile burgers.)
But if we’ve learned anything from all those years and all those miles of travel, it’s this: always give a town a chance to make a second impression. Because after a good night’s sleep, we saw a very different side of Farmington on Monday morning. In fact, for a variety of reasons, that Monday may have earned a place on our list of “most memorable days of travel, ever.”
It started a few miles east of downtown Farmington, when we pulled up for our by-appointment-only tour of Tommy Bolack’s Electromechanical Museum, located on the Bolack family’s B-Square Ranch, a 12,000-acre expanse that spans the San Juan River between US 64 and the mesa that rises to the south of Farmington. The ranch was founded in 1957 by Tom Bolack, a former Farmington mayor who later served in the New Mexico House of Representatives, became lieutenant governor in 1960 and then served one month as governor in 1962. Bolack made a fortune in the oil business and parlayed that into ownership of a minor league baseball team (the Albuquerque Dukes, who preceded the current Isotopes) and a passionate interest in environmental conservation.
Bolack’s son Tommy, in turn, has grown the ranch into a remarkable combination of a working business (there are still oil wells dotting the property, where 650 head of cattle are raised), a wildlife-preservation center and one of the most unusual museums you’ll see anywhere.
For that, the credit goes to Tom Bolack’s son Tommy, who’s a man of many diverse interests. Like your editor, he’s a numismatist (though, unlike your editor, he’s assembled a world-class collection that’s especially strong on error coins.) Like your editor, too, Tommy Bolack has long had a passion for the technical history of broadcasting – but unlike your editor, he has the wherewithal to collect pretty much without limit…which is why we find ourselves slack-jawed this Monday morning at the entrance to the Bolack Electromechanical Museum, a 15,000-square foot warehouse full of some of the most wonderful equipment we’ve ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on.
The gem of this collection (at least the broadcast piece of it) is over to the left as we enter: the only RCA 50E transmitter still known to exist, carefully moved up here after being removed from its original home at the KOB (770) transmitter site down in Albuquerque that we’d seen a few days earlier.
The mighty 50E is just part of an enormous collection here that includes a whole bunch of transmitters retired from service in the Four Corners region and beyond. Next to the 50E is an older RCA 5D that was KOB’s transmitter before the RCA entered service (that one, I think, would have moved up from Las Cruces to Albuquerque). Then there’s KOB-TV (Channel 4)’s first transmitter…not to mention old Gates transmitters from several AM and TV stations in the Four Corners.
I think some of those AM boxes above at right belonged to KIUP (930) in Durango and were probably removed from service when KIUP relocated (more on that in our Durango installment), while others came out of Farmington’s KRZE (1280), but the details are almost irrelevant amidst all this amazing stuff.
These pictures show only a small piece of the whole collection: there are TV cameras, VTRs, production consoles – and then a huge amount of non-broadcast material. You want traffic lights? Tommy’s got those. Power meters of all varieties? Yup.
How about entire control panels from hydroelectric power plants? There are several of those, each filling an entire wall. And then there are the insulators. I’m no expert, but this is said to be the world’s most comprehensive collection of glass and ceramic insulators.
The good stuff (or so I’m told) is individually mounted on hundreds of wooden supports inside, and the extras are piled up in vast mountains of green glass outside, within sight of the steam locomotive and the DC-3 that are also part of the collection. (Yes, I said DC-3.)
Want a VHF TV broadcast antenna? There’s one of those outside, too – that’s the former KOBF-TV (Channel 12) antenna standing out behind the museum, in front of the very mesa from which KOBF transmits in its current configuration, which we’ll see in a bit.
And if all of that defunct broadcast equipment still isn’t enough, there’s something else here on the ranch, too: the still-active three-tower site of American General Media talker KENN (1390) occupies one corner of the property, running 5 kW by day (non-directional) and 1300 watts at night from a butterfly-shaped pattern using all three towers.
So what about the rest of Farmington? Here’s what we saw in a quick drive around town before continuing westward to the actual Four Corners and then deep into Navajo Nation: Clear Channel’s Fox Sports AM, KCQL (1340), operates from Aztec, ten miles or so to the northwest, but its studio is on East Broadway along with the rest of this cluster, which has to be one of the company’s smallest. In addition to KCQL, there are four FMs in the group: rocker KDAG (96.9 Farmington), country KTRA (102.1 Farmington), top-40 “Star” KAZX (102.9 Kirtland) and classic hits “Kool” KKFG (104.5 Bloomfield).
Look closely at the door on the right side of the building and you’ll see signage for another AM: KRZE (1280) is the local Spanish-language voice, with a transmitter site between Farmington and Aztec that we couldn’t quite get to – and when we visited in 2011, its license had actually been deleted, though it was later restored.
The other big cluster in town belongs to American General Media, and its studio at 212 W. Apache Street is a few blocks north of Clear Channel. The building itself is relatively undistinguished, but check out that cool old sign out front, which I suspect was moved here from somewhere else. (Bet Tommy Bolack would love to have that in his collection…)
AGM’s cluster includes talker KENN (1390), rocker KRWN (92.9, as seen on the sign), country “Kiss” KISZ (97.9 Cortez CO), hot AC KRTZ (98.7 Cortez CO), and a station that signed on after our 2011 visit, KPRT (107.9 Kirtland).
Moving to the west edge of downtown, at 1105 W. Apache we find the studio of a three-station religious cluster. KPCL (95.7 Farmington) and its sister stations KTGW (91.7 Fruitland) and KLJH (107.1 Bayfield CO) each maintain extensive networks of translators around the Four Corners to carry their programming, branded as “Passion,” “The Word” and “Superstation,” respectively.
On West Main Street, a block south of Apache and a few blocks west of KPCL and its sister stations, we come to the last Farmington radio studio on our agenda. KWYK (94.9 Aztec) plays adult contemporary music, carrying on a tradition that began when the KWYK calls debuted in 1957 on AM 960. The AM station transitioned in the 1980s to an all-Navajo format as KNDN (“K-Indian”), becoming the first station in the country to broadcast entirely in Navajo.
We weren’t expecting a tour, just a quick snap of the building and the tower, but then station manager Dana Childs came out for a smoke and we started talking, and there we were inside the building. On the FM side, KWYK was (and is) mostly automated, though Childs was then doing the morning show (he’s since moved on to a new gig in Albuquerque). But you can’t really automate the very full-service Navajo format on KNDN, and it’s live and local during the hours the station is on the air (it signs off at 10 PM nightly).
There’s a little booth out in the lobby next to the entrance that houses a microphone and a tape recorder so visiting Navajo tribal members can record messages to be broadcast to friends and relatives across the sprawling Navajo Nation. Beyond that, a window looks into the main KNDN air studio, where the DJ’s perch looks right across the room at the transmitters behind glass doors. Most of the station offices are open desks in a big central area of the building, and KWYK’s studio sits in a former production room toward the back.
Before we head onward and upward to see the KWYK tower, there’s one more studio facility in town that needs our attention, also out here on the west end of the city.
KOBF (Channel 12) is a satellite station of Albuquerque’s KOB (Channel 4), providing NBC to the Four Corners region. Today, this area is considered to be simply part of the enormous Albuquerque TV market, with all the major Albuquerque affiliates represented here either by high-powered translators or satellite stations. (CBS affiliate KRQE 13 from Albuquerque is seen over KREZ-TV 6 up in Durango, ABC affiliate KOAT 7 briefly operated DTV relay KOFT on RF 8/virtual 3 before surrendering the full-power license and replacing it with a high-power translator, and PBS and Fox are represented by translator signals.)
Back in the day, though, KREZ in Durango and channel 12 in Farmington represented their own small Four Corners TV market. What’s now KOBF signed on in 1972 as KIVA-TV, with local newscasts that remained even after KOB-TV bought the station and turned it into a satellite in 1983. It wasn’t until 2007 that the local newsroom was closed down, becoming a small one-reporter bureau that feeds stories to the Albuquerque newsroom.
The KOBF transmitter sits on the mesa a few miles south of town, where several clusters of towers straddle Route 371 as it winds its way up from the city to the plateau above.
The original high-powered FM and TV sites appear to have been mainly to the east of the highway – at right as seen in the view above, looking north and down at the city.
The fat painted tower at right is KOBF, and we know where its original antenna is now to be found, down at the B Square Ranch. In its DTV incarnation, KOBF is still on RF channel 12, running 30 kW up at this site.
The northernmost FM site here is KWYK, also shown at left. It’s one of several FMs in this cluster of towers; adjacent towers are home to San Juan College’s KSJE (90.9), the local public radio outlet, and to religious KTGW (91.7) and a 2900-watt on-channel booster for its sister station KLJH (107.1 Bayfield CO).
Many of the towers on the west side of the highway (at left above, and in a closer view below as well) are used for non-broadcast purposes, but there’s some FM on that side, too.
Right across the highway from KOBF is American General Media’s FM tower, which is home to KRWN (92.9) as well as a 5 kW on-channel booster for KISZ (97.9 Cortez CO) – and since our visit, this tower has also added their new sister station, KPRT (107.9). And there’s one more tower to the south, not shown here, that’s home to two relays of Four Corners Public Radio from Colorado, KUSW (88.1 Flora Vista) and KUUT (89.7 Farmington), as well as religious KNMI (88.9) and several TV translators.
And with that, we said farewell to a city that turned out to be much more interesting on Monday morning than it appeared Sunday night – and we headed off to the Four Corners Monument and Navajo Nation, which we’ll show you next week as we wrap up our look back at “Big Trip 2011, part 2.”
Thanks to the B Square Ranch and to KNDN’s Dana Childs for the tour!
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Next week: Four Corners/Navajo Nation, 2011