Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
There are mountaintop transmitter sites. And then there’s Mount Wilson.
It’s been a while since we’ve featured America’s largest-market mountaintop tower farm here on Tower Site of the Week: back in 2005, we presented an annotated look at a whole bunch of towers up here, focusing on the “Mount Alta” cluster at the center of the mountain (see part I here and part II here!)
Time flies when you’re all over the country, looking at other prominent mountaintops such as Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque and Deer Point above Boise – but we always come back, eventually, to the mighty Mount Wilson, if only because there’s always something else to see here.
In April 2012, on an LA trip that followed our annual pilgrimage to the NAB convention up the road in Las Vegas, the big buzz in town was the transition venerable public TV station KCET (Channel 28) was undergoing. In 2010, after forty years as a major member station of PBS, KCET found itself unable to come to terms on a renewal of its membership, and so its leadership took a big gamble on becoming an independent noncommercial outlet. The aftermath of that decision found KCET selling the Hollywood studio lot on which it had operated since 1971, relocating to a smaller facility in Burbank. We missed the chance to see the Hollywood facility by just a few days, sadly (it’s now owned by the Scientologists!), but we did get an invitation to come up and see the transmitter plant – and we never say no to those when the opportunity arises.
KCET signed on from Mount Wilson in 1964, staking out what turned out to be the easternmost tower site along the mountain, adjacent to the KTTV (Channel 11) complex along the road leading back from Mount Alta to the Mount Wilson Observatory. In almost half a century up here, the transmitter building is about the only thing that hasn’t changed.
KCET’s own transmitter still occupies the main transmitter room on the first floor of the building. When we stopped by, it was just a few years after the digital transition, which flash-cut that Harris channel 28 transmitter from analog to digital service. KCET’s interim DTV channel, 59, was out of core, and its interim transmitter was still tucked away upstairs, now out of service.
In 1973, KCET got some company on the public TV dial in Los Angeles when the LA Unified School District secured the license for KLCS (Channel 58). Designed as a vehicle for educational and instructional programming, KLCS has become more of a mainstream PBS player since KCET went independent – but whatever competition may exist on the programming side, it’s all friendly cooperation up here on the mountain, where KLCS is a tenant in the KCET building. Its old channel 58 analog transmitter sits in a back room, and its channel 41 digital transmitter is just around the corner from KCET’s own transmitter, feeding an antenna on a shorter tower out back next to KCET’s own tower.
(The main PBS service for southern California is now KOCE, channel 50, which operates out of Orange County but has its transmitter up here on Mount Wilson, as featured in one of those 2005 installments; we’ll catch up with its new studio later in this trip.)
Over the years, KCET’s building has acquired a room full of tenants upstairs, too, including two of the more recent FM stations to call Mount Wilson home.
KKLA (99.5) is Salem’s religious talk station for the market, on a frequency that’s always been religion of one form or another. For a long time, this was KHOF, the FM outlet of Dr. Gene Scott’s offbeat ministry, operating from a site much lower down in Glendale. As KKLA, 99.5 ended up over at the Flint Peak FM site in Glendale (which had been home to an earlier “KKLA” on 97.1 in the 1950s), and then in 1994 it moved up to Wilson, trading power (30 kW down to 10 kW) for height (878 meters above average terrain from Wilson, compared to 204 meters from Flint) as it settled in at the KCET site. KKLA uses a directional panel antenna mounted near the top of the KCET tower, and it had just finished an upgrade to that antenna when we stopped by, with pieces of the previous panel still on the ground waiting to be scrapped.
Also upstairs is KSCA (101.9 Glendale), Univision’s top-rated Spanish-language outlet and another fairly recent transplant from Flint Peak up to Wilson. It had also recently completed an antenna replacement when we arrived, with a brand-new ERI 4-bay on the tower and the previous antenna on the ground.
From the KCET site, we can look westward (above left) toward the Fox/KTTV compound and its multiple towers, and beyond those to the Mount Alta cluster of towers, and southward (above right) to Mount Harvard in the distance, home to KUSC (91.5), KSCI (Channel 18), KPXN (Channel 30) and KRCA (Channel 62). Right next door to KCET sits the transmitter building of TBN’s flagship, KTBN (Channel 40), where the tower looks rather denuded without the top-mounted analog antenna; KTBN’s digital signal on channel 23 comes from a side-mounted antenna just below the top of the tower.
If you’re ever up on Mount Wilson on a day (usually a weekend) when the access road to the Observatory is open, you’ll be lucky enough not only to drive by the Fox/KTTV and KCET/KTBN compounds but also to be able to get to the parking lot just beyond KCET, which offers the most spectacular panoramic view of all the Mount Wilson towers. The Mount Alta sites are off in the distance to the left here (above center), with the KCAL (Channel 9)/KCBS (Channel 2) tower, the UHF candelabra (KOCE/KDOC/etc.), Univision TV (KMEX/KFTR), KNBC (Channel 4), KABC (Channel 7) and KTLA (Channel 5) sites prominently visible. Then there’s the Fox cluster of towers, including their fairly new candelabra, and in the foreground at right the KLCS, KTBN and most prominently the KCET tower.
This Mount Wilson visit wrapped up on the west end of the tower farm, among the shorter towers that line Red Box Road on the approach to Mount Alta. There are three potent FMs up here, each at individual sites they staked out early in the mountain’s FM development, and while we’ve shown them to you from the outside before, we’d never been inside any of them until now.
KPFK (90.7) boasts the very biggest FM signal from the mountain, a whopping grandfathered 110 kW/863 m that makes it one of the most potent FMs in the entire country, and over the years it’s used some interesting transmitter configurations to get there. Veteran KPFK engineer Don Mussell has a page full of pictures of the 1982 version of the site, using a pair of Sparta-Bauer transmitters, as well as the 2001-2002 rebuild that brought in a 60 kW Armstrong solid-state transmitter, which has since been augmented by an even newer solid-state Nautel NV20, all in the very same building from which KPFK signed on back in 1959. That’s the original KPFK tower, too, now with a Shively auxiliary antenna at the top and a Jampro four-bay main antenna just below.
Two other FMs also came to Mount Wilson in the late 1950s: 1959 also brought the debut of KBBI (107.5), just to the east of KPFK and right next to the longtime site of KCOP (Channel 13). KCOP eventually moved in with sister station KTTV over at the Fox compound on the other side of Mount Alta, and its former transmitter building has been razed, but 107.5 is still going strong next door. It’s now Univision Radio’s KLVE, running a pair of Harris transmitters inside its little green building.
And the third 1959 debut along Red Box Road is right next door to KPFK: Saul Levine’s KBCA (105.1) later became KKGO, KMZT, and once again KKGO as “Go Country,” and while we didn’t get inside its building, you can see its tower looming into the frame of the KPFK shot above.
Thanks to KCET’s Jeremy Howard and Univision Radio’s Tom Koza!
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This year’s gorgeous electronic pinups include the iconic towers of Catalina Island, 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!
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Next week: Some LA studios (and an AM site), 2012