Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
After several busy days on the road around Texas in September 2019, we’d thought that perhaps getting to the weekend might give us a day to sleep in a little. After a fairly late Friday night at the Astros, Saturday morning was going to be a late, leisurely start to do some driving around more parts of Houston… right?
Well, not so much. At some point Friday, we remembered that old friend Paul Easter (who’d previously given us some great tours in Chicago many years ago) was in Houston these days. Turns out Paul and some of the other local Houston engineers and ham operators have a standing Saturday morning breakfast, not too far down the freeway from where we were staying, and we couldn’t say no to some radio talk… and so the alarm was set early for Saturday and off we went to Denny’s.
Paul had just changed jobs at that point, moving to a new gig as chief of the small Cox Radio cluster in town. Logistics prevented a tour of that facility, but guess what? Paul still had the keys from his previous Houston job, as chief engineer of KHCB Christian radio, where he was still helping out, and did we want to stop by there and see the place, since he had some equipment to pick up?
Of course we did – and so after breakfast, we headed back up the Southwest Freeway toward downtown, turning off a few miles southwest of downtown on Kirby Drive, just past the tall office buildings where we’d showed you the iHeart and Entercom studios earlier.
“South Boulevard” sounds like it’s a grand artery, right? It’s actually a side street that runs just a few blocks, lined in typical no-zoning Houston fashion by a mix of apartments, single-family bungalows and office buildings, including the stout brick building that KHCB has called home since 1979.
But KHCB’s history goes back two decades before it landed here. It grew out of a weekend radio ministry that aired on the old KTHT (790, later KULF, KKBQ and KBME) but lost its airtime as block programming gave way to formatted radio. Its founders initially sought to buy the dark KXYZ-FM (96.5, later KAUM/KSRR/KHMX), but were rebuffed. An unbuilt CP, Walter Caldwell’s KWDC (105.7), became available, and after getting new calls and a new studio in a vacant storefront on Almeda-Genoa Road south of the city , KHCB hit the air with 3100 watts in March 1962.
KHCB’s initial growth was slow. Piecemeal power increases at its original Holmes Road tower site eventually got the station to 100,000 watts. (Later in the 1980s, KHCB was one of the handful of big FMs in town that didn’t join the Senior Road tower consortium; instead, it maintained full class C height by leasing space from KPRC-TV on that station’s new tall tower, where it has remained since 1985.)
In the early 1980s, though, satellite technology brought new opportunities to KHCB, which leased transponder space and began beaming its programs to home listeners and eventually to translator and relay stations across Texas and in other parts of the country.
(Want more on KHCB’s early history? There’s a book, which they’ve put on their website.)
Look at the maps on the long hallway that runs the length of the South Boulevard building today and you’ll see a list of some 30 full-power stations that are owned by Houston Christian Broadcasters, as far afield as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Florida, plus a dozen translators.
Supporting that field effort on a limited budget is a feat of engineering derring-do. There’s a big space at the back of the building that was designed back in 1979 as a large studio for live productions. Today, it’s used mainly as engineering offices and a warehouse, with plenty of transmitters, satellite receivers, antennas and other gear in a constant state of refurbishment and repair and being shipped to and fro to keep the networks on the air.
Networks, plural? Why, yes – in the 1980s, HCB began producing programming in Spanish, which led to the purchase in 1990 of what’s now KHCB (1400) in Galveston. Later moved closer to Houston in League City, the KHCB AM facility is the flagship of HCB’s “Radio Amistad” network, one of several foreign-language ministries that also include programming in Chinese and Vietnamese.
Radio Amistad’s small studio suite is down at the far end of the main studio hallway, with a tidy control room looking into a little talk studio.
Making our way back toward the front of the building, we pass offices on one side of the hall and more studio and technical space on the other side. There’s a rack room back here that handles both downlinks and uplinks of satellite feeds, EAS for the flagship stations, and other aspects of engineering for the broadcast networks. And there’s more studio space for recording programming for later airing (and for distribution via everything from cassettes and CDs to podcasting.)
We’ve made our way back around to the front of the building now, where the main KHCB-FM studio space sits just behind the front lobby. The operator on the air sits with his back to a room filled with music and recorded programming from the days before digital automation, plus racks for duplicating cassettes and CDs.
There’s nothing especially shiny or modern in this 40-year-old building, which is bursting at the seams, but in an era when so much Christian radio is following the same consolidation path as secular commercial radio, it’s nice to see a local and regional operation that’s still alive and well as it approaches its sixtieth birthday.
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Next week: Just around the corner from KHCB, driving by Houston’s TV studios