Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
I’d love to tell you that the small cities of Brookings and Watertown, South Dakota are important places along the trail of radio history, or that there was a special reason why we spent a few hours visiting their sites as part of Big Trip 2013.
But the truth is, they were simply there – and if you’re heading from Sioux Falls north to Fargo, as we were on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in August 2013, maybe it’s just a simple drive for completeness that pulls you off I-29 for a few interesting stops along the way.
We’re big on “complete” here, and so we do indeed exit I-29 some 50 miles north of Sioux Falls to check out Brookings, the state’s fourth largest city and home to South Dakota State University.
KSDJ (90.7) came along pretty late in the game for a college station, signing on in 1993, and whoever’s on the air this afternoon isn’t gracing us with a legal ID, so we’re off to see what lurks in the land of commercial radio here.
These days, that’s all one big happy family: when we visited in 2013, Three Eagles owned the Brookings radio cluster that’s in a fairly new-looking building on South 22nd Street, though it was only a few months later when the company unloaded these stations (and the ones we’ll see in a moment up the road in Watertown) to Dean Goodman’s Digity group.
KBRK (1430 Brookings) is the senior member of this group, having signed on in 1955. KBRK-FM (93.7 Brookings) came along in 1968, and if you look very closely, you can pick out an old FM antenna on the AM stick next to the studio building, though the station’s present C1 facility is out to the west of town.
In Volga, the next town to the west, KJJQ (910) came along in 1981, joined by KKQQ (102.3) in 1984, and both ended up owned by regional broadcaster Dean Sorensen before being folded into the Three Eagles family. (Even under Dean, they had studios here in Brookings, rather than in Volga.) KDBX (107.1 Clear Lake) signed on in 1998 and soon became the fifth station in the cluster.
It’s another 40 miles or so up I-29 as it angles to the west to get to Watertown, just slightly smaller than Brookings (it’s the fifth largest city in the state) but a commercial hub for a vast area of northeastern South Dakota.
Three Eagles (and now Digity) is the dominant local radio presence here, too, having consolidated several groups of stations into one six-station cluster that makes its home at 921 9th Avenue SE, along US 212 just west of the main I-29 exit into town.
KWAT (950) is the oldest station in town, though it wasn’t the first station in town. That was KWTN, formerly KGDY, which lost its license in 1939 when a federal court upheld the FCC’s decision not to renew the license of the Greater Kampeska Radio Corp., which the Commission found to have “demonstrated an unfitness to continue further in the operation of these facilities,” not to mention having acquired KGDY without proper Commission permission.
KWTN’s landlord, Midland National Life, soon applied for the station’s facilities on 1210 and signed on the new KWAT in 1940. KWAT settled down on 1240 the next year under the NARBA shuffle before landing at its current position in 1949. Midland and its successors owned the station (and had its studios at its own building downtown) all the way until 1976, when it changed hands to Sorenson Broadcasting. In 1969, KWAT-FM made its debut on 96.1.
What’s grown from those early Watertown radio days? We stopped by the studios in a little strip office complex to see what the landscape here looks like today.
KWAT does talk these days, and a fair amount of it is local, from a control room and studio on the east end of the building facing out to the parking lot. There’s more talk on KSDR (1480), which came along in 1961 as the second radio station in town.
Down the hall, we find the first FM station in town, which forces us to make a quick digression into TV-land. In 1955, TV came to this corner of the state when Sioux Falls’ KELO-TV (Channel 11) signed on satellite KDLO-TV (Channel 3) in Florence, halfway between Watertown and Aberdeen to the west. (Aberdeen had its own TV station for a while, KXAB channel 9, which later became a satellite of Sioux Falls’ channel 13, first as KCOO while 13 was KSOO-TV, then as KABY after 13 became KSFT. Translators, cable, and several South Dakota Public Broadcasting transmitters fill in the gaps.)
In 1968, the KELO folks added FM service up here with KDLO-FM (96.9), also operating from the KDLO-TV tower to the west, and while KDLO-TV continues as a satellite of KELO-TV, the FM was sold off to Sorensen in 1994 to join KWAT and the former KWAT-FM (96.1), now AC KIXX.
KSDR, meanwhile, added a 100 kW FM of its own in 1992 with the debut of KSDR-FM on 92.9, and when Three Eagles ended up with both Sorensen’s KWAT/KIXX/KDLO and KSDR/KSDR-FM, it kept the country formats on both 96.9 and 92.9. (This is a good part of the world to have two big country stations…)
There’s a fourth FM here now, too, in the form of KKSD (104.3 Milbank), which signed on in 1991 as a sister station to KMSD (1510), the local AM over in Milbank, northeast of Watertown near the Minnesota border. The 104.3 station was KPHR for quite a while, and these days it runs the syndicated “Hippie Radio” oldies format, one of the first stations in the country to sign on with that brand.
There are no transmitters at the studio site, and we don’t have time to head out into the hinterlands to see all the FMs. But we do get to the AMs: KWAT’s three-tower array (it’s 1 kW fulltime, DA-N) is south of town along US 81, while KSDR’s daytime kilowatt (and 53 big watts at night) come from a short tower north of downtown, where US 81 bends east to rejoin I-29.
We don’t have time to go west to the KDLO site, way out west near Garden City, but we do get some peeks from the highway at some of the FM sites that sit east of I-29 as it heads north to the North Dakota state line.
Armada Media is the competition to Three Eagles/Digity around here, and while most of its signals are up north in Milbank and Ortonville, Minnesota, its Ortonville-licensed signal on 106.3 (which has the KPHR calls and rock format formerly on 104.3) booms into Watertown from this tower just off I-29 at Highway 20.
KIXX and KSDR-FM share another tower not far away, and SDPB’s KJSD (90.3) and Milbank-licensed KXRG (99.1) share another tower in the vicinity.
From here, it’s a straight shot up I-29 to the state line, where radio (and population centers) get sparse. Armada owns most of the rest of the dial up here: KJKQ (99.5 Sisseton SD) does “Jack FM” and KBWS (102.9 Sisseton SD) is “Pheasant Country” for the area near the big Sioux reservation; KMSD (1510) is local radio for Milbank, and KDIO (1350) is local radio for Ortonville. We don’t get a chance to see any of those towers, but you’ll hear the IDs on TopHour.com next week.
Thanks to Three Eagles’ Rod Lenning for the tour!
The 2020 Tower Site Calendar will soon be off the press, but orders are already coming in, and we want to keep them coming.
From now through November 11, you can order your copy in advance for 10% off the regular price.
Note to our regular buyers (and our irregular buyers — we love every one of you): This is not this year’s cover, as this year’s calendar is still in production. We promise the real cover will be just as beautiful, if not more.
Visit our store to buy the new calendar and check out our other products.
And don’t miss a big batch of Brookings and Watertown IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Fargo, ND (Big Trip 2013 Part 7)