November 16, 2007

Medium Trip '07, Part III: Webster City, IA to Omaha, NE

Over the course of 2007, your editor set foot in 20 of our 50 states, visiting broadcast facilities all along the way. And now that the season of travel has ended, it's time to settle back and begin recapping some of what we saw as we criscrossed this land of ours.

This week, we continue our recap of what we'll call "Medium Trip 2007," a 10-day family journey that began and ended in Chicago, taking in much of Iowa and a little of eastern Nebraska along the way, and in the process revisiting for the first time some of the territory from our original Big Trip back in 2001.

When we left off in our last installment, we were speeding south from Mason City on US 65, embarking on a roundabout drive across central and western Iowa en route to Omaha and the family gathering that was the ostensible purpose of this trip.

The straight-line route from Mason City to Omaha would have taken us due south on I-35 into Des Moines, then west on I-80 into Omaha, for a grand total of about four hours of driving - but we'd done that route on previous trips, and on this sunny May Friday there were plenty of small towns beckoning us on a diagonal route over the hills of western Iowa.

First up on the day's agenda, about an hour south of Mason City, was Webster City, just west of I-35 along US 20, the "main street" of north-central Iowa. We'd heard KQWC (1570) and KQWC-FM (95.7) on our 2001 Big Trip, but never quite made it into Webster City to actually see the stations, which sit just east of downtown Webster City on a prominent hill overlooking what was once the main route of US 20 before the highway was shifted to a new bypass south of town. The AM side of the operation runs satellite standards, while the FM is doing adult contemporary.

It's only 15 minutes or so west along US 20 to Fort Dodge, the biggest community we'll pass through until we get to Omaha this afternoon, and while we'd been to this city on our 2001 Big Trip, there's plenty that's changed since then. We never saw the studios of oldies KVFD (1400 Fort Dodge) and AC KUEL (92.1 Fort Dodge) back then, and now those two signals have some company: their former owner, Sorensen, sold the stations to Three Eagles Media a few years ago, and now Three Eagles' country KIAQ (96.9 Clarion) and oldies KTLB (105.9 Twin Lakes) call this studio building home as well. (Their old studios a couple of blocks away still have the sign up, which confused us for a moment!)

Downtown Fort Dodge slopes west down to the Des Moines River, and it's on the west side of the river that we find the transmitter sites for the two AMs in town.

KVFD and KUEL share a skinny tower tucked behind a beer distributor's warehouse on the southwestern edge of town, just off US 169 as it heads south toward Boone and Ames.

They're not the star attraction where Fort Dodge towers are concerned, though - that's about a mile to the north on 169, just north of the intersection with business US 20. We'd seen the studio/transmitter site of classic country KWMT (540 Fort Dodge)/hot AC "Mix" KKEZ (94.5 Fort Dodge) site on the 2001 trip, but things have changed rather dramatically out here on A Street since then.

In 2002, vandals toppled the 637-foot main tower here, briefly silencing KKEZ and reducing KWMT from its usual booming 5000-watt AM signal (which, thanks to the combination of a low dial position and amazing ground conductivity, covers most of the state by day) until a replacement tower could be built.

That tower went up quickly, and once again towers impressively over the west side of Fort Dodge. Back down at ground level, change is afoot, too: just a few months after our stop, Clear Channel sold KWMT and KKEZ to Three Eagles, thus giving that company close to a monopoly on Fort Dodge radio. (More studio moves to come? We'll see...)

Back in 2001, our route out of Fort Dodge took us straight west on Iowa 7 to Storm Lake and eventually into Sioux City. This time around, we headed southwest on US 20 to Rockwell City, south on Iowa 4 to Lake City, west on Iowa 175 and eventually south again on US 71 into Carroll, a busy little town that's just far enough from Omaha, Des Moines and even Fort Dodge to maintain what looked like a fairly vibrant downtown area, complete with a low-power FM (Catholic KYMJ-LP 103.1) occupying a storefront with a small tower out back.

On the way down US 71, we saw in the distance a tower shared by Carroll Broadcasting's country KIKD (106.7 Lake City) and Iowa Public Radio's KWOI (90.7 Carroll); on the east side of Carroll, on a frontage road off US 30, we find the well-maintained studios for KIKD and sister stations KKRL (93.7 Carroll) and KCIM (1380 Carroll), doing hot AC and soft AC/full-service, respectively.

The towers for KCIM and KKRL are southeast of town off US 71; KCIM uses three towers for its 1000-watt, DA-2 operation, while KKRL's 100 kW C1 operation sits on a short tower just a third of a mile to the north. KCIM is part of the far-flung Chicago Cubs radio network, and for the remaining two hours or so between here and Omaha, we have little trouble holding on to its signal as we listen to a Cubs/White Sox interleague game.

Our final Iowa stop for now is about half an hour west of Carroll, where KDSN (1530 Denison) and KDSN-FM (107.1 Denison) sit up on a gravel road on a ridge north of that small town. The two stations appear to simulcast part of the day, breaking away for a long farm report on the AM signal in the midday slot - and we bet the AM's 13 watts still cover the town after dark, when it powers down from its 500-watt daytime signal.

It's a race down US 30, I-29 and I-680 to deposit the rest of the family on the west side of Omaha for the rest of their afternoon agenda, and with that accomplished, we're off to our first real tour of this trip. We'd met Greg Gade, chief engineer at Clear Channel Omaha, when he received a corporate "Engineer of the Year" award in Las Vegas at April's NAB Show, and he's our tour guide this afternoon as we finally make it inside the venerable building at 50th Street and Underwood to have a look around.

KFAB came to this building when it moved from Lincoln to Omaha in 1948, and it's just kept growing over the nearly six decades since then. Today, five Clear Channel stations are located here: KFAB (1110 Omaha), with its news-talk format; oldies KGOR (99.9 Omaha), the erstwhile KFAB-FM; country "Kat" KXKT (103.7 Glenwood IA); classic country "US 93" KHUS (93.3 Bennington) and classic rock "Brew" KQBW (96.1 Omaha). Their studios are arranged in the original second-floor KFAB space, forming a horseshoe around a technical core that used to be a big performance studio for KFAB, back in the day.

Today, that old performance studio's high ceiling is well-adapted to its current role as a rack room, holding the Prophet servers for all five stations. As the cluster has expanded, it's filled other space in the building that was once rented out to other tenants. A row of programming offices on the second floor looks out on a small area that's been turned into a performance stage for country artists visiting the "Kat 103" studios; downstairs, it's all sales and business offices.

Our tour of Clear Channel Omaha is just getting started as we head downstairs - we're headed not for the sales offices but for Greg's truck, bound for the KFAB transmitter site and then the TV/FM towers on Omaha's west side. Join us again next week for those - and check in over at our partner site next Wednesday (Nov. 21) to hear the IDs of western Iowa!

Thanks to Greg Gade for the tour!

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