Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
There were, in the old days, 25 AM radio stations in the United States that had the coveted “Class I-A clear channel” designation – 50,000 watts of power with nobody else sharing the frequency in North America after dark.
A long time ago, in the early 1990s, your editor set himself the goal of visiting the current facilities of each of those 25 historic and important stations. That last big trip we were able to take, all around the eastern half of Texas in September 2019, filled in two big gaps in that particular bucket list: it brought us within sight of the last of them that we’d never seen from the outside (WOAI in San Antonio), and then it took us inside one of the last sites we hadn’t seen from the inside.
We’re waiting for travel to reopen and for a chance to finish our list by getting inside WTAM in Cleveland, WWL in New Orleans and – just for the sake of completeness – the relocation of WBBM Chicago to a diplex with WSCR, though we’d been in WSCR’s site before the diplex, and inside WBBM before it moved.
But on the last day of our 2019 Texas trip, we did get inside #22 of 25, and if you don’t count WBBM, whose “new” site actually dates to the 1920s, it’s among the newest sites of the 25. (Somewhere, an especially persnickety reader is pointing out there are only 23 sites now, since two are diplexed, and dear reader, we see you and salute you.)
This is WBAP (820) in Fort Worth, serving the Metroplex and a huge swath of the rest of Texas from a spot 13 miles or so southeast of downtown Fort Worth, out in what was once horse country and now seems to be sprouting McMansions.
When WBAP moved out here in 1980, it put an end to almost half a century of partnership (and also fierce rivalry) with WFAA in Dallas. It started in 1929 when WBAP was reassigned from 600 to 800 kc, where it was to share time with KTHS (later KAAY) in Arkansas. WFAA, meanwhile, was to have shared 1040 kc with its Dallas archrival KRLD. Unhappy with their share-time assignments, WFAA arranged a swap: KRLD would share 1040 with the Arkansas station, while WFAA would share 800 with WBAP, with both stations “temporarily” sharing WFAA’s transmitter site near Grapevine, Texas, northeast of Fort Worth and northwest of Dallas.
The two stations soon made that share permanent, cranking power to 50 kW and settling into one of the most enduring and strangest share-time agreements in AM history. After WBAP acquired KGKO from Wichita Falls and moved its 570 frequency to Dallas and Fort Worth, it sold half of the 570 facility to WFAA. WBAP and WFAA alternated frequencies for decades: after an hour or two of WBAP on 800 (820 after NARBA in 1941) and WFAA on 570, a cowbell would sound on WBAP and they’d switch places, with WFAA on 820 and WBAP on 570. (And whoever was on 820 was the NBC affiliate, while 570 was always hooked up with ABC.)
That bit of history lives on in one of the side rooms off the main transmitter room here in the concrete-block WBAP building, where some vintage equipment is set up as a mini-museum, including an old travel case marked with both “WBAP” and “KGKO.”
In 1951, the 570 transmitter moved from Arlington to a new two-tower array across Highway 121 in Grapevine from the 820 site. It was a cozy arrangement – but it also turned out to be right in the path of construction of the new Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport two decades later. (The new airport would supplant both Love Field in Dallas and the “Fort Worth” airport a few miles south of the Grapevine site; the Fort Worth airport had formerly borne the name of Amon Carter, the Star-Telegram publisher who owned WBAP.)
By the end of 1971, 570 and 820 had moved to a new diplexed home off Belt Line Road in the North Lake section of Dallas – but with another irony: while they shared a transmitter site for the first time, Carter and WBAP had by then made a deal to buy out the Dallas Morning News and WFAA for its half of the 50 kW 820 signal. So when the move happened, WBAP was finally full-time on 820, while WFAA used the lesser (but still pretty impressive) 5 kW signal on 570.
By 1978, WBAP had been sold again, to Capital Cities Communications. It was moving out of its longtime studio home on Broadcast Hill in Fort Worth (where the former WBAP-TV, now KXAS-TV 5, remained until a few years ago), into new studios along I-30 in Arlington. And it applied to leave WFAA behind, moving from the North Lake/Coppell area back to Tarrant County, to this site off US 287, where it built a 195-meter main tower, a blocky new transmitter building, and signed on in early 1980.
It’s kind of a quick tour here, and not only because we’re doing it as a field trip during a break from the Radio Show floor 40 minutes away in Dallas. There’s simply less to see here than at the historic 50 kW sites: it’s a long main transmitter room at the center of the building, where two older Nautel transmitters fill most of one wall and the current Nautel rig sits at the far end.
There are several racks of STL and control equipment in the middle, and several rooms along the other side, including an office area and that little museum area.
The building here sits right at the northern edge of the property, with a shorter aux tower out back; the tall main tower is in the center of the property, which now has luxury homes (some valued at more than a million dollars) encroaching on three sides.
As for WBAP’s studio, we didn’t see it this time, because we’d seen it in 2012, when it had recently relocated from Arlington to Victory Plaza in Dallas. And as things sometimes do in the fullness of broadcast history, another part of Metroplex radio history had come full circle by then: WBAP had been sold from Cap Cities to ABC to Citadel to Cumulus, which by then had combined it once again with the 570 signal, by now KLIF. And the 1971-vintage 570/820 site at North Lake was succumbing to development by then: in mid-2019, 570 abandoned that site to diplex with another Cumulus AM, sports KTCK (1310), at another site nearby, erasing the last physical vestige of the days when WBAP and WFAA shared two frequencies.
Thanks to Andrew Pickard for the tour!
This week’s installment is dedicated to the memory of Wally Wawro, good friend, great broadcaster, longtime WFAA audio guru, and the first and finest Dallas-Fort Worth radio tour guide.
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Next week: Wrapping up Dallas