Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Austin, Texas is an unusual commercial TV market, and for that you can thank (or blame) President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. The Johnsons rather famously owned KTBC radio, the city’s dominant station – and when TV came along, LBJ wielded his power in Washington to ensure that KTBC would not just be the city’s dominant TV voice, but for many years its only one.
It’s a fairly famous story: KTBC-TV signed on at the end of 1952 on channel 7, occupying the only VHF channel the Commission could allocate to Austin. For 13 years, it enjoyed a monopoly in town, carrying all four (later three) networks to any viewers who didn’t bother erecting big antennas to watch other stations from San Antonio, Waco or Houston.
The Johnsons remained closely involved in the stations; LBJ and Lady Bird maintained an apartment on the top floor of KTBC’s 10th Street building (just steps from the state capitol building) and Lady Bird was an active manager of the TV and radio properties. After LBJ’s death in 1973, KTBC-TV was sold to Times Mirror; Lady Bird kept the radio stations, which were renamed KLBJ/KLBJ-FM and stayed in family hands until 1994.
The Johnson TV monopoly finally came to an end in 1965 when the Kingsbury family, owners of local radio stations KHFI (970) and KHFI-FM (98.3) activated one of Austin’s dormant UHF allocations, signing KHFI-TV (Channel 42) on the air from its radio studio building on what was then W. 19th Street, a few blocks west of the UT campus.
The street is now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, the radio stations have long since been sold off to different owners, the TV station has changed channels (to 36, in 1973) and calls (to KTVV, also in 1973, and then to KXAN, in 1987), and the building has been expanded multiple times. KXAN is now owned by Nexstar, successor to Media General and before that, LIN Television; it retains the NBC affiliation it pried away from KTBC in 1967, and these days it’s usually found at or near the top of the local ratings.
The KXAN news studio is in the core of the original KHFI building (you can tell it’s old because it has windows looking into the studio from up on the second floor!), while the station’s technical plant is mostly in an early addition on the east side of the building. The production control room was recently rebuilt for HD; down the hall, the old master control has been replaced by a hubbed operation out of town, while a 1970s-era rack room remains in use with newer gear.
KXAN’s newsroom is in a newer addition over on the west end of this rambling building, with a stairway leading upstairs to offices for the station’s digital media operations.
From here, it’s a short drive west past the Whole Foods corporate headquarters and over the Colorado River to the wealthy suburb of West Lake Hills. Up here among the mansions, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Los Altos Hills, California – it’s the same sort of windy hilltop roads and big tech money.
Long before Dell was a household name, these hills were also the ideal place to put TV and FM towers. We find most of them in a tower farm along Buckman Mountain Road (which also happens to be where Michael Dell lives, which may explain the high fences that shield most of the transmitter buildings and tower bases from view), including the KXAN site at the end of the road. This is the tallest tower in the farm at just over 1000 feet, rebuilt in 1996 to make room for digital TV and a second signal.
The original 1965 KHFI-TV building now houses two DTV transmitters, one for KXAN (RF 21) and the other for its LMA partner, CW affiliate KNVA (Channel 54/RF 49).
Nexstar also runs a third station in the market: MyNetwork affiliate KBVO (Channel 14/RF 27) is licensed to Llano, out in the Hill Country to the west; it’s also seen in Austin on KBVO-CD (Channel 31), which broadcasts from the second building at the site, which went up to house interim digital transmitters in the late 1990s.
That back building also houses engineering offices and storage – and it’s the home base for transmitter engineer xxx xxxxx’s “Skycam 36” drone, one of the first UAVs to get approved for commercial TV use.
From the KXAN/KNVA site, we can look across Buckman Mountain Road to the core of the TV/FM tower farm, and while the bright Texas sun is right in our eyes (making some of these photos less than ideal), we can still give you a sense of what else is up here.
There are two candelabra towers up here, including one that carries most of the rest of Austin’s TV stations. Shown in the distant center above, and in more detail at right, this tower site started out in 1971 as the home of KVUE-TV (Channel 24), the city’s third TV station and first full-time ABC affiliate.
(KTBC had maintained a secondary ABC affiliation along with CBS after losing NBC to KHFI-TV in 1965; with KVUE’s debut, KTBC became solely a CBS affiliate until the big affiliation shuffle of 1995 turned it into “Fox 7.”)
The KVUE site eventually became a TV master tower with the arrival of public TV KLRU (Channel 18) in 1979 and then independent/Fox affiliate KBVO (Channel 42) in 1983; the 1995 shuffle turned channel 42 into a CBS affiliate, KEYE-TV, and that’s where things still stand today.
All three stations are still at the candelabra, KLRU on RF 22, KVUE on 33 and KEYE on 43, repacking to 34 in a few years.
A second candelabra here has an FM master antenna on one tine and nothing at all on the others.
The master antenna carries classical KMFA (89.5), Entercom’s AC KAMX (94.7 Luling) and urban KKMJ (95.5 Austin), iHeart country KVET-FM (98.1 Austin) and Christian contemporary KFMK (105.9 Round Rock), with auxes lower down on the tower. (There are also CPs for the University of Texas to move KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9 up here.)
There’s another tower just to the south that’s home to iHeart’s top-40 KHFI (96.7 Austin) and Emmis’ modern rock KROX (101.5 Buda), and one more tower just south of that that was the original KBVO channel 42 analog site and is also home to iHeart’s country KASE (100.7 Austin).
And the oldest tower up here in the hills, about a mile to the south of the main tower farm, is up at the top of Mount Larson Road, where KTBC (Channel 7), now the Fox O&O, still shares its tower with former Johnson-owned FM sister KLBJ-FM (93.7), now owned by Emmis with a long-running rock format.
We wrap up our look at Austin with a quick drive around the fast-growing north side of town, where suburbs stretch along I-35 for some twenty miles out of the city these days, up to Round Rock and beyond.
We find the remaining two commercial TV studios up here, starting with KVUE on Steck Avenue near the interchange of US 183 and the Loop 1 freeway. After many years as a Gannett station, KVUE was swapped to Belo in 1999, giving the company stations in all four of Texas’ biggest markets; in 2013, Gannett then bought Belo’s TV stations and brought KVUE back into its family (now TEGNA).
And the late entry in the market, KEYE-TV (Channel 42), has its studio on Metric Boulevard a couple of miles to the north. This was an unlikely network O&O for a few years, starting in 1999 when CBS bought the station from Granite and ending in 2007 with a spinoff to Four Points Media Group. Since 2011 it’s been owned by Sinclair, and it’s only in recent years that KEYE’s newscasts have started to seriously challenge its older competitors in the ratings. (KEYE also does news in Spanish on its sister Telemundo signal, seen on 42.2; Univision for this market comes from a rimshot way up in Killeen, KAKW channel 62.)
That’s hardly all of Austin – we’re eager to get back to this amazing city to see some of the other broadcast facilities we didn’t have time to visit in just a few short days last September.
Thanks to KXAN’s staff (especially Chris Stelly) for the tours!
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Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
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Next week: Connecticut, October 2017