Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If you’ve been following our travels over the decades, you know that one of the bucket lists I’ve been checking off has been the transmitter sites of the 25 giant AM stations that were once classified as “I-A” clear channels.
Today, these 25 stations are part of a larger group of “class A” signals, lumped in with other nearly-as-big signals that were once “I-B.” But they’re still monuments to the days when AM ruled the airwaves, and over the years I’ve had the pleasure of touring the innards of 22 of the 25 and seeing two more from the outside.
(But for Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, the last holdout, WOAI in San Antonio, would have been checked off the bucket list in 2017; it will have to wait a while longer, as will inside visits to WHAS in Louisville and WBAP in Fort Worth.)
Twenty miles south of downtown Denver, the site of KOA (850) had been on our “outside, but not inside” list for years – but we weren’t leaving the Mile High City on our 2017 trip without fixing that.
Before we start showing you everything we saw, let’s hit the history books: as we showed you in last week’s installment, KOA had a showplace transmitter facility (and briefly studio and offices, too) way out on the eastern edge of the city. Built by NBC and GE in 1932-34, it was a landmark for drivers coming in from the east along Colfax Avenue/US 40. But by the late 1950s, it was apparently in conflict with the nearby naval air station (now Buckley Air Force Base) that had sprung up just to the south during World War II. There was pressure on KOA to move, and in 1959 it built its current 750-foot tower in what was then very rural Douglas County.
Unlike the majestic 1930s building on Colfax, this was a low-slung, purely utilitarian box of a building, just big enough to house the new GE transmitter that went in to replace the one and only GE 50 that lasted for the entire run at the old site. It was set far back from Parker Road, then the main highway between Denver and Colorado Springs. (Was this site south of town chosen to maximize coverage over Colorado Springs as well as Denver? Most of the rest of Denver’s big AMs at the time were up north of town, and to this day KOA is the southernmost AM in the market.)
At the outset, there was elevated open-wire transmission line connecting the transmitter building to the tower enclosure just to the south.
(Whether deliberate or accidental, the layout is very reminiscent of what GE ended up with at its sister station, WGY Schenectady, after replacing a big old transmitter building there with a smaller version around this same time. Here in Denver, meanwhile, KOA and sister KOA-TV were also moving studios, relocating to a blocky building on Lincoln Avenue south of downtown that is still in use today, albeit heavily renovated, by the TV station, now CBS-owned KCNC-TV.)
Back out here to Parker Road: the open-wire transmission line is long gone, replaced by buried coax. The GE transmitter is long gone, too, leaving behind a relatively empty room with a Harris DX50 at one end and the current Nautel NX50 transmitter tucked away next to the STL and processing rack.
At some point after the building went up in 1959, a fallout shelter was tacked on to the north side; as with so many such spaces, it’s now mostly storage for old gear and ghosts.
But this site, having been built in the Cold War era, had another shelter already. Behind an inconspicuous concrete slab across from the transmitter building, under a grassy mound, there’s a tunnel. Not too claustrophobic? Good – then get down on your knees, as we did, and crawl through the tunnel that leads down into a big reinforced room full of…well, now it’s just full of shelves and more storage and, one assumes, more ghosts. (And then scurry back up the tube into civilization!)
There is, you may have noticed, no auxiliary tower here – that’s why iHeart has a backup KOA transmitter north of town at the KDSP (760) site we showed you two weeks ago. So what are the little structures dotting the field between the KOA tower and the road? They belong to the local water district, as it turns out. And about that road: in just the decade and a half since we were last here, Parker Road has become a very busy commercial strip, including a Kohl’s that backs right up to the north edge of the remaining KOA land. Will development pressure eventually push the 50,000 watt voice of the Rockies elsewhere? It’s fair to say this is one of the more encroached class A sites around the country.
It’s only about a dozen miles back north to the Denver Tech Center and the office-park building that’s home to the studios of KOA and its iHeart sister stations, but in suburban Denver traffic that can easily mean half an hour or more slogging up I-25.
It’s worth it, though, to connect with our old East Coast pal J.J. Kincaid in his new role as morning ringleader on top-40 KPTT (95.7 the Party) – and, on this August morning, his nervous anticipation of becoming a new dad in just a few weeks, too!
After meeting JJ in the atrium lobby, we start our tour up at the top floor of the building and work our way down.
The fourth floor is where most of iHeart’s music FMs live, in a typical Clear Channel/iHeart configuration that gives each station a pod with a production studio, a call screener/producer area and a main air studio, all nicely equipped with SAS gear. There are four FMs lined up here, all looking out along the front of the building: KPTT, classic rock KRFX (103.5 the Fox), active rock KBPI (106.7, about which more in a bit) and AAA KBCO (97.3).
Before KBCO moved here, it had already established a long tradition of in-studio performances in a space that had been designated “Studio C.” Those Studio C sessions have been featured on a long-running CD series (now on volume 29) and as a full-time format on KBCO’s HD2.
The current incarnation of Studio C is a cozy wedge down at the end of studio row, with a corner performance space and a control room next door. That mixing console under the cover has seen a lot of great music in the last few years, and in good sound-engineer fashion, the strips of tape identifying the elements of each session’s mix are now a decoration on the control room door.
The third floor is where we find the AM side of the cluster, in a somewhat unusual arrangement: studios for KOA, its talk sister KHOW (630) and its sports sister KDSP (760) are all lined up along one outside corner of the floor. They surround a huge bullpen area that serves as the KOA newsroom, offices for the talk hosts and producers and for the “Orange and Blue 760” sports hosts and producers. (iHeart has several of the big sports franchises in town, too, with the Rockies on KOA, the Broncos on KOA and KRFX, and Colorado University football on KOA.)
We’d show you more of this part of the building, but at 11 on a weekday morning just about every studio is hopping with live programming or production, so we get just a quick peek into the 760 control room before moving down the hall.
How did the modern rock station in the cluster, KTCL (Channel 93.3), end up on the back side of the building down here away from its FM sisters upstairs? I don’t know – but there it is down the hall off the back of the newsroom, with a somewhat different studio configuration from that of its upstairs sisters.
Let’s pause for a moment before taking another elevator ride downstairs to admire the art in the elevator lobby. That bizarre metal blob? It’s the melted remnant of part of one of the 760 towers after it took a lightning hit. The rest of the decorations are more obvious, including pieces of the KOA archives such as the studio log and official program booklet from the station’s first night on the air way back in 1924.
Downstairs is mostly offices – but off one side of the building is another performance studio that’s used for KBPI’s Willie B. morning show. The “O’Meara Showroom” is full of branding from a local car dealership, plus a working bar in the adjoining green room, among other decorations.
A few months after our visit, KBPI migrated up the dial to 107.9, combining an iHeart-owned full-power signal up north in the Fort Collins market with another iHeart signal down south in Pueblo and, most critically, a Denver translator, all synchronized on the same frequency. Its old 106.7 frequency was reborn as country KWBL, “the Bull,” and I’m not sure who’s in what studio except the KBPI morning show, which is still down here in the showroom.
A few final stops before we leave: the promotions area, adjacent to the showroom, includes a video studio with a green screen; downstairs in the basement, there’s a tech core that we need to go back and see in detail, as well as a big meeting room lined with banners featuring retired logos.
That’s a lot of radio in just a couple of hours, isn’t it? And yet we’re far from done – join us next week as we go see where all those FMs (and TVs) come from, up in the Rocky Mountain foothills a few miles to the west and a world away.
Thanks to Jason Gorodetzer and JJ Kincaid (successful dad, after all!) for the tours.
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Next week: Up Above Denver, 2017