Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Our road trip home from NAB 2017 in Las Vegas rather deliberately skipped over some big chunks of potential tower-hunting and station visits. We knew back in March, as the plans came together, that we’d be back through Denver later in the summer, so it was an easy bit of planning to limit our Front Range time to just a quick lunch, leaving enough daylight on the second day of the trip to make it all the way eastward to Hays, Kansas for our second night.
That still made for 580 long miles of driving, albeit with lots of variety as the Rocky Mountains flattened out into the plains that stretch east from Denver, and that just keep stretching east for hours and hours and hours.
It’s a very empty two hours just to get from Denver to the state line at Kanorado (clever name, right?), and it’s not until just before the state line that we encounter the first broadcast facility along that entire stretch of road: in Burlington, barely five miles from the Kansas line, KNAB (1140) and KNAB-FM (104.1) share a studio and tower just south of the I-70 exit.
The AM daytimer was just shy of its 50th anniversary here; KNAB-FM on 104.1 came along in 1980, with a class C1 signal that covers plenty of miles of I-70 but not much population.
We’d have stopped in for a visit, but it was already pretty late in the day and the door was locked, so it was back on to 70 east and into Kansas.
Even before actually crossing the state line, it wasn’t just the scenery that looked like Kansas – it’s the ground conductivity, too. You don’t need 50 kilowatts to cover a huge area in this loamy soil; with 5000 watts low on the dial, stations like KLOE (730) in Goodland and KXXX (790) in Colby just go and go and go for hundreds of miles.
It’s here that we briefly play some games with space and time: for reasons that now entirely escape us (other than perhaps having been lulled into oblivion by the majestic nothingness of I-70), we didn’t actually get off the highway in Goodland to see KLOE back in April.
That particular photo, at left, had to wait a few more months until our Denver-specific trip in August, whereupon we made a very specific point of getting off at the exit just before Goodland so that we could see the self-supporting KLOE tower off old US 24.
KLOE doesn’t even need 5000 watts to do its potent job – ever since signing on in 1948, it’s covered most of western Kansas and into Colorado and Nebraska with just 1000 watts by day from this self-supporter.
Another 40 minutes east on I-70 brings us to the biggest town since Denver: Colby, Kansas is big enough to have its own college station, KTCC (91.9), located right at Colby Community College on K-25 right off the main I-70 exit into town. Another mile north on K-25 and we’re at the studio of Colby’s big AM voice, KXXX (790).
A fixture in town since 1947, you really, really can’t miss the KXXX studios on the east side of K-25 just south of downtown Colby. Those giant concrete call letters are a remarkable sight, and that was before we noticed the monument on the lawn dedicated to world peace. (Alas, again, it was late in the day and nobody was home to show us around the studios, which are now home to KXXX, KLOE and three sister FM stations owned by Rocking M Media that make up most of the Colby radio dial.)
KXXX’s single tower is off US 24 northeast of downtown Colby; from here, 5000 watts on 790 covers well up into Nebraska (we’d hear it again later in the summer from North Platte), and KXXX even gets out surprisingly well with 24 watts at night.
Continuing east on I-70, it’s dark by the time we get to Hays, another 90 minutes to the east, so we stop for the night before continuing on the next morning with a few tower drive-bys.
Here’s where we say a few words about the very considerable oddity that is the “Wichita-Hutchinson Plus” television market. There may not be a lot of people in that “Plus,” but there are a lot of transmitters and land. Each of the “big three” network affiliates in Wichita, a good 100 miles southeast of Hays, feeds a network of full-power and low-power satellite stations covering substantially the entire western two-thirds of this huge state.
(Its only other TV markets are Topeka to the east, the Kansas side of the Kansas City market east of that, and a wedge of the Joplin, Missouri market at the southeast corner of the state.)
Those satellite networks developed over several decades as tiny local stations in these towns were eventually bought by the bigger Wichita stations.
In Colby, for instance, KLBY (Channel 4) was once its own separate ABC affiliate before joining the “KAKEland” network based at KAKE (Channel 10) in Wichita. Here in Hays, KBSH (Channel 7) was KAYS-TV when it signed on in 1958; now it’s part of the CBS network based at KWCH (Channel 12) in Hutchinson, along with KBSL (Channel 10) in Goodland, which was once KLOE-TV. (NBC is the “KSN” network, anchored at KSNW channel 3 in Wichita and seen out here on KSNC channel 2 from McCook.)
The local Hays sales office and news bureau are still located at the old KAYS-TV building on Hall Street, which is also still home to KAYS (1400 Hays) and its sister FM stations. The radio cluster here hasn’t been co-owned with TV for years; it belongs to the Eagle Radio group that operates small-town radio and cable all over these parts of Kansas and Nebraska.
It’s another long and very wet day of driving ahead of us as this third day of our trip dawns, so there’s time for just one more tower – the single stick of KAYS off old US 40 just west of Hays – before we once again head east on 70 toward much more Kansas and an eventual stop in Columbia, Missouri.
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Next week: Where else? – Central Kansas, 2017