KFI’s tower closer to going back up

The Whittier Daily News says the La Mirada planning commission has recommended approval of KFI’s request to rebuild the station’s tower, which was knocked down by a small airplane in 2004. For old radio freaks like me, this is interesting. KFI’s signal is as big as they get in the U.S. Like lots of other big AM stations, KFI is 50,ooo watts. Unlike most big stations, it sits on a relatively “clear” channel (one where there aren’t others sharing the channel), has a low dial position, a non-directional signal, and radiates from a single tower just under half a wavelength high (175.4 degrees; half is 180 degrees). Thanks to all those advantages, KFI’s daytime signal reached from Mexico to Fresno and Las Vegas, while standing like a skyscraper on the dial in Los Angeles, its home city. At night KFI reached across the whole U.S., thanks to the reflective qualities of the ionosphere.

The approved replacement tower would be shorter: 648 feet. I see in the KFI’s construction permit that the tower will be sectionalized (divided into more than one radiating section) and “top loaded”, giving it the electrical equivalent of a half-wavelength tower. Technically, it would be 181.4 degrees. The old one was 175.7. The predicted signal would be “RMS Theoretical: 374.98 mV/meter (per kW) or 2651.51 mV/meter at 50 k”, which is identical to the old tower.
The nearby Fullerton Airport wants KFI to build the tower at 500 feet or less. From the story:

“It’s not a matter of if another aircraft will run into the antenna, it is only a matter of when another aircraft will run into it,” said Rod Probst, airport manager.

But Commissioner David De Boer said two accidents isn’t that bad.

“You can only imagine the air traffic,” De Boer said. “When you’ve only had two collisions that’s pretty good odds.”

Probst contends the tower shouldn’t be higher than 500 feet, but KFI officials say that won’t give them the power they need.

Greg Ashlock, acting general manager of KFI, said a 684-foot-tall antenna is needed to allow it to increase its signal and meet its responsibility to provide emergency information.

Without the tower, KFI’s signal – now using a 204-foot-tall auxiliary tower on the same property – only goes out to 11.2 million people, Ashlock said. With it, it would go out to 16.2 million people.

“We’re one of a handful of stations designated as civil defense stations,” he said.

Back during the height of the Cold War, in the 50s and early 60s, all radios were marked with a two little triangles in circles, at 640 and 1240 on the dial, indicating that these were the dial postitions to which citizens must tune in the event of a dire emergency, such as a nuclear attack. This was the CONELRAD system. With CONELRAD, all stations in the country would suddenly switch their transmitters to 640 or 1240 and broadcast the same emergency information — or no audio — at low power, confusing any incoming missles that might be listening to one big AM station, such as KFI.

I gather KFI is still grandfathered as a big daddy civil defense station. Makes sense, because it’s the biggest signal around.

As for the danger posed by a full-size tower, KFI’s  had been standing there for 57 years before a plane hit it. I think it might even predate the Fullerton airport.

As for the actual effect of the tower loss on KFI’s signal, the station’s ratings numbers have been unaffected, as I recall, even though it’s broadcasting from a much shorter tower in the same location. It’s still a big signal.

As a kid I used to listen to KFI at night in New Jersey. That’s how clear channels worked in those days. They really were clear. I could turn my transistor radio so it would null out a competing signal from Cuba, and there KFI would be… weak, but quite audible. That’s no longer possible. The FCC has gradually allowed more and more signals on all the old clear channels, and the AM radio dial at night is a mess.

Now with the Internet, radio happens through podcasts, cell phones, laptops and other devices., making traditional radio more and more antique. This is especially so with AM (or MW elsewhere) — a band that has been all but abandoned in some other parts of the world.

But for old farts like me, it’s a sentimental thing. Also, cars still come with AM receivers, and that’s still where all the ball games are. So I’m guessing AM will still outlive me.

24 comments

  1. Danny Silverman’s avatar

    Wow, that’s neat. Especially that KFI wants to boost their signal again even though it doesn’t really make much different to their ratings. When I was growing up my family used to listen to KFI on long car trips to places like (yep) Las Vegas. On the Mr. KFI show truckers would call in from all over the west coast, which made the show a lot more fun. And of course at night there was Art Bell.

    Question: what’s the deal with shortwave these days?

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    When I was a kid, and a ham, the shortwave bands were packed not just with amateur and broadcast radio, but with the strangely musical hash of crypted military communications. The ham bands are still active, but there’s far less broadcast and the military stuff is gone. Even CB radio is pretty much gone too, except for the truckers. Nobody bothers much to broadcast to North America, except for religious outfits. But much of the world is still served only by shortwave broadcasts. I asked a BBC friend how many World Service listeners still tune in on short wave. He said “most of them.” That’s most of over half a billion people, as I recall.

  3. Billy Beck’s avatar

    33°48’26.46″N 84°20’20.88″W

    At those coordinates in Google Maps, you can see two towers. (Zoom to view.) Those things are 1174 and 1100 feet high, according to the Atlanta VFR Terminal Area Chart, and that’s about what I remember about them. They’re five miles directly on the departure heading of Runway 20R at Peachtree-DeKalb, which heading I had to hold on takeoff one day while a busy controller couldn’t turn me left across jet traffic taking-off on 20L right next to me on my left, or right-pattern traffic for 20R on my right. So, those things were looming right in my face by the time she got me sorted, and I was definitely craning the ol’ neckbones around at watching for an out. That, of course, is because I knew the towers were there before takeoff, or before I’d landed at the place to begin with, even. I dunno how busy Fullerton is, but Peachtree-DeKalb is exceeded only by Hartsfield in traffic around ATL; it’s damned busy, and I don’t know if anyone’s ever crashed into those towers. They’re a bit further away (well, about 150%) than the KFI tower is from Fullerton, but nearly twice as tall and right at the edge of the Class D airspace, and you just have to know they’re there.

    The KFI tower isn’t on the current charts, of course, but I think these coordinates –

    33°52’46.84″N 118° 0’49.98″W

    …will locate the old site for you in Google Earth. That puts it almost 1.8 miles off the departure end of R24, bearing about 040 degrees or so. I’m looking at that, thinking about a 648-foot tower, and I’m not seeing a really serious threat to any sort of traffic at Fullerton. Who the hell flies around not accounting for obstructions? Some people do it, obviously, but the fact is that people who fly mostly have brains in their heads and they really do kinda watch out.

    I think the obstruction argument is nonsense here, but that’s just me and my li’l ol’ 150-hours or so PPL with the tailwheel endorsement.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    There are many much higher obstructions, much closer to airports. Two other clear channel stations, WBBM and WGN, with towers of similar height, are within very few miles of O’Hare in Chicago. The approaches to NWK in New Jersey are thick with the towers of New York’s AM stations. Here’s WMCA/WNYC, WEPN, WOR… That last shot was taken looking down at the towers on appoach to NWK.

    By the way, though it’s a sad story, the deceased in the plane that hit the KFI tower were an elderly couple, as I recall. It was, as so many accident reports tell you, pilot error.

  5. Eric’s avatar

    I used to listen to Dodger broadcasts on KFI, and that got me listening to the great jazz programs they had as well. Koufax, Drysdale, Wills, Junior, the Davis boys later—along with Monk, Coltrane, and Miles. Great stuff.

  6. Willem Jager’s avatar

    Impressive pictures of the collapsed tower: http://sakrison.com/radio/KFItowercollapse.html

    More here: http://www.ronneke.nl/zendmast_lopik/rampen.ht
    (in Dutch, but the pictures speak for themselves)

  7. Billy Beck’s avatar

    “…pilot error.”

    Always hate to say it, but can’t see it any other way.

  8. Mad Broadcater’s avatar

    hate to say it, but there is NO WAY a shorter (electrically equiv or whatever) is going to radiate as good as the original antenna, assuming the previous tower was working to max efficiency.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I agree. I don’t know any broadcast engineer who would prefer a “electrially equivalent” sectionalized tower to a fully efficient half-wave radiator. KFI’s old one was around 175 degrees, which is just short of the 180 degree standard half-wave, but it was close enough. Says here the specs will be thus:

    Power: 50 kW, Non-Directional
    Hours: Daytime
    Pattern Type: Theoretical
    Towers: 1 Augmentations: 0
    Top-Loaded, 181.4 Electrical Degree (236.04 meters) Tower:
    Tower: 158.1 Degrees (205.72 meters)
    Top Loading: 23.3 Degrees (30.32 meters)
    RMS Theoretical: 374.98 mV/meter (per kW) or 2651.51 mV/meter at 50 kW

    That yields the same RMS signal strength as the old antenna.

    The difference might be more concentration of power along the ground, and a tucked-in skywave. Not sure. In any case, I’m sure most traditional engineers would prefer the old tower to this new one.

  10. Ted Hammond’s avatar

    Nowadays, there are numerous stations on 640 at night outside the protected 0.5 mV/m 50% skywave contour. And that contour had shrunk from the old “750 miles” that is often quoted. Domestically, skywave is computed using a geomagnetic latitude midpoint. The farther north the signal goes, the smaller the computed skywave. The new antenna was tailored in its design to be equivalent to the taller tower in its vertical radiation characteristic. This is necessary to protect all the new stations at the same level as the old tower. Luckily, they didn’t have to obey the new “ratchet clause” 10% skywave reduction since it was beyond their control. I miss the old days of DX and KFI, also. But IBOC digital broadcast has put the kibosh on many “clear channel” DX signals as of earlier this year when they turned them on at night. Interference between WJR 760 and WABC 770 was so severe that they agreed along with WSB 750 to daytime only IBOC for now anyway.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Ted.

    It’s a long way from listening to WBT’s Kahn system on skywave with two GE SuperRadios, each slightly detuned to the station’s sidebands. Didn’t sound bad, considering. I’m sure IBOC is better.

    Think it’ll make it?

  12. Ted Hammond’s avatar

    Right now, Leonard Kahn of Kahn AM Stereo System fame is locked in a battle with the proponents of IBOC. Mr. Kahn has a competing hybrid system called CAM-D, which reportedly produces less adjacent channel interference. Personally, I think they should allow both AM and FM stations to move to a digital only band, carved out from the soon to be nearly abandoned by HDTV elections, TV Channels 2-6.

    Compatibility is a problem, particularly for AM IBOC. Interference actually falls on adjacent channels, wiping out such powerhouses as WBT’s 1110 secondary service by WTAM 1100 and KMOX 1120, for example. HD service areas are relatively limited, both on AM and FM, compared to analog service areas. I have both a Sony SRF-A100 and an Accurian HD Radio, and when I play CFCO 630 in Motorola AM Stereo through the auxiliary input of the Accurian, the sound quality seems better to me than the IBOC. The secondary HD2 channels are kind of neat on the FM, but the formats are unimaginative at best.

    If radio executives expect HD to save radio, then I think they will be disappointed. The younger generation is rapidly moving toward MP3 players and cell phone type delivery systems. This is a trend which cannot be solved with psychoaccoustically enhanced, compressed, relatively low bitrate digital audio.

  13. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Boy, Kahn deserves the Don Quixote Award for persistence.

    I suppose the whole commercial radio industry does too.

    Every year I visit the Ibiquity booth at CES, and amazed at how generally lame and hopeless the whole effort seems. In an area like this one, which is inherently the sort of infrastructure that depends utterly on government mandates, requirements are essential. We got that with FM stereo, with the expansion to UHF, and now with the migration of over-the-air TV to digital transmission on a shrunken UHF band. We didn’t get it with AM stereo (or got it in such a screwed-up way that it was doomed from the start), and now we’re not getting it with the Ibiquity stuff. Which, by the way, seems so proprietary and locked-down that innovation opportunities around it seem severely limited.

    Europe also seems to know how to do these transitions much better than we do. The decision to make GSM standard for cell phones was a good one, just for moving the whole industry forward. So was the decision to adopt RDS, which has been used intelligently over there for the duration. We could use it intelligently here to (for example to set the clocks on radios), but we don’t. The “RDBS” standard was lame in the extreme, and guaranteed to kill the whole effort here. Which it pretty much did.

    And meanwhile, as you point out, there is the MP3 standard. Not just in file formats but in streaming as well. In Santa Barbara I listen to WNYC-AM and WBUR every morning; and in Boston I listen to KCRW, KPCC and KQED. Our classical music in both places is supplied by WCPE and a host of other fine stations. Mostly we listen on FM, by the way, bridged from a laptop or a Sonos system to a low-power household FM transmitter.

    And you’re right to name cell phones as another delivery vehicle. I know folks who are already working on turning the open source Google Android platform into a receiver of “radio” streams and files. It only makes sense. For our part (at the Berkman Center‘s ProjectVRM), we’re working on a simple-as-possible voluntary payment system that will allow lisenters to contribute whatever they please to the producers and distributors of any kind of otherwise “free” content, from radio streams to musical selections to citizen media postings such as those on blogs. These media need business models other than advertising and underwriting, and our mision (or one of our missions) is to provide one. We’ll see how that goes.

    As for AM stereo, C-Quam at its best wasn’t bad. My wife had a 1992 Infiniti Q45a for many years, and in the Bay Area there were a number of AM stereo stations for awhile. Some of them sounded pretty damn good, though not quite the equal of FM. I did like listening to oldies on it, though. When KFRC simulcast oldies on 610am and 99.7fm, the AM sound was much more authentic. I remember how songs with soloists on FM sounded like the band was standing in front of the artist, rather than vice versa. I used to A/B the two for guests in the car and almost without exception they preferred the AM, even though the treble wasn’t as bright. The songs simply sounded better. Of course those were originally engineered for mono AM radio play as well.

    I also like the idea of moving AM stations to a new FM band between 52 and 88MHz. It would free up a lot of real estate as well.

    Of course that won’t happen. We have, I think, an unusually politicized and creepy FCC right now. It’s reached the point where I expect no good to come from it.

  14. Dr. John Curtis’s avatar

    Great comments. Up on the CA central coast near Morro Bay, I live with a G.E. Superadio III (Now RCA label) at home and in my office. I’m an A.M. nut and a ham of course. The FCC is worthless. Nothing but layered bureaucracy so I agree. Sad to say, KFI local content is of juvenile mentality content and idiotic news and potty mouthed local shows. How I miss the old days when radio was taken more seriously and didn’t insult you every time you turned it on. Still, there is some good content out there if you don’t mind searching. Regarding dates, Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Assoc., of which I am a member, claims Fullerton Airport was there before Earle C. Anthony founded KFI, which went on the air in 1922, shortly after. The quandary of who was there first became a hot potato, argued over to this day. As a quick aside and interestingly enough there was a KFI-TV which would become KHJ and eventually KCAL 9. Regarding the tower threat to GA (general aviation), the KFI tower is far enough form the airport that it really doesn’t propose a threat. It is not in the air traffic pattern per se and is a good 7 miles n/e of the airport. To strike the tower, a pilot would have to be flying approx 450 to 500 below legal altitude over populated areas and disoriented. Simply put, it takes some doing. For that reason I disagree with AOPA in trying to keep KFI from erecting a replacement tower. Almost like forcing the demolition of high rise offices near major airports. Just doesn’t make sense. The high rises certainly propose a greater risk. Finally, when I listen to KFI, when PG&E isn’t buzzing me to death with their horribly noisy power lines, even the aux. tower does a fair job of getting millivolts about 200 miles to the n/w. The original tower did a little better but not much. A few feet shorter wouldn’t make a huge difference and I bet my signal meter would read about the same as the original. Maybe even better but we must remember the path will change from day to day and season to season. Funny thing, that.

  15. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I gather from the news coverage that KFI is currently radiating from another tower entirely. It also seemed that way to me yesterday. When I was tuning around the rental car radio downtown, it seemed to me that KFI was almost local. Made me think that maybe they were using the central tower of the KLAC/KFWB array, not far from downtown.That’s the tower KFWB uses full time while KLAC uses it just by day (switching to the two other shorter ones at night).

    I agree about the programming. Awful and sad. Also popular. Even with reduced coverage, KFI is a ratings winner.

    Interesting that you’re getting the values you’re reading. Seems KFWB from the short (but sectionalized) stick is 25kw.

    BTW, I have two GE SuperRadios, of the original type. Great boxes, those. Here in Boston I’m using a Sangean/Radio Shack radio that does a pretty good job. Not much cause on the AM side, though. It’s crazy that they’ve let new stations drop in on the old Chicago clears. Check this out. The “new station” on 720 will blow away WGN, which come in quite well here at night. They’ve already put a station on 890, so WLS is gone. Makes no sense.

  16. Dino Darling - K6RIX’s avatar

    KFI is currently transmitting from their 200′ back up tower. In March, during the construction of the new tower, they moved their operation to the old KIIS-AM / KTLK-1150 site in Montecito Heights.

    When the new tower fell during mid-construction, they moved back to the aux tower since it works better than the Montecito Heights location.

    See pictures of the new construction AND the tower failure on my website… http://www.k6rix.com/

    Dino Darling – K6RIX

  17. Art Landing’s avatar

    It makes complete sense that KFI might use a KTLK tower in a pinch. Both stations are owned by Clear Channel and share common studios and staff in Burbank (along with KOST, KBIG, and KLAC). Switching feed to another transmitter in the family would be quite easy.

  18. Doc Searls’s avatar

    I’d think the current KTLK/1150 site would be better. The five towers there are 146.93 meters high, or about 500 feet. That’s somewhat better than a quarter wave at 640KHz. And on relatively conductive ground. The old KIIS site towers are only 65.17 meters high, and on pretty nonconductive ground, as I recall.

    More interesting stuff here.

  19. Gray’s avatar

    Some very interesting comments and some very incorrect information being thrown about regarding the former tower and the new tower. I will preface my diatribe by identifying myself as a private pilot based out of Fullerton, flying since around 1999. I’ve seen the tower many times while flying around the relatively congested So Cal airspace. I remember one of my instructors warning me about the dangers of the tower and how we pilots should do everything possible to avoid the thin steel monster waiting to pluck out fragile aluminum birds from the sky. I have had numerous flights where the tower seems to have appeared out of nowhere even though I thought I was flying a safe distance away.

    The bottom line from this pilot’s perspective is this – the tower is a hazard to navigation and to aircraft flying in the area – period. It is a danger and it will be hit by an aircraft again if allowed to be rebuilt. I whole heartedly agree with the airport manager’s comment that it’s not a matter of if, just a matter of when.

    Now I know, I know – it’s the pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid and for the most part that is exactly what we do. Fullerton Airport has an excellent safety record. But a tower is a different animal. It’s made of relatively thin tubing with even thinner guy wires for support. It’s just not that easy to see and it’s just one more thing a very busy pilot needs to keep track of while arriving to or departing from the airport. The airport, as a side note to a previous post, was constructed and put in operation prior to the KFI tower being built.

    With respect to another post which indicated the tower to be approximately 7 miles NE of the airport – that number is way off! The old and proposed new towers are approximately 1.7 miles west-northwest of the airport. This puts the tower within the traffic pattern. During the most recent tragedy, which unfortunately claimed two lives, I believe runway 6 was in use for landing and departing. The normal “race track” traffic pattern for runway 6 uses left turns. So a pilot arriving to Fullerton would enter the downwind leg north of the airport and in the opposite direction to landing prior to setting up for their turn to the base leg and then to the final approach. Well guess what is waiting for the pilot on the downwind leg – you guessed it – a 750 tall tower. Now to make matters even more challenging, the incoming pilot enters the traffic pattern at 1,100 feet AMSL (1,000 feet above the ground) and begins their descent to landing around the midfield point. A typical single engine piston plane flying around 90 knots and descending at the standard 500 feet per minute is going to be at an altitude of approximately 500 to 600 feet when they intercept the location of the tower. A recipe for disaster.

    As several of the previous posters have pointed out, AM radio is on the way out. KFI appears to be maintaining its listener base using the current systems of antennas. Do we really need to construct another death trap just to provide an AM signal that no one listens to anyway? When will the madness stop? The tower should not be rebuilt within Fullerton Airport’s controlled airspace.

  20. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Gray, I am of two minds about this: a radio mind and an aviation mind. I love both, and I feel like I am watching both go through troubles.

    On the radio side…

    First, KFI is one of Los Angeles’ most popular stations — even while using lesser transmitting facilities. So, while AM is “on the way out,” it still has a long way to go.

    Second, KFI’s facility has been, since 1947, a landmark signal from a landmark tower. It is, by virtue of its frequency (low on the AM dial), power, non-directionality (it only uses one tower) and power (50000 watts) and tower length (a half wave), the largest AM signal in the country. The shorter design that was being built when it fell down (and is probably being built again soon) would have the same electrical length but would not exist at the height it was hit by the plane that brought it down.

    Third, there aren’t many other places to put AM towers. When KFI’s transmitter was established in La Mirada, it was surrounded by miles of orchards and other forms of agriculture in all directions. Land was cheap. Not any more.

    On the aviation side…

    First, it pains me to see so many local airports closing, especially around Los Angeles. I think it was nuts for the voters of Orange County to close and redevelop El Toro and exclude forever the possibility of having an airport there. Small airports all over the country are going the way of farms, and this is a Bad Thing.

    Second, I don’t doubt that the old KFI tower was a hazard to aviation. All towers, especially guyed ones, are hazards to aviation. And there are a lot of them.

    Third, I believe that most of what we now call radio will eventually just be data streams on the Internet, which can be carried on anything, including (and especially cell phones). Distributing data streams that way seems far more efficient and less wasteful to me than the current system, with its geographical limitations on coverage.

    Sooo… I remain of two minds. Maybe they’ll be blowing up these towers everywhere before the airport at fullerton closes.

  21. BuenaParkMark’s avatar

    FYI, a new tower went up finally around August 9 2008. It has strobe lights during the day, at the top and mid-way down, so it will be easier to see. In addition the strobes appear to be firing at night in addition to the required red lights.

  22. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Good to know, Mark. Thanks! Not sure they’re using it yet. Sounds about the same to me here in Santa Barbara.

  23. Alex’s avatar

    As a former airline captain, it is a pilot’s responsibility to know where he is at all times in relationship to ground hazards, such as radio towers. They are listed on aeronautical charts, and if VFR pilots maintain the proper altitude, there should be little problem.
    ATR commercial pilots always fly IFR. GA pilots who fly in terminal control airspace, such as LA, really should fly IFR as well.

    This place is full of small aircraft traversing the area and it can be a really big worry when we would fly the pattern into LAX. Despite excellent air traffic control, small planes pose a significant hazard to the big jets. An accident occurred in Cerritos a few years back with a Cessna versus a Douglas MD-80. A disaster that no one certainly wants to repeat. I don’t want to seem arrogant, but GA pilots need to learn IFR techniques just like the rest of us if they want to fly in this terribly crowded airspace. Flying is not for amateurs with this degree of traffic and population density.

    Getting back on point… I drove by the new tower on the way home from LA yesterday, and I was quite impressed by the new structure. It features new strobe anti-col lights and a very capable guying system. It looks great! It also has a circular structure atop the structure, perhaps this is part of the guying system. It’s very visable and clean. Bravo!

    I’m glad that KFI is not using the spare tower longer as the radiation pattern seemed to be much closer to the ground and a few people I have spoken complained about headaches and eye aches when near the radiating tower. It’s not good to have 50KW in close proximity to people as it can be quite uncomfortable and possibly dangerous with long-term exposure.

    Thank you for reading.

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