Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
It’s always fun when the route of one Big Trip crosses the path of a previous Big Trip – and on a sunny Wednesday in August 2013, our journey westward from southern Minnesota intersected the path of the original Big Trip from way back in 2001.
Back then, we gave Sioux Falls, South Dakota rather short shrift, doing a quick zoom around town in the hour or so before a late summer sunset and not getting inside any of the sites at all.
This time, we have more time and better connections, in the form of longtime South Dakota station owner Dean Sorensen, who’s also a longtime reader of this site and as happy to show us around as we are to be shown around.
Even before catching up with Dean, we’re off to the west side of town to rectify one omission from 2001: we hadn’t had a chance then to get over to the single tower of the 500-watt daytimer on 1520 that was then KSFS. Now it’s owned by a local group called “Cup o’ Dirt LLC” and doing all 80s pop as KZOY, “Sunny 92.1,” augmented by translator K221FO.
Once we hook up with Dean, our first stop is at ground zero of Sioux Falls broadcasting, the downtown corner of Fifth and Phillips, a few blocks south from the stretch of Phillips Avenue that’s become a bustling restaurant district. (Back in 2001, we couldn’t find anywhere to eat at night and ended up at a McDonald’s; this time, we enjoy a nifty diner-style place with a streetside patio.)
Two of the corners of this intersection are occupied by broadcasters, and they’re both called “KELO.” KELO-TV (Channel 11) was South Dakota’s first TV station when it signed on in 1953, and for many years it’s been on the southwest corner here. Over the years, original owner Midcontinent divested its broadcast holdings to focus on cable, and KELO-TV is now part of Media General.
But our tour this morning is across the street at the KELO radio stations, whose path since divestiture from Midcontinent included a few years as the western outpost of Backyard Broadcasting – and which had just changed hands to Duke Wright’s Midwest Broadcasting when we came in for a visit.
The front end of this building, which faces KELO-TV from the east side of Phillips, is home to management and sales, but we make a beeline to the back, where a very neat configuration finds a long row of studios forming an “L” that wraps around a long row of engineering racks. Let’s take a walk down “radio row,” shall we?
When we visited in the summer of 2013, the lineup looked like this: KELO (1320 Sioux Falls), the big news-talk anchor of the cluster, had just begun simulcasting on rimshot KELQ (107.9 Flandreau) to the north. How tied in is this station to its community? So much so that as we’re walking in, the mayor of Sioux Falls is walking out – and so we get our first mayoral welcome to a radio station in a long time!
Next door at the time was the big AC signal in the cluster, KELO-FM (92.5 Sioux Falls); a shuffle a few months later moved KELO-FM’s calls and format up the dial to a somewhat lesser signal at 101.9.
The 107.9 signal was the former home of “Kool” oldies KXQL, and that format migrated down the dial in early 2013 to the Dell Rapids-licensed 95.7 signal, formerly adult hits “Q95.7” KSQB and now rebranded KQSF.
The country station here, KTWB, was on 101.9 from a lesser signal, a C2 northwest of town, before that October 2013 swap (two months after this visit) that moved it to the big 92.5C and sent “Lite” KELO-FM to 101.9.
Toward the far end of the hall, we see the last two pieces of this cluster: sports KWSN (1230) and classic rock KRRO (103.7), about which we’ll see more in a bit.
At the left end of the long line of racks, down by the KWSN and KRRO studios, we see what’s feeding the six-bay antenna on the self-supporting tower behind the building: a frequency-agile transmitter that can become an auxiliary facility for 92.5, 101.9 or 103.7 with the push of a button.
Shall we go see some towers? Indeed we shall, and our first stop is southeast of town on E. 69th Street, off Highway 11, a few miles in from the South Dakota-Iowa border. This interesting old site is today home just to KELO(AM), which runs 5000 watts day and night, directional from four towers at night. But it has a lot more broadcasting in its past, because this is also where KELO-TV started in the 1950s.
When KELO-TV signed on out here in 1953, it was from a 575-foot tower here, but that tower came down in a storm in 1955, replaced by a thousand-footer at the same site. In 1967, KELO-TV moved to a new site (we’ll see more on that in a bit), but the old tower stayed in place here as a backup for many years before eventually being shortened to just a stub holding a KELO-FM backup antenna.
The AM station, meanwhile, had started out in 1937 on a local channel, 1200 kc, shifting to 1230 in the big NARBA reallocation of 1941 and then to 1320 after the war as the regional channels opened up for more signals. Today, it’s a little transmitter in a big room – just a pair of small BE 5 kW units and a phasor in one corner of a space that’s otherwise being used for storage.
Back to 1230: when KELO vacated the channel, it was quickly reoccupied. The new 1230, KISD, was actually granted its construction permit in 1947 and had to wait until the summer of 1948 for KELO to get off 1230 so it could sign on. Over the years, KISD became KKRC, KYFN, KKFN and eventually KWSN. Its current site south of town is a fairly new one, dating only to 1998 when it and sister station KRRO (103.7) moved from an older site near the I-29/I-229 interchange. There’s a neat line of transmitters here for both the AM and FM stations, inside a prefab building, as well as a new FM translator on 98.1 for KWSN.
Sioux Falls’ oldest AM station is just a short drive to the northwest on Southeastern Avenue. KSOO (1140) dates back to 1926. The station spent most of the pre-war era as a daytimer, limited to Richmond, Virginia sunrise/sunset by the dominant station on its frequency (then 1110 kc), WRVA. It was co-owned with KELO in the late 1930s and into the 1940s before the new duopoly rules forced a split, and at one point KSOO even proposed taking over KELO’s former 1230 frequency after the move to 1320. Instead, KSOO went directional from this Southeastern Avenue site in 1952, running 10 kW days, 5 kW nights into five towers.
Today, the transmitter room here houses not only a vintage Gates 10 kW AM transmitter and the current Harris DX10 but also the transmitter of sister FM station KYBB (102.7), which has its antenna on the tall tower out here.
This site has a fallout shelter, too, down a narrow hallway from the main transmitter room. This one has stayed clean and dry, but you still wouldn’t want to be stuck out here very long, I suppose.
At this point we backtrack a bit, largely for layout reasons, to show you one more site from the previous evening: another site we hadn’t seen on the 2001 visit was the studio of Fox affiliate KTTW, on W. 11th Street out by where I-29 winds its way around the west side of Sioux Falls.
What’s that up on the KTTW STL tower? It’s KSFS (90.1), which started out in the hands of American Family Association but has been owned since 2008 by EMF, which runs K-Love on the 18 kW C3 signal here.
KTTW’s own signal (now on RF 7, and using virtual 7 instead of its old analog allocation, 17) comes from a tower out in the farm of very tall sticks east of Sioux Falls near the “tri-point” where South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota converge, and while we don’t get over to that tower, we at least get a drive past NBC affiliate KDLT (channel 46/RF 47) on the way to our last star attraction of the trip, the 2000-footer that’s home to KELO-TV and ABC affiliate KSFY (Channel 13).
This site near Rowena, South Dakota made its debut in 1967 as a joint venture between KELO and what was then KSOO-TV 13, which had signed on in 1960 from a site pretty far north of town near Flandreau. This is the third incarnation of this tower, which had some very bad luck over the years. Not only had KELO-TV lost its original tower early on, it and KSOO-TV lost the Rowena tower in 1968 when an airliner clipped a guy wire, bringing the tower down.A replacement tower came down again in a winter storm in 1975, and the current tower was back up and operational by the end of 1975.
On KSFY’s side of the building, there’s a pretty big empty room housing just the one Harris Platinum cabinet that powers KSFY’s digital VHF signal on 13. The old Harris analog 13 transmitter is gone, with just the nameplate left behind as a memory, and there’s no sign left of KSFY’s interim digital operation on 29, either.
On the other side of the building, more of the history of KELO-TV is evident. The transitional UHF transmitter that operated on RF 32 still sits in what had been a garage, and while part of the old analog 11 Platinum transmitter has been repurposed for DTV, the rest of it still sits here too.
Across the room, KELO-FM (now KTWB) has its vintage Collins next to the current Harris that powers its big signal. Northwestern College’s religious FM, KNWC-FM 96.5, has been out here since 1982, which is presumably when the old blue BE FM transmitter went into its room next to KELO. Much lower down on the tower, the newest FM arrival in 2007 was KDEZ (100.1), a class A that’s part of the Townsquare cluster with KSOO and KYBB as well as several more FMs and KXRB (1000). Sometime we’ll have to come back and see more of them!
Thanks to Dean Sorensen and the engineering staffs of Midwest and Townsquare for the tours!
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Next week: Brookings and Watertown, South Dakota (Big Trip 2013 part 6)