Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If you’re from Rochester, New York and you travel widely around the country visiting cities with broadcast stations, you’ll eventually end up in another sizable market called “Rochester.” After coming within an hour’s drive of Minnesota’s Rochester on multiple occasions, that day finally arrived on a rather damp Monday in August, 2013, as the Big Trip itinerary swung eastward from the previous night’s stop in Mankato before turning westward and heading for the Dakotas.
There are a lot of similarities between my Rochester and this alternate-universe version: high-quality hospitals, I-90 slicing its way through the landscape south of – but not quite through – the city, and both cities even have NBC affiliates on channel 10.
Rochester, Minnesota’s version started out in 1953 as KROC-TV (and for many years paralleled our WROC-TV here in Rochester in the NBC family). It’s been KTTC (“Total Tri-State Coverage”) since current owner Quincy Newspapers took over 1976, and it’s only been at its current home here on Bandel Road at the north end of town since the turn of the century, when it relocated from its longtime downtown location.
This may not be a particularly scenic location, on an industrial frontage road that overlooks the US 52 freeway heading north to Minneapolis, but it’s a functional home carved out of a big rectangular strip-center space for KTTC and the Fox affiliate it operates under a shared-services agreement, KXLT (Channel 47).
From the lobby at the front corner of the building, we move back through rack rooms into the control room that looks into the sizable studio where KTTC and KXLT originate their newscasts, and then back beyond that into the stations’ newsroom, which in turn looks through big glass walls into a master-control suite that was being renovated when we stopped by.
The sign from the old downtown studio (now demolished) hangs in the garage over one of KTTC’s live trucks. This is probably a good point at which to note the strange, sprawling nature of the TV market in which KTTC resides: it includes not only a huge swath of southeastern and southern Minnesota from Rochester all the way over past Albert Lea, 60-plus miles down I-90, but also a big chunk of north-central Iowa centered on Mason City, a nearly two-hour drive from Rochester.
As we saw some years back when we visited Mason City, the CBS affiliate there, KIMT (Channel 3) is the dominant local news source for the Iowa side of the market; KTTC/KXLT thus ends up competing with ABC affiliate KAAL (Channel 6), based over in Austin to the southwest, for the Minnesota audience, even though all of these stations all appear on cable and satellite across the market. To make it all work, the stations all have tall towers located in the rolling hills along the Minnesota-Iowa border, 30 miles or so due south of Rochester.
(Some Minneapolis TV also makes it to cable in Rochester, and even in the DTV era KTTC maintains an over-the-air presence 50 miles to the east of Rochester in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where translator W50DR-D brings its signal into a market where the official NBC affiliate is Eau Claire’s WEAU-TV, off at the other end of that sprawling market. And yes, KTTC is the station that maintained the last translator still standing above channel 69 – K70DR in Blue Earth, at the western edge of this market, which lasted until 2011.)
With a few hours of summer daylight still beckoning and the skies finally clearing, we set off from our late-afternoon KTTC tour to see some of the towers that dot the Rochester area. Our itinerary doesn’t include enough time to go south to the TV towers, alas, but we’re able to explore the rolling terrain around the city. This Rochester sits in a valley, and as we approach the hills that line the west side of town, we pass the lakes and parks of the west side, where KROC (1340)’s current tower sits next to Cascade Lake just south and west of the US 52/US 14 interchange.
The site where KROC-TV began back in 1953 is up at the top of the ridge on Country Club Road, where its original tower has been shortened considerably and a heating company now occupies the site where its first studios were located. Today, the shortened tower is home to religious KFSI (92.9) and K289BO (105.7), which in turn relays a regional Christian network from KJCY (95.5 St. Ansgar IA). Continuing westward out US 14 takes us near Byron, Minnesota, where Cumulus country station KWWK (96.5) has its tower. (Yup – there’s a class B FM on 96.5 in both that Rochester and mine, too.)
Like my home Rochester, Minnesota’s version finds most of its directional AMs off to the south and a little east of downtown. Here, though, there are just two: KFAN (1270) uses three towers for 5 kW by day and all four for 1 kW at night, from a site down a dead-end street just east of the busy South Broadway commercial strip off the US 52 bypass. For most of its life since signing on in 1957, 1270 was KWEB; it inherited the KFAN calls when Clear Channel needed a place to park them after shuffling signals in Minneapolis and moving the flagship of its “KFAN” sports network from KFAN (1130) to KFXN-FM (100.3). The calls “KFAN-FM” were already taken in Texas, and the Minneapolis AM went talk, first as KTCN and now KTLK…and so KWEB became the official “KFAN.”
Our next stop is a bit of a mystery: KOLM (1520 Rochester) has been around since 1959, taking its calls from OLMsted County, and for most of its existence this signal was a daytimer, powering down its 10,000 watts to protect Oklahoma City and Buffalo on the same channel. In 2000, very late in the game for AM, KOLM added 800-watt night service, and it did so with a brand-new six-tower site separate from its longtime non-directional daytime home. (Just to make things even more complicated, that shorter second tower at the day site comes into play during critical hours, when KOLM stays at 10 kW but switches in a directional pattern to protect its co-channel neighbors.
Why didn’t KOLM just move its day facility to the new night site, only half a mile or so to the north along 30th Street SE? I do not know, and the only guess I can offer is that the tallest of the six night towers, at 190 degrees, is a little shorter than the 225-degree day tower and thus less efficient.
At this point, we’re near sunset, but there’s still time to head over to the hills rise up east of town to see one more FM site. We’d stopped to get some pictures looking eastward from the west side of the Silver Creek Reservoir when the phone rang – and suddenly what we’d expected to be just a drive-by turned into an evening tour and dinner with one of the region’s more remarkable broadcasters.
Tom Jones founded KNXR (97.5) in 1965, and this station has become a rarity in almost every way imaginable: it’s a standalone 100 kW FM in a cluster world, it’s still playing beautiful music in an era when that music is all but defunct, and it’s still owned and operated by the same man who turned it on all those years ago.
KNXR partnered up with Minnesota Public Radio in the 1980s to build a 1000-foot tower out here on the east side of the reservoir, and their partnership ended up providing a home for not only KNXR itself but also nearly the entire educational end of the FM dial. Today, all three of MPR’s networks have signals here: news on the big signal at 91.7, now KZSE after a 2011 format/call flip; classical on lower-powered 90.7, which took the KLSE calls in the 2011 flip (it was originally KLSX when it signed on in the 1980s, then became KZSE when the KLSX calls went to Los Angeles); AAA “Current” on KMSE 88.7, which came along when MPR bought what’s now Current flagship KCMP 89.3 Northfield from St. Olaf College. (St. Olaf had run 88.7 as a simulcast of 89.3 in its classical WCAL-FM days.
Tom has a noncommercial signal out here, too: his Rochester Public Radio acquired KRPR (89.9) from the local technical college and now runs it with commercial-free classic rock.
After many years in the Holiday Inn downtown, Tom’s United Audio group moved to a purpose-built facility in the 1990s. The building on Greenview Drive, right off the 52 bypass in an upscale area of shopping centers and office parks on the southwest side of town, is a showplace, designed not only for radio but for the more demanding acoustic needs of recording, and even though it’s undergoing some renovations as Tom downsizes the KNXR/KRPR operation and leases out some of the office space, it’s still plenty impressive – and impressively quiet, too.
Tom is justifiably proud of the high quality of KNXR’s audio and of its unique sound; among the station’s features is a nightly block of “Patterns in Music,” the show the late John Doremus produced for many years in Chicago. After Doremus’ death in 1995, Jones acquired his extensive archives and has been busy digitizing and restoring them.
This is the spot where I’d love to be able to say that as KNXR approaches its 50th anniversary, it’s still going strong and the beautiful music will keep flowing to the extensive 97.5 listening area (the signal gets east into Wisconsin quite well and is audible southward into Iowa and north almost to the Twin Cities) for many years yet to come.
Alas, even the last of the beautiful music holdouts are fading fast. Down in Jacksonville, WKTZ (90.9) ended its run with the format this week – and as we write this, a year and a few months after taking these pictures, KNXR’s days on 97.5 are winding down, too. Just before our visit, Tom had launched a listener support drive to raise some of the money that wasn’t coming in from advertisers the way it used to do. A legal battle with MPR over the tower-site partnership that started not long after our visit drained some of Tom’s resources, and this autumn he announced the sale of the 97.5 facility and (optionally) the share in the tower to Hometown Broadcasting over in Albert Lea. The sale doesn’t include this building, and while Jones hasn’t said so, our hope is that the KNXR format and calls might live on a while longer from here on what’s now the KRPR 89.9 facility.
(One more secret about this building: it was never completed! There’s a big empty space at the center of it that was supposed to become a large recording studio, but as the economics of studios changed, too, it never got built out.)
There is, of course, the usual complement of commercial cluster radio here, too. The same office landscape that’s home to KNXR/KRPR’s building is also home to the Clear Channel cluster, up on the second floor of a rather more nondescript building across the street. The Clear Channel – iHeart, now – group here is rather small: in addition to sports on KFAN (1270), it’s just two FMs, active rocker KRCH (Laser 101.7) and country “Fox” KMFX (102.5 Lake City). KRCH transmits from out in the west hills, past KWWK’s site; KMFX rimshots Rochester from a site to the north.
Our final Rochester stop is also our only downtown stop, and it’s a neat one.
KROC (1340) is the oldest station in town, dating back to 1935, and that history is visible on the walls of the compact studio building it shares with its Cumulus sisters at 100 4th Avenue SW, a few blocks south of the Mayo Clinic and just three blocks south of KROC’s longtime home in the “100 First Avenue Building” at the center of downtown.
One wall of the current KROC building (facing the parking lot where I believe the KROC-TV/KTTC building used to be) is painted with a giant vintage radio, and inside there’s a nifty photo of the original KROC radio tower, up there on the west hill where the TV tower was later built (and where KFSI now transmits).
The ground floor of this building is home to sales and business offices, with all the studios upstairs, and there’s a lot of radio packed into the studio space here that was originally built for just KROC and its sister station KROC-FM (106.9).
Those two stations still occupy pride of (windowless) place at the core of this line of studios: KROC(AM) is still live and local, at least in mornings, with a full-service morning show that’s winding down as we show up, and KROC-FM is the big top-40 voice for the region, with 100 kW from the KTTC tower way to the south and a translator in town on 106.3 for better downtown reception.
The rest of the cluster includes country KYBA (105.3 Stewartville), also down in the tower farm and also augmented by a translator (on 104.9) in the city; oldies KVGO (104.3 Spring Valley), rimshotting Austin and Rochester from the tower farm; sports on KOLM (1520), tucked into a small room that also serves as the rack room for much of the facility; and the curious pair of stations known as “Z-Rock, The Rock of Rochester,” KDZZ (107.7 St. Charles) and KDCZ (103.9 Eyota). They’re both class As, and they simulcast from the very same tower out in the eastern hills past the KNXR site.
Why the simulcast has endured isn’t quite clear to us – and it’s endured through a big change, too: not long after our visit, this entire Cumulus cluster was sold to Townsquare, and so these are now Townsquare stations.
In our next installment, we move quickly across a wide swath of southern Minnesota, complete with a stop for Spam!
Thanks to KTTC’s Tim Morgan, KNXR’s Tom Jones and the staff at Cumulus Rochester for the tours
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Next week: Austin, Albert Lea and across Southern Minnesota (Big Trip 2013 part 4)