Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
You might call it ghoulish, I suppose, but I prefer to see it this way: as someone committed to preserving as much of the history of broadcast engineering as possible, there’s no higher calling than to document a site before it’s lost to posterity.
And with that in mind, your editor spent much of 2011 and 2012 looking 3000 miles westward and trying to find a way to get to one of America’s most remote broadcast facilities in its waning months on the air.
Those three sand-colored towers to the right, seen in the new Tower Site Calendar 2014, are – well, at least, were – KBRT (740), licensed to Avalon, California and transmitting from the hills of Catalina Island, 20-odd miles off the southern California coast. For years and years, every trip we’d take to the Los Angeles area came with a look out to sea and a “someday, we’ll make it all the way out to see KBRT,” but there was always so much happening on the mainland that we just couldn’t spare the full day it would take to go out to KBRT and back.
But then things started happening out on the island: in the spring of 2007, a contractor working on replacing guy wires at the KBRT site disregarded safety warnings and touched off a massive wildfire with the blowtorch he was using to cut up pieces of the old guys into scrap. The conservancy that owns most of the island’s land decided not to renew KBRT’s lease, and by the turn of the decade owner Crawford Broadcasting was looking to relocate the station to a new mainland home.
That was all the cue we needed to find a way out to the island. In April 2012, your editor and a couple of tower-hunting friends had ferry tickets booked and a visit planned, only to end up having to postpone the trip when KBRT’s engineer had a family health emergency that took him off the island himself.
With KBRT’s time on Catalina running down to its final weeks, we tried again in December 2012, and this time all the pieces fell into place perfectly. On a placid sunny morning, we made the drive up from San Diego to Dana Point in southern Orange County to board the Catalina Express ferry (it also runs from Long Beach and San Pedro in southern LA County), and an hour or so later we pulled into the harbor at Avalon, near the southern tip of the 22-mile-long island.
We got to the island at almost the same time KBRT engineer Bill Agresta arrived for his first visit in several months. After living on the island for more than a decade, Bill was in the process of moving to the mainland, where he’d been hard at work with Cris Alexander and the rest of the Crawford team building out KBRT’s new site high in the hills between Orange County and Corona.
When Bill pulled up at the ferry terminal in his island pickup truck, it was clear he hadn’t been on the island in a while: there was grass growing out of the hood of the truck as we hopped in for the ride up to the KBRT site – and for a scenic tour of Avalon on the way there.
Before heading north to the KBRT site, we headed south to the hills overlooking Avalon harbor, where we got a quick peek at Avalon’s other radio station. Little KISL (88.7) is a 100-watt noncommercial community station that signed on in 1997, and today it transmits from a two-bay antenna attached to a pole next to a reservoir up here in the hills, next to several of the cameras that transmit beauty shots of the harbor back to the mainland TV stations.
Back down the hill, KISL’s studios are located in a little two-room building known as the “Green House,” next to a pocket park just a few steps from the ferry terminal in the compact, charming center of Avalon. (Did you ever see the 1960s TV show “The Prisoner”? Avalon’s kind of like a real-world version of “The Village,” complete with golf carts roaming the streets and fanciful architecture.)
There’s nobody around at KISL to show us the studios, but the windows give us a peek into this little community station, which runs automated much of the time, given how small the local population is to produce live programming. (Avalon has about 3,700 people. representing nearly all of the population on the island.)
If you visit Avalon as a tourist – and tourism is the mainstay of the economy here – you’re either on foot or renting a golf cart. Neither of those modes of transportation will do much to get you to the KBRT transmitter site, which is way up in the hills five miles or so up the twisty mountain road that connects Avalon with the “Airport in the Sky” midway up the island. You can’t take your rented golf cart up that road (and you’d be pretty crazy to try), and there’s a gate that separates the residential part of Avalon from the conservancy-owned land that lies beyond. So you can either ride the tourist bus that goes up to the airport (and to the little village at Two Harbors to the north), or you can catch a ride with Bill, which is what we do.
On the way up, we pass the site where Avalon’s brief TV history happened. In the analog days, there was a channel 54 allocation out here, and even with the distance from the southern California mainland there were still broadcasters willing to try to make it work. The first construction permit was granted out here in 1986, but it wasn’t until 2001 when it was finally activated. It operated only briefly from the island to hold the CP before expiration, using a relatively short antenna on a tower near a reservoir up here, and by the summer of 2001 it had relocated to Mount Wilson as KAZA-TV, the flagship of the Azteca America network. Even now, KAZA-TV is licensed to Avalon, though its transmitter on Mount Wilson is more than 62 miles away.
And with that we finally make our way up to the “KBRT Ranch,” tucked into the hills where Airport Road meets “KBRT Station Road.” The station has been up here ever since its 1952 debut as KBIG, an audacious attempt by maverick engineer John Poole to blanket the southern California coast with an independent 10,000-watt daytime signal to compete against the big Los Angeles stations.
(You can read more about Poole and Catalina’s broadcast history in a story I wrote about KBRT for Radio World back in January.)
For most of KBIG/KBRT’s existence out here, this site has been manned around the clock by engineers who’ve lived at the site. There’s really no other way to do it; even after the FCC allowed unattended operation of directional AMs, KBRT needed someone on the island who could quickly access the transmitter instead of having to wait for the next ferry and then dealing with the nearly hour-long drive up the hill to this site.
By the time we made it out here, the site was already in the early stages of being dismantled. The transmitter room was filled with filing cabinets and equipment destined to be shipped to the mainland, either to the new transmitter site then nearing completion in the Orange County hills or to be sold off or disposed of.
It’s still easy to see what was here, though: a pair of Nautel transmitters that had powered KBRT for the last few decades, first an AMPFET (which would be sold off after this site closed) and then an XL12, which would become the backup transmitter at the new site. To the left of the transmitters were the fairly simple racks of STL and processing gear, including the satellite receiver that went into place after the 2007 fire proved that the phone lines up the hill from Avalon weren’t reliable. (Before the feed from KBRT’s mainland studio in Costa Mesa was restored, Bill and other KBRT staffers played programming live from here, using the little studio next to the racks; that studio also originated local public-affairs programming for Avalon into the 1980s.)
Behind the transmitters, a well-stocked bench area was unusually full of supplies, as it had to be when the nearest Radio Shack contract store was down in Avalon and the nearest full-line electronics outlets were at the other end of the ferry in Long Beach.
The engineer’s residence sat next to the transmitter room, and on the other side of the building was a big open carport that was home to the generator and a whole bunch of Bill’s own personal DJ gear. And out back, on the hill behind the building? That’s an old longwire antenna that’s been used in the past as an emergency backup, and more recently by visiting ham radio operators.
From KBRT, it’s another 20 minutes or so up Airport Road to the “Airport in the Sky, the magnificent Catalina Airport built on a shaved-off plateau 1600 feet above sea level, with a dramatic straight-down drop to the sea at the end of the runway. The airport is something of a tourist attraction in itself, and we enjoy a tasty lunch on the outdoor patio overlooking the Pacific before heading back down to Avalon to catch the boat back to “America.”
In a future Tower Site installment, we’ll show you what we saw the next day – the brand-new KBRT site that was on the air just a few short weeks after our visit. The island site came back on the air again briefly in early 2013 while some tweaking was being done at the new site, but by the middle of 2013 the transmitters had been removed, the equipment was being sold off and the tower site was handed back to the conservancy to be returned to nature. But we saw it before it went away…and now you’ve seen it, too.
Thanks to KBRT’s Bill Agresta for the amazing tour!
This year’s gorgeous electronic pinups includes not only the iconic towers of Catalina Island but also a combiner system in St. Louis, the twin towers of KNRS in Salt Lake City, a historic rooftop site in Jamestown, New York and many more!
If you want a tower calendar on your wall NOW, you can pick up the current edition for just $5 with your 2014 order!
Click here to order your new calendar!
Then check out our store page for our other great merchandise, including the last-ever FM Atlas, the new NRC AM Log and a model of the KSAN tower.
Coming Friday: Boston AMs, 2011