Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Ask my nine-year-old what was one of the highlights of his 2017, and he’ll tell you “North Platte, Nebraska.”
Why? You’ll see the answer later on in this week’s Site of the Week, our first for the new year. But as we rewind to the first morning of August 2017, the little guy and his mom were just waking up in the luxurious accommodations of the North Platte Econolodge (only the best for our crew!) while your editor was out for an early-morning tour around the radio sights of this historic railroad town in western Nebraska.
We didn’t know anyone at one of the two commercial clusters in town – the “Huskeradio” cluster of four FMs and one AM in a downtown storefront on East 4th Street – so we continued eastward to the other cluster a few blocks away, Eagle Radio’s two FMs and one AM.
Eagle’s an interesting company: it provides cable, internet and phone service to a whole bunch of small communities in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, but it got its start as a broadcaster in Hays, Kansas and still owns small-town radio stations in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
Here in North Platte, Eagle’s three stations line one hallway of its building: top-40 “Mix” KELN (97.1), “Q Country” KNPQ (107.3 Hershey) and sports KOOQ (1410).
There’s a rack room in back, a conference room in front that used to be a main studio – and that’s about the size of this small cluster.
Nearly all of North Platte’s transmitter sites are north of the city where the Platte River’s banks begin to rise up into the hills.
We start our tower tour, however, out to the northwest, passing the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Park on the way out US 30 to the tower of religious KJLT (970), one of three AMs in town.
Coming back into the west side of North Platte, we next pass a tower shared by the two commercial operators in town: Huskeradio’s news-talk KODY (1240) leases tower space to Eagle’s KNPQ (107.3).
US 83, the main north-south drag through North Platte, is also the road that heads north into the sandhills region, past most of North Platte’s towers.
Eagle’s KOOQ (1410) is the first one we pass, with a two-tower DA on the east side of the road.
It’s about two miles north to the tower we really came here to see: KNOP-TV (Channel 2) is another one of those legacy low-band VHF stations that used to be a summertime e-skip regular back home in western New York, and it was kind of thrilling in a geeky way to be looking at the very tower and antenna that sent out a signal we used to routinely watch 1600 miles away. (There’s a newer religious FM up here, too, KFJS 90.1.)
This is a very, very small TV market, mind you – for many years after its 1958 sign-on, KNOP was the only TV game in town, operating from studios right here on the hill under its tower. In more recent years, things have changed pretty quickly: Lincoln-based KOLN/KGIN put a low-power CBS affiliate, KNPL-LD (Channel 25), on the air as “10/11 North Platte” in 2013, and not long afterward KNOP and its sister station, KHAS-TV in Hastings, were sold to Gray and ended up under common ownership with KNPL-LD. The studios up here were vacated in favor of smaller digs downtown, and the branding became “NBC Nebraska 2.” (Despite what you may read elsewhere claiming there’s a North Platte-specific 5 PM newscast on KNPL-LD, and despite our mad rush westward on I-80 to be at the Econolodge in time to record that newscast, KNPL appeared to simply run the Lincoln-based KOLN/KGIN newscast with a separate “10/11 North Platte” bug, leaving the only local North Platte newscasts on KNOP. And yes, KNOP stayed right down there on RF 2 after the digital transition and even now propagates widely by e-skip in the summertime.)
Gray also runs the Fox affiliate out here, KIIT-CD (Channel 11); ABC comes in via the western Nebraska “NTV” network on KWNB-TV (Channel 6) south of North Platte down in Hayes Center, plus a low-power North Platte signal, KHGI-CD (Channel 27).
Two more tall FM towers complete the landscape out here: Huskeradio’s country KXNP (103.5 North Platte) and classic rock KHAQ (98.5 Maxwell) share a site west of the highway, while Eagle’s KELN (97.1) is a little bit farther north.
Which brings us around to the reason the nine-year-old now thinks North Platte, Nebraska is one of the tourism capitals of the world: out on the west side of town sits the largest railroad classification yard on the planet, the Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard.
If you’re a train junkie (and there’s a lot of overlap between train junkies and radio folk, for whatever reason), you could sit here for hours watching the trains move back and forth through the yard – and if you’re going to do that, it’s well worth paying a few bucks to ride the elevator up to the top of the Golden Spike Tower, the visitor center just south of the yard, where UP retirees are happy to tell you all about what’s going on down in the yard below.
After a couple of hours up in the tower, we continue our trip westward, stopping a half-hour to the west in Ogallala. This is one of the tiniest markets in which iHeart operates: there’s a tidy studio building downtown for KOGA (930) and KOGA-FM (99.7), and a two-tower array an hour north of town for KOGA’s AM. (The FM, which does classic hits, shares a tower in Paxton, halfway between North Platte and Ogallala, with two more Huskeradio stations, AC “Sunny” KXTL 93.5 Paxton and rock KRNP 100.7 Sutherland.)
Why is iHeart in Ogallala, of all places? Because Ogallala, of all places, is also the home of what used to be Prophet Systems – and Prophet Systems, even after being merged into RCS, retained its software base out here in western Nebraska, and RCS is owned by iHeart. Not that you’d know any of that to drive through Ogallala, where RCS’ offices hide in near-anonymity a block south of KOGA.
West of Ogallala, I-76 breaks southward from I-80 and crosses into Colorful Colorado, and we spend the last three hours of our westward drive zipping past a few of the radio and TV facilities that serve the sprawling emptiness that is northeast Colorado.
An hour into Colorado, we turn off I-76 at Sterling, where KSTC (1230) sits right astride the exit. The hills east of 76 are home to a few FM sites and one former TV tower: there used to be an analog channel 3 out here, with an interesting story behind it. Channel 3 was originally KDZA-TV down in Pueblo, 200 miles south of here, but a windstorm took down its microwave relay from Denver not long after it signed on in 1955 and the station soon went dark. The rival TV station in Pueblo, KCSJ-TV, then arranged to have the channel 3 allocation moved way up here to Sterling.
It returned in 1963 as KTVS, a satellite of channel 5 over in Cheyenne, Wyoming, later became a satellite of KTVD in Denver, and eventually became an independent station as KCDO. (It was also the most distant e-skip catch I ever logged in the analog era, back in the summer of 2008 before it went away.)
KCDO’s digital facility ended up closer in to Denver, so this tower no longer carries anything, as best I could tell.
Following the trail of KCDO’s move, it’s another hour down I-76 to the twin cities of Brush and Fort Morgan, the last communities before we plunge into the sprawl of greater Denver. We’ve come almost full circle now from the story we began telling last week in this space: remember how KRVN in Lexington, Nebraska moved from 1010 to 880 in 1972? That gap was filled here in Brush five years later when KCMP signed on as a 5000-watt daytimer on 1010. Today, it’s KSIR, with 25 kW from a site north of I-76, and it carries a similar “farm radio” format to the days when 1010 was KRVN.
And our final stop before Denver is just south of 76 on US 34 in Fort Morgan, where KFTM (1400) has been in place since way back in 1949, when this was the main road coming into Denver from Nebraska.
Today, KFTM is part of Media Logic Radio, a group of stations that includes “Bob FM” KSRX (97.5) up in Sterling, KATR (98.3) way up in Otis near the Nebraska line, and KRDZ (1440) in Wray, 80 miles east of here in a remote area where Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas all come together.
That widely-spread group of stations is all represented in the vehicles here in the parking lot; sadly, it’s already past business hours by the time we pull up here, so we don’t get to see what’s inside this old building.
From here, we were off to Denver – and you’ll see a lot of the Mile High City’s radio and TV landscape in our next few installments.
Thanks to Dave Lee at Eagle North Platte for the tours!
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Next week: Denver 2017, part I