May 18, 2007
The Big Trip 2006, Part XV: From Seattle to Mount Vernon and Whidbey Island
Once every year or so, when finances and schedules permit, your editor and a couple of his similarly-obsessed radio pals get together to spend a week or so exploring a corner of our great nation, packing our schedules as full as possible to visit as many interesting broadcast facilities as we can.
And then, a few months later, once we've caught our breath (and some much-needed sleep), we share it all with you here on Tower Site of the Week (and in audio form over on Tophour.com) in a feature we call "The Big Trip."
The 2006 version of the Big Trip began and ended in Seattle, and along the way took us as far south as Eugene, Oregon and as far east as Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Day Ten - Saturday, September 30
For the first time in our trip, the day dawns cloudy and stays that way - but that's OK, since much of our day's agenda is indoors, and a lot of it isn't even directly radio-related.
But even a day without a lot of radio on a Big Trip still includes quite a bit of radio. In this case, our first stop is on Mercer Island, the ritzy suburban community along I-90 between Bellevue and Seattle that's home to one of the most prominent Class D noncommercial FM stations in the country right now.
Operating at 104.5, KMIH (known on-air as "X104.5," for whatever reason) has been at the center of a fight to stay alive, now that KMCQ from The Dalles is moving into the market on its frequency. After enlisting support that ranged all the way up to Senator Maria Cantwell, KMIH managed to work out a three-way deal that will move it to 88.9, relocate KASB (89.3 Bellevue) to 89.9, and allow KMCQ to come into the market from a new city of license of Covington, Washington.
From Mercer Island, we continue west to the very end of I-90 (which has been extended at both ends, especially the Boston end, since we last did the "west end of I-90" bit in 1999), heading for the west shore of Elliot Bay and another unusual radio sight: the rusted-out old freighter that's serving as the temporary home of KKOL (1300 Seattle).
The Salem talker lost its old site at the Port of Seattle in 2002, and while it searched for a new location, local engineer Jim Dalke found a unique way to keep the station on the air, installing a Valcom whip antenna on the bow of the boat and putting a 1000-watt transmitter in a container on the deck of the vessel, renamed the "Coast Angel" for the purpose.
Not long after our visit, KKOL would move from the "Coast Angel" to its new site near the Port of Tacoma, which we showed you way back in the very first installment of the Big Trip series, and would end up with a whole new set of troubles, which you'll read about shortly in Radio World.
For us, though, it's time to take a short break after nine solid days of radio, with a tour of the new Seattle Public Library building and a Rangers-Mariners matchup at Safeco Field, where the roof is closed and the game is meaningless, since both teams are already out of contention for the post-season. No matter: any baseball game's a good baseball game, and the home team wins in the end. (And it's not even a total break from radio: our walk from the parking lot to the ballpark is enlivened by a pseudo-homemade flyer we spot on a phone pole, advertising "FOUND! Progressive Talk, AM 1090," complete with little tear-off tags promoting KPTK, the city's liberal talker.
The Mariners game ends in near-record time, leaving us with a few more hours of daylight and no definite plans for how to use it.
So we start out by heading northeast to Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, where a cluster of three TV towers sits in close proximity at the corner of 18th Ave. E. and Madison Street.
Public TV KCTS (Channel 9) was the first station here, and its tower at the southwest corner is now home to channel 9, KCTS-DT 41 (the first PBS station to broadcast in HD, or so it claims), the University of Washington's KUOW-FM (94.9) and its sister station KEXP (90.3).
Across 18th Avenue sits KMYQ (Channel 22/DT 25), now a My Network outlet that's a sister station to Fox affiliate KCPQ (Channel 13). It signed on in 1985 as indie KTZZ, and was later the WB outlet as KTWB.
The former UPN affiliate (with two stops along the way as a CBS outlet), KSTW (Channel 11/DT 36) is just south of KCTS on the west side of 18th, at a tower it built in 1979 when it moved its transmitter north from Tacoma; its transmitter building fronts on Madison, right next door to the KCTS building.
And with those three towers fully examined, we still have a few hours left, so we jump on I-5 north to take in a few more little markets north of Seattle to finish off our trip.
The first stop is about 60 miles north of Seattle, in the small city of Mount Vernon. There are two AMs here, country KAPS (660) and oldies KBRC (1430), both co-owned and sharing studios at 2029 Freeway Drive, just off I-5 near the Skagit Valley Mall. This is also the KAPS transmitter site, and home to a very rare breed of AM antenna.
What looks like a tight-spaced four-tower array on the south side of the KAPS property is actually a "PARAN," or "perimeter current" antenna, one of only two in the country, the other being in Hawaii at KIPA (620 Hilo). Those towers aren't actually part of the KAPS antenna system, being used instead as support structures for a wire antenna that forms a big crossed square between the towers. The concept behind the antenna was to avoid the need for a much taller antenna structure when KAPS moved from 1470 to 660; in practice, it doesn't appear to have worked phenomenally well, and has not been replicated elsewhere. (The fifth tower, closer to the building, is apparently left over from the old 1470 array.)
KBRC's conventional two-tower array is about a mile south of KAPS, along Highway 536 as it heads west to join Highway 20 for the run out to Anacortes, our next destination.
That small town is home to KLKI (1340), whose studio we find in what looks like an old drive-in restaurant at 25th and Commercial Streets, just south of downtown Anacortes. Check out the old station wagon that's one of the station vehicles - there's some even older stuff parked out back!
The station's tower sits on the water of Fidalgo Bay a few blocks away, tucked between boat dealerships and other nautical enterprises.
From here, Highway 20 is a very scenic drive south over the bridge to Whidbey Island, which stretches south for some 40 miles back to the greater Seattle area, where a ferry connects the island town of Clinton with the shore town of Mukilteo, near Everett.
There's just one radio station along that long road, and it's a nifty one. KWDB (1110 Oak Harbor) is the descendant of a station formerly known as KJTT (for the military jets based at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station nearby), KISD and KEUE. Today, it programs a variety of classic oldies, local news and sports and syndicated shows.
Its studio address at 3170 Heller Road, just south of the air station, eludes us at first - until we find a little gate by the road with a small "KWDB" sign, which we follow back to a big brown warehouse building marked "Computers" and a white school bus marked "KWDB."
Presumably the radio station is in the building, not the bus, but there didn't seem to be anyone around to ask.
As for the KWDB tower, the coordinates put it a mile or so to the south, just west of the village of Oak Harbor, the commercial center of the island - but the coordinates don't quite agree with reality, and daylight is fast escaping us as we try dead-end after dead-end in a residential neighborhood near the island's western edge.
We're about to give up, and to write off our very last attempted tower visit of the trip as a failure, when we emerge on to Fort Nugent Road, the main road heading west from Oak Harbor, and look up to see, yes, the KWDB tower, a quarter-mile south of its listed coordinates, right there in plain view by the side of the road.
And our little group of radio pilgrims collapses in laughter when we see the other occupants of the KWDB site: just as our trip had begun, a week and a half earlier, at a site guarded by a flock of sheep, our trip was coming to an end at a site patrolled by a herd of inquisitive cattle, who rush the gate as we stand there taking pictures of the tower and the livestock and the setting sun.
From here, we begin the long trip home: another 30 miles south to the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry, dinner at a Subway in Everett, a short night at an airport hotel, and the flight back east the next morning, followed by many months of labeling photos, editing aircheck tapes and sharing our Big Trip fun with all of you.
What's next from the Big Trip crew? We're heading back to the Northwest this fall, but not the coast this time - we'll start in Salt Lake City in late August, and work our way up to western Montana, most of Idaho and a little bit of eastern Washington and Oregon before returning to Salt Lake City after Labor Day. Stay tuned for that adventure...a year or so from now here on Site of the Week.
(And join us over at Tophour.com on Wednesday, May 23 to hear the legal IDs of Mount Vernon and Whidbey Island!)
The Tower Site Calendar 2007 is here! They're about to sell out, just like 2006 did - order today at the Fybush.com Store!