Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
In last week’s kickoff installment of our Big Trip 2013 recap, we took a closer look inside a few of the Twin Cities broadcast facilities we’d seen in passing on prior trips.
But one of the consistent pleasures of the Big Trip experience over the years has been the chance to go beyond the places we’ve already seen and explore some areas that until now had been nothing more than dots and lines on the map.
Take, for instance, the entirety of southern Minnesota. This isn’t the lakes-and-pine-trees Minnesota that most of us non-Minnesotans think of when (and if) we think of the, er, Pine Tree State. It turns out that when you start heading south from the Twin Cities, you don’t have to go very far before you’re culturally closer to Iowa than to Lake Wobegon.
For a complicated set of logistical reasons, our jaunt into southern Minnesota took something of a roundabout route: while we were ultimately South Dakota-bound, we began this phase of the Big Trip in south central Minnesota, then headed eastward toward Rochester, then circled back west to Sioux Falls.
But before we get to any of that, there’s a spectacular August afternoon, a few hours of daylight to enjoy after watching the hapless Twins take down the even more hapless Astros at lovely Target Field, and some stations we haven’t seen down the I-35 corridor just south of the Twin Cities. (Which isn’t even the most direct way to get from the Cities to Mankato, but a straight line is no fun, right?)
We start in Northfield, just 45 miles or so south of Minneapolis and close enough to be on the fringe of the Twin Cities radio market. This college town has its own local AM station, KYMN (1080), and we take a quick swing past its tower and former studio building northeast of downtown before heading back to the highway and south to Fairbault, a dozen or so miles away.
This was one of Cumulus’ smallest markets at the time, though the AM/FM pairing of KDHL (920) and KQCL (95.9) was sold off to Townsquare a few months later. If it hadn’t been a sleepy Sunday afternoon, we’d have stopped in at the studio building on Central Avenue to say hello and see the place. KDHL is a regional full-service powerhouse, running 5000 watts day and night from a seven-tower array on Albers Avenue just south of town; KQCL (“Power 96”) transmits from a site northeast of Faribault that we didn’t get to.
Instead, with daylight waning, we continued south on I-35 another dozen miles or so to Owatonna, where two studio clusters awaited us. Cumulus owned here, too, but has since sold to Townsquare, and its pair of stations – full-service KRFO (1390) and “Cat Country” KRFO-FM (104.9) share a tower site out east of town on Havana Road and a studio building near the Steele County fairgrounds on 18th Street SE.
The competition here is a three-station cluster operating from a studio building just a few blocks to the south, on Cedardale Drive alongside the US 218/US 14 freeway that connects to I-35 here. Classic country KRUE (1170 Waseca), “KORN Country” KKOR (92.1 Waseca) and AC KOWZ (100.9 Blooming Prairie) are all part of the Linder Radio Group, which we’ll revisit before this installment is through.
The Linder stations share a tower site off County Road 18 near Meridan, just south of the US 14 freeway between Owatonna and Waseca. The tower on the right in this twilight shot is KRUE’s (it runs 2500 watts by day and drops to just a few watts at night), while the two FMs share the taller tower at left.
From here, it’s about a half-hour drive in the dark westward (and a little bit north) to Mankato, one of the commercial hubs of south central Minnesota. For all of our circuitous route, we’ve ended up only 60 miles or so from downtown Minneapolis, and while there are still Twin Cities TV stations on the hotel room cable, this is a small market unto itself, complete with its own state college (Mankato State University), home to the Vikings’ training camp, which is just getting underway on this early August weekend.
In fact, we have to detour around some training camp traffic as we head through the campus on Mankato’s south side to start out our Monday morning with a picture of the tower that sits amidst the athletic fields. This stick carries KMSU (89.7 Mankato), the university’s community freeform station, as well as KXLP (94.1 Eagle Lake), a Linder station we’ll come back to in a moment.
First, though, we’re headed across the Minnesota River and up the bluffs to North Mankato and Belgrade Hill. Off Lee Drive is where we find the Mankato cluster of the regional group known as Three Eagles: four FMs, two of them operating from the self-supporting tower next to the studio building. Class C1 KYSM-FM (“Country 103.5”) and class C3 KRBI-FM (105.5 St. Peter, AC “105.5 the River”) transmit from here, while two more stations – rocker KMKO (95.7 Crystal Lake) and top-40 “Z99” KEEZ (99.1 Mankato) transmit from a site out to the southwest of town, beyond the reach of our travels this day.
Just down the street from Three Eagles, at the corner of Lookout Drive and Lee Boulevard, we find the longtime home of Mankato’s one and only TV station. KEYC-TV (Channel 12) signed on in 1960, operating briefly as an NBC affiliate before switching to CBS. With the advent of DTV, KEYC added Fox on 12.2 and cable, and so today Mankato is sort of a half-market: with a decent antenna, it’s possible to watch ABC and NBC from the Twin Cities or from nearby Austin and Rochester, and cable brings in nearly the entire Twin Cities TV lineup, though CBS and Fox are blacked out on their Twin Cities affiliates (WCCO-TV and KMSP, respectively) when they’re also being seen on the KEYC stations.
This is a compact but efficient small-market TV setup: KEYC does news on both CBS and Fox from this set, though if memory serves, the Fox newscast is weekdays-only, so we miss it on this Sunday night. There’s a “back-home” connection here, too: KEYC is one of two stations owned by United Communications, and its sister is also a CBS/Fox combination that does the only local news in its small market, WWNY/WNYF-CA in Watertown, near our own home base in Rochester, New York.
KEYC’s tower is way out to the southwest, some 25 miles from the studio, and we don’t have time to make it part of our agenda. (We do, however, note the presence of a Minnesota Public Radio translator, K237EX 95.3, on the STL tower behind the studio; it relays MPR’s “Current” network from KCMP 89.3 Northfield, while MPR’s news-talk and classical formats come from KNGA 90.5 and KGAC 91.5 in St. Peter, out US 14 to the west.)
Our final Mankato stop is out on the east side of town, where the family-owned Linder Broadcasting group has its flagship cluster. KTOE (1420) was the second station in town when it signed on in 1950, and it’s one of those rare stations that has been in one family’s hands for over 60 years now. The old directories aren’t completely clear on the matter (because back then, one could easily have addressed a letter to “KTOE, Mankato, Minn.” and it would have arrived here just fine), but I’m pretty sure that KTOE has been out here on Madison Avenue, in a rural area a few miles east of downtown, for all that time.
(Founder Don Linder is still around; here’s an interview the station did with him on the station’s 63rd anniversary not long ago. Current CEO John Linder is the third generation of Linders in radio; he’s the son of Don and the grandson of Harry Linder, who began the group with a station in Willmar, Minnesota back in 1946.)
The building has seen numerous additions and renovations over the years, and today visitors enter over at the west side into a newer part of the structure, passing sales and executive offices before heading down a hallway that leads past the FMs that the Linder group has accumulated here over the years. KDOG (96.7 North Mankato) still has a big stuffed dog in one corner of the studio to pay homage to its distinctive calls, but it goes by “Hot 96.7” with its top-40 format on the air these days. (Its transmitter is out to the west at the Minnesota Public Radio St. Peter site we mentioned earlier.)
Just like the flagship station here, KTOE(AM), the town name is nicely spelled out by KATO-FM (93.1 New Ulm), which plays country as “Minnesota 93” from a class C1 facility out to the southwest of town. We already saw the KXLP (94.1 Eagle Lake) antenna on the Mankato State campus; its rock format and calls started out years ago on 93.1 before being moved to 94.1 when it signed on in 2007. KXAC (100.5 St. James) also transmits from southwest of Mankato, playing a satellite-fed oldies format.
When the Linders bought the 93.1 facility from Clear Channel upon that group’s exit from the market in 2007, the purchase also included Mankato’s oldest AM station. KYSM (1230) put Mankato on the air back in 1938, and for most of its existence it transmitted from that big self-supporting tower up on Belgrade Hill in North Mankato. When the rest of its former sister stations up there (including KYSM-FM on 103.5) stayed put under Three Eagles, the Linders moved 1230 out here to diplex on one of the three towers of KTOE, which runs 5000 watts fulltime, directional only at night.
(Then and now, 1230 carries the “FAN” sports network that originates at Clear Channel in Minneapolis; a year almost to the day after we visited, Linder alleviated any confusion with competitor KYSM-FM by changing the calls on 1230 from KYSM to KFSP.)
The 1230 studio, such as it is, doubles as the sports office for KTOE – and now that we’ve turned a corner in the hallway to get here, we’re in the original part of the building, over on the east end. The sports studio is one of several studios that looks into the spacious main studio for KTOE, one of the more comfortable radio spaces we’ve ever seen. Some clever trade-outs with local businesses yielded that nifty granite countertop and the cabinetry that makes one end of the studio look more like a nice executive office. And this space gets used, a lot: KTOE’s talk format (now augmented by a translator at 102.7) is heavily local and live. It’s truly the picture-perfect small-market station – complete with the window behind the air talent that looks right into the transmitter room, where KTOE’s Nautel and KYSM’s Harris keep each other company next to the KTOE phasor.
Thanks to KEYC’s Jeff Poole and Linder Radio’s John Linder for the tours!
And don’t miss a big batch of Mankato IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Rochester, Minnesota (Big Trip 2013 part 3)