Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
While it was only a year ago, it seems like an eternity now since we checked off some important items from our lifelong radio travel list. In those last months when we could still travel freely, our September 2019 Texas trip not only brought us to San Antonio and the last of the old class I-A AMs we had yet to see – it also, at long last, brought us to Houston, by far the largest U.S. metro area we’d never visited. (If you’re keeping track, the largest one still missing from our list is Memphis, at #43, followed by Fresno, Honolulu and Knoxville.)
Where to start on our first day of looking at towers in this mammoth, sprawling market? There was only one obvious destination: one of the most famous community FM tower sites in America, the “Senior Road Tower Group” tower in Missouri City, southwest of Houston in Fort Bend County.
Don’t set your GPS for Senior Road if you’re headed here; the little dirt road that once bore that name is gone now, paved over by the suburban development that has spread out around the towers here. What’s more, the “Senior Road” site was never actually on Senior Road even when it did exist, because… well, here we go with the history.
Houston’s early FM stations popped up all over the city, on a variety of short towers, some belonging to sister AM or TV stations, some perched on the relatively short downtown rooftops of the 1940s and 1950s.
As the city’s skyline grew, most of the big FM signals in town landed on one of two newer downtown skyscrapers. The Tennessee Building, later known as the “Tenneco Building” at 1010 Milam Street, went up in the early 1960s and became home to KAUM (96.5), KODA-FM (99.1) and KLEF (94.5). In the early 1970s, One Shell Plaza went up a few blocks away, and its 700-foot rooftop sprouted a tower that became home to still more FMs, including KRBE (104.1), KLOL (101.1), KILT-FM (100.3), KODA (moving from Tenneco), KYND (92.5, later 92.9, moving into Houston from Pasadena), KIKK-FM (95.7).
But while One Shell was the tallest building in Houston when it went up at the start of the 1970s, by the end of the decade it was poised to get overtaken by two newer skyscrapers nearby, both of them significantly taller than the FM antennas atop One Shell.
Instead of chasing ever-taller downtown construction, most of the One Shell FMs made a choice to join forces and go much taller, nearly 2000 feet, from a new site near the TV towers that already dotted the landscape out in Missouri City.
They located a piece of land off Senior Road, applied for FAA clearance, and were turned down – but having already created the “Senior Road Tower Group” as a joint venture, the FM stations (and a new UHF independent, KTXH 20) found a different site to the west, off McHard Road (FM 2234), just west of where the Fort Bend Parkway toll road would later provide a speedy access route to the tower farm.
By December 1982, construction was almost complete and the nine stations were getting ready to move out of downtown just in time to escape the multipath from the new taller buildings that were going up around One Shell, when disaster struck. As the master FM antenna was being lifted into place, a bolt failed, the antenna hit a guy wire, and within 17 seconds the entire tower had collapsed. Two workers on the tower and three workers who were riding the antenna were killed. There was video of the accident, which prompted lawsuits, new safety regulations and much study by structural engineers in the decades that followed.
KTXH moved to One Shell, using the former KRIV (Channel 26) antenna, and later went to a different Missouri City tower; the FM stations stayed put downtown for nearly another year until a replacement tower was built at the same site. By the end of 1983, the new tower was up and most of Houston’s FMs came out here: 92.9 (now KKBQ), 95.7 (now KKHH), 99.1 (KODA), 100.3 (KILT-FM), 101.1 (KLOL) and 104.1 (KRBE) from One Shell; 94.5 (now KTBZ) and 96.5 (now KHMX) from Tenneco; and 97.9 (then KFMK, now KBXX) from a guyed tower site in northeast Houston near a railyard.
At the time, of course, each of the nine stations was under independent ownership, so naturally, each wanted its own transmitter space. The result was a sturdy block building with separate transmitter rooms for each of the stations (with some expansion space, too), with lots of backup power and cooling to deal with Houston’s extreme weather.
Today, each station is still in its own separate room, even though many are under group ownership – KKHH, KHMX, KILT-FM and KLOL are all Entercom, while KTBZ and KODA belong to iHeart, KKBQ to Cox, KRBE to Cumulus and KBXX to Urban One.
You can still see some signs of prior ownership in the individual design of some of these rooms. KHMX, for instance, was an ABC-owned station as KAUM and KSRR, and the 1980s-era blue, carpeted look of ABC transmitter sites still lives on in its room down at the end of one of the long hallways here.
(You can also look at the history of the site just by reading the asset tags on some of the older equipment – there are still “Group W” tags in the KKHH and KILT-FM rooms from the days when Westinghouse was building one of the market’s first FM duopolies in the 1990s at what were then KIKK-FM and KILT-FM, or perhaps check out the CBS Radio Y2K tags from that big project a few years later.)
There’s a massive combiner room here, part of ERI’s overall facility design. With 100 kW ERP for each of these class C stations, there’s a lot of RF headed up the pipe to the twelve-bay cogwheel antenna (actually, two separate six-bay antennas) at the top of the tower.
There’s a separate generator room, lots of cooling to deal with the heat of a Houston summer, and lots of power handling. (It’s worth noting that they’ve left the original callsigns on the breaker panels, all these years later – and that a surprising number of these stations still have their 1980s-era callsigns even now.)
Even a massive facility like this needs a backup, of course, and while there are still some last-ditch auxes atop One Shell downtown, most of these FMs have full-power auxes just down the road, too. We’ll see those when we continue our look at Missouri City’s tower farm next week.
Thanks to Entercom’s Robbie Green for the tours!
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Next week: More of Houston’s Missouri City tower farm