Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Not many broadcast facilities have required an act of Congress to be built – but not many broadcast facilities are as unusual as the TV tower up on Lookout Mountain that brings four of Denver’s biggest stations to millions of viewers down below.
More than 2,000 feet above the city, yet just a few miles to the west, Lookout was a natural place for television broadcasting once the medium finally got to Denver in 1952. Over the course of a year, each new station that signed on built its own tower up here in the hills near Buffalo Bill’s grave, creating a forest of short towers overlooking the city.
By the turn of the millennium, those sites were aging and digital TV was on the horizon – and so CBS-owned KCNC (Channel 4), McGraw-Hill’s ABC affiliate KMGH (Channel 7), Gannett’s NBC affiliate KUSA (Channel 9) and its sister station KTVD (Channel 20) and public broadcaster KRMA (Channel 6) all decided to band together to create a joint venture called the Lake Cedar Group, charged with building a new master TV site on the brow of the mountain, just downhill from the existing KCNC site.
A massive NIMBY battle ensued, as wealthy homeowners up on the mountain and down below in the city of Golden launched a legal fight against the project, citing everything from cancer fears to concerns that the new tower might somehow tumble down the mountain into Golden and damage homes below. Golden city officials attempted to condemn the proposed site, far outside city limits; meanwhile, the Lake Cedar stations were unable to launch digital TV from their old sites up at Lookout, making Denver one of the last markets to get DTV. When digital transmissions finally made it to the air from these stations, it was with low power from a downtown Denver skyscraper, with only partial coverage of the sprawling market.
That’s where Congress came in: in late 2006, it passed a bill overriding local zoning control and allowing the Lake Cedar Group (now minus KRMA, which decided to stay at its old site) to begin construction at the mountain’s edge. Construction started in early 2007; by early 2008, the Lake Cedar stations finally began to sign on their new digital signals, and by 2009 the old towers had come down. And in 2017, we finally made it up the mountain to see this fascinating site close up.
To get here from Denver, you drive up – most expediently on I-70 westward from Denver – and then, once you’ve made it through the looping road along Lookout Mountain to the Lake Cedar gate, you head back down again to the mountain’s edge and the transmitter building. It’s a multi-story affair, but only the top story is above ground level, clad in a deep brown that blends in to the mountainside.
After taking a moment to admire the 730-foot tower and its challenging guy system (some anchors are down a 20-degree slope from the tower base), we admire the view down into the valley, especially the big Coors brewery downhill in Golden, then head inside.
The top floor of the building, which opens directly out to the patio in back and that spectacular view, is shared by KUSA/KTVD and KMGH. Both KUSA and KMGH went back to their VHF channels after the DTV conversion, and both have similar Harris Platinum transmitters that sit right next to each other in this big space, each next to an engineering office for each station. (KUSA’s room has some historical memorabilia out by the door, including an old “KBTV” sign, the station’s original calls, salvaged from its old transmitter site.)
KTVD was in the midst of a transmitter replacement project when we stopped by; its transmitter sits in the middle of the room, adjacent to the filters and combiners for channels 7 and 9, which share a VHF antenna.
The scale model of the mountain that was made for community meetings during the zoning fight still sits here, too. Around the corner is the generator room; part of the design plan up here was to make the most robust transmission facility possible.
KCNC took the lead in the Lake Cedar Group, and it picked the downstairs space for its transmitter room. (There is lots of extra space in this building for future use; KCNC takes up barely a third of the space down here.)
For its digital RF 35 signal, KCNC has a main and backup transmitter lined up here, adjacent to an engineering office and rack room that also has a last-ditch emergency control room that would allow KCNC to originate programming up here if something happened to its downtown Denver studio.
Across from KCNC’s space, the back corner of this big downstairs space has a set of stairs leading to a door flanked by transmission lines. Open the door and you’re in a 250-foot-long tunnel that leads down the hill…
…where it emerges at the base of the tower, through another door flanked by two small rooms. One of them holds all the microwave gear for each station, linked by fiber back to the main building. (There’s more than just STLs here; the tower carries ENG receive sites that can be hit from just about anywhere in the market, plus tower cams that provide an excellent beauty shot for newscasts.)
It’s a tribute to the hard work of the Lake Cedar Group that a decade after this site went live, the controversy surrounding its construction has essentially disappeared. The website that opposed the tower has gone offline, property values on the mountain are as healthy as ever, tourists continue to flock to Buffalo Bill’s grave – and the tower stands proud and tall, very much not having fallen down the hill into Golden.
In next week’s installment, we’ll wrap up our 2017 Denver trip with a look at some of the other sites up here at Lookout.
Thanks to KCNC’s Paul Deeth for the tours!
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Next week: More Lookout Mountain, Denver