Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
As valuable as the land has become under many AM transmitter sites around the country, there aren’t many spots where the land is so valuable that it makes economic sense to go to the difficulty and expense of combining three AM signals into a single antenna system.
There’s the fairly recent Clear Channel-driven 1200/1330/1600 site at Oak Hill near Boston, which we featured here a few years ago. Before that 1200 signal moved into Boston from the western suburbs, it was briefly triplexed at its original Framingham site with stations on 1060 and 650.
There’s a fairly recent example in Los Angeles, where the 1580/1230 diplex recently added KHJ (930) to the six-tower mix.
There are several examples in Hawaii, where the land values are really crazy – but we haven’t made it there yet to get pictures. So we turn to the nearest mainland spot with insane land values for today’s example.
Welcome to Santa Barbara, where there’s very little flat land between the mountains and the ocean, and a lot of neighbors who don’t want towers on that land – and therefore where we find three of the city’s five AM stations all sharing one Lingo flagpole-style tower in one of the few places where it could have been built: smack-dab in the middle of a city highway department maintenance yard, tucked in alongside US 101 just off Yanonali Street a short distance south of downtown.
This site dates back only to 1975, when Santa Barbara’s oldest station, KDB (1490), relocated here from a previous site it had occupied for 14 years, just across the 101 freeway to the north. Before that, KDB and KDB-FM had been located in “Radio Square,” a shopping center at the corner of De La Vina and Carrilo Streets that its tower had occupied since just after World War II. (KDB itself traces its history back to 1927, operating from several other locations around town before arriving at Radio Square in 1948.)
The KDB engineers must have been busy in the early 1970s; just before the AM hopped across the highway, KDB-FM on 93.7 relocated up Gibraltar Peak, as seen in last week’s Site of the Week.
Once KDB had settled its transmitter here, it ceased to be KDB before long; in 1990, it separated ownership from its classical FM sister on 93.7, which kept the KDB calls. 1490 became KSPE, and those are the calls it uses today, too, though it’s also spent some time as KBKO and KIST in the interim as well.
By the time KDB became KSPE, it had company on this site. Around 1987, Santa Barbara’s AM 1290 moved here from another site a short distance to the south, where Mason Street then intersected with the southern end of Garden Street. This was the last of the city’s five AM signals to sign on, hitting the air in 1962 as 500-watt daytimer KACL from the very studios at Radio Square that KDB had just abandoned. It changed owners and studio locations several times, becoming KKIO and then KESP, and spending some time off the air.
Once it was ensconced here at the KDB site, KESP became KKSB and then KZBN, reflecting the initials of its new owner in 1995, one Bob Newhart. After a decade under Newhart’s ownership, 1290 (now with 120 watts at night as well as 500 watts by day) ended up as the radio voice of the Santa Barbara News-Press, KZSB, and so it remains today, carrying a mix of local talk in the morning and lots of BBC news.
The third station on the triplex arrived here in 1991. KIST (1340) had been more stable than its new tower-mates: founded in 1947, it had spent its entire life up until then at the Balboa Building (also known as the Benjamin Franklin Bank Building) at 735 State Street downtown, with studios downstairs and the tower up on the roof of the seven-story building. There it remained until the bank got new computers and the station couldn’t keep its RF out of them…and so it arrived here on the triplex. Because it had come from a less-efficient rooftop antenna, KIST was only able to run 650 watts here.
Since arriving at this site, 1340’s also been through plenty of changes, operating under several different callsigns (KLDZ, KXXT, KTLK and KIST twice more) and ending up as a sister station to 1490 (which also held the KIST calls for a while) before being sold in 2008 to KCLU public radio out of Ventura County.
So with all that history, what’s an intrepid tower hunter to actually see here? It’s all very compact: the three stations share a tiny transmitter building that’s now divided into three even tinier rooms. From the front door, 1490 (now Spanish-language KSPE) is to the left, with a BE main and a Harris backup transmitter flanking the access to the combiner/filter cabinets mounted on (and nearly filling) the west wall.
KZSB (1290) is straight ahead, with a Harris transmitter in front of the pass-through where the combined transmission line goes out the back wall to shunt-feed the 200-foot tower (which appears to be a little bent up top, for whatever that’s worth.)
And KCLU (1340) is in the little room to the right, where its BE/Harris pair (a mirror-image of 1490’s) have just enough room off to the side for a tiny desk with a last-ditch emergency studio console, just in case.
Now you’ve seen three of the five AMs in town, all in one quick visit on a foggy Sunday morning. We showed you the fourth, KTMS (990), in last week’s installment, and we didn’t see the fifth, KZER (1250), on this trip, because it’s behind a heavily-secured locked gate on the property of a gas company’s storage tanks out to the west, along the coast in Goleta. In next week’s final Santa Barbara installment, we’ll go westward and then north, way up to the Broadcast Peak TV/FM site, and we’ll show you some studios, too.
One more note before we go: just a year or so after visiting this rare AM triplex, we got to see an even rarer AM quad-plex, out on the far less expensive real estate of Minnesota. Stay tuned in the months to come here on Site of the Week as we take you into that amazing seven-tower, four-station technical challenge…
Thanks to Richard Rudman for the tour and to Dennis Gibson for helping to sort out the history!
And don’t miss a big batch of Santa Barbara IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Broadcast Peak and downtown studios, Santa Barbara, 2012