Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
From the first time we started posting pictures from our Arizona-New Mexico-Colorado “Big Trip 2011” a few months back, there’s been one constant question filling the comments and our inbox: “Did you make it to KTNN?”
Well, yes – we did indeed make it to that most unusual 50,000-watt broadcaster, and you’ll see it in just a moment, but first let’s set up the approach that brought us into Window Rock, New Mexico on a dusty, windy April afternoon.
As you saw in last week’s installment, we’d spent the morning in Farmington, New Mexico, the commercial hub of the “Four Corners Region.” From Farmington, it’s a little more than an hour of lonely, empty road heading past the prominent Shiprock outcropping and then west into Arizona, where US 160 then cuts a diagonal path northeastward back into New Mexico and to the little road that leads down to the Four Corners Monument.
Whether or not it’s exactly in the right place, this is the sort of tourist thing that draws us off the beaten path, and we spend a windblown hour or so here circumnavigating our way from lunch in Arizona to souvenir stall in Colorado to the car parked in New Mexico before setting off for our afternoon appointment down at KTNN. (In the photo above, we’re standing almost astride the Arizona-New Mexico line looking northwest into Utah, with a little corner of Colorado at right.
From the Four Corners, it’s more than two hours of nearly empty road, eastward back into New Mexico, south on lonely US 491 (formerly US 666) and then westward again across the Arizona line into the town of Window Rock, the administrative hub of Navajo Nation.
It’s here, in a low-slung building off the side of Indian Route 12, that we pay a call on the studios of the Nation’s own radio stations, KTNN (660) and KWRK (96.1).
KTNN’s history is a fascinating one. As the old class I-A clear channels were being broken down, the FCC moved forward with two groups of frequencies. Some of the old I-A channels (670 and 760, for instance) were split up in the 1960s, but the lingering possibility of superpower operation on other frequencies kept them reserved for a single big I-A channel well into the 1970s. 660 was one of those channels (though it had a “class I-N” Alaskan signal, KFAR in Fairbanks, on the frequency as well); when it was finally broken down, it was designated for class II-A use in Arizona.
And that designation in turn led to something unique: unlike all the other new 50,000-watt class II-A operations, where existing stations moved to former clear channels from less-favorable assignments on regional or even local channels, the Navajo Nation was able to make the case to the FCC that the sprawling nature of its territory and the limited access to media of most of its residents meant the big signal for Arizona should go not to Phoenix or Tucson but to Window Rock.
It took about five years between the nation’s application in 1981 and the debut in 1986 of KTNN, billed at the time as the last new 50,000-watter to take air on a clear channel in the U.S. (In the decades since, the continued breakdown of the clear channels has allowed other new 50,000-watters with more limited signals to sign on, most recently KKXA 1520 in Snohomish, Washington, but I digress…)
The new KTNN quickly caught the ears of listeners all over the west at night, as its big signal boomed out a mixture of Navajo tribal chants and country music to listeners across the Nation and far beyond. (It also, we should note, caught the attention of the commercial Navajo-language stations in Farmington and Gallup, who didn’t – and still don’t – much appreciate the competition of a government-subsidized operation on a bigger signal that covers more of the Nation than they do.)
KTNN in 2011 hadn’t changed much, at least on the air, from KTNN a quarter-century earlier. The program clock remained a mix of chants and country music, along with plenty of community announcements for far-flung tribal members. Over the years, KTNN has experimented with other Navajo-language programming, including broadcasts of Phoenix Suns basketball; when we visited, it was running with a relatively lean staff and sticking to the basics.
Entering the low-slung building, visitors find themselves in a tiled lobby. To the right, there’s a window where messages can be left for broadcast, and behind that are the station’s business offices. The studios are behind another door to the left, and are divided into two areas. At the front of the building is a lounge area for the staff, where we wait as our tour guide, morning man Ray Tsosie, finishes some production work in one of the booths adjoining the lounge.
Toward the rear of the building, we find the KTNN air studio, where automation is controlling the afternoon programming while Ray shows us around. There’s another studio back here as well that can put sister FM station KWRK (96.1 Window Rock) on the air live; for now, though, the 100 kW FM signal that signed on in 1991 is running 100% off the satellite with its English-language country programming.
KTNN had an interesting challenge when it came to determining where to put the transmitter site. The big restriction on using 660 in the west, at least at night, was the need to put a deep null to the northeast to protect the incumbent New York station on the frequency (then still WNBC, now WFAN); that dictated a site on the eastern edge of the Nation. At the same time, the goal was to put a signal over as much of the sprawling Nation as possible, which demanded a more central location – and of course, the need to maintain the transmitter and provide a city-grade day signal to the community of license meant a preference for a location reasonably close to the studios in Window Rock.
The final choice turned out to be a site near Sawmill, on the Arizona side of the line about 18 miles north of Window Rock. It’s about half an hour up Indian Route 12 and Indian Route 7 to the two-tower KTNN site, and while we didn’t get to see inside the building, we at least got to see the pair of 300-foot towers and the little pink transmitter building on a dirt road just north of Route 7.
Returning to Window Rock on our way off to Gallup and I-40, we get a chance to snap a few quick pictures of the area’s other broadcast voices. Western Indian Ministries was here two decades before KTNN, signing on in 1967 at 1300 on the dial with KHAC (1300) in Window Rock. The breakdown of the clear channels eventually gave KHAC’s Christian programming a 10,000-watt home lower on the dial, too; relicensed to Tse Bonito, just over the state line on the New Mexico side, KHAC ended up at 880 AM. The KHAC site is just east of the state line, with a single tower that drops down to just 430 watts at night. In addition to another AM on the opposite end of the reservation (KTBA 760 Tuba City), KHAC is now accompanied by sister FM station KWIM (104.9 Window Rock), which relays American Family Radio programming from a tower on the mesa up above the KHAC/KWIM studios on Route 264 near the state line.
And with that, we headed off to Gallup (as seen a few weeks ago in this space), and eventually westward through Arizona and back to Las Vegas for the flight home. We’ll wrap up that part of the trip in our very last Big Trip 2011 installment next week…
Thanks to KTNN’s Ray Tsosie for the tour!
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Next week: Flagstaff and northern Arizona, 2011