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Los Angeles Tower Site Is Full of History

John H. Poole’s descendants put a Mount Wilson tower site up for sale

There’s plenty of premium real estate for sale at any given time high in the hills above Los Angeles. But one particular listing literally towers a mile above the rest: After more than 60 years, the family of broadcasting pioneer John H. Poole is selling a tower site he built from the ground up, way back in 1953, atop California’s iconic Mount Wilson.

“This is really the end of an era,” said Robert Heymann, director of Media Services Group, the brokerage firm handling the listing.

Tucked into a 6,000-square-foot piece of land on Mount Alta, the central portion of the Mount Wilson tower farm, the Poole property includes a transmitter building, four tower structures and a long, fascinating history.

The Poole towers rise among the forest of transmission facilities in the Mount Alta central section of the Mount Wilson tower farm.
Photo by Scott FybushSEEKING HEIGHT
Born in 1917, Poole took an early interest in radio. An amateur operator at age 14, he served as a radioman in the Merchant Marine; he later spent World War II in the Army Signal Corps. After the war, he owned radio stations in Santa Maria and Pasadena, Calif., then went offshore to put KBIG (740 kHz) on the air from Catalina Island in 1952.

By then, Poole was fascinated with television, in particular the unexplored landscape of the UHF dial. In 1952, he put an experimental signal on the air from Signal Hill in Long Beach. As soon as the FCC was ready to issue commercial construction permits at the end of 1952, Poole was in line, and the CP he received Dec. 10, 1952, for KPIK on Channel 22 was among the first the commission issued.

To have any hope of rivaling the signal coverage of the big VHF stations in Los Angeles, Poole had to be up where they were, and that meant moving Channel 22 from Long Beach up to Mount Wilson. Over a few months in 1953, Poole built a three-story transmitter building and a self-supporting tower, ordered one of GE’s first UHF transmitters and found tenants for his new broadcast site. By August, KTHE(TV), Channel 28, was on the air from the ground floor Poole site as the first educational TV station on the West Coast, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union followed suit on the second floor with its new KFMV(FM) on 94.7.

Poole’s own Channel 22, renamed KBIC(TV), put its transmitter up on the third floor, topped by an attic with big south-facing windows where microwave dishes could aim down into the valley at in-city studio locations. KBIC never built a studio, though; once Poole put his UHF signal on the air with a test pattern, that was all it ever broadcast. With seven commercial VHF stations already in the market and no requirement that TV sets be able to receive UHF, KBIC couldn’t compete commercially. By 1960, it had sold its transmitter to a start-up station in Walla Walla, Wash., but that station also failed and the transmitter ended up back on Mount Wilson.

The 1960s were kinder to Channel 22. After Poole sold the license in 1963, it returned to the air as KIIX(TV), targeting the African-American community in Los Angeles, then was sold again to the owners of KPOL radio. They moved their KPOL(FM) on 93.9MHz to the Poole site, bringing more FM there. Another sale of Channel 22 later in the 1960s gave it the calls it has today, KWHY(TV).

The first station to broadcast live stock reports, many decades before CNBC, KWHY eventually added subscription TV service and then became a Spanish-language independent station. Today’s Channel 22 still operates from the original transmitter room and tower that Poole built back in 1953.

Poole was more than just a UHF pioneer. He was an early adopter of FM as well, and his tower site on Mount Wilson has been home to FM signals from the beginning.

While 94.7 (now KTWV) moved out after being sold to Metromedia, which owned its own Mount Wilson site, Poole put his own FM signal on the air in 1959, KBIG(FM) 104.3. True to its callsign, “K-BIG” quickly became a major player in the market, with ratings eclipsing its AM sister out on Catalina Island. Poole exited station ownership in 1974, selling KBIG to Bonneville and turning his attention away from broadcasting toward a new venture as a winemaker. He kept the site on Mount Wilson, though, along with its tenants.

The Poole building is seen here, amidst the Mount Alta structures in the central part of Mount Wilson.
Photo by Scott Fybush Today, those tenants include main transmitter sites for KWHY(TV), KBIG(FM), now owned by iHeart Media, and Grupo Radio Centro’s KXOS(FM) on 93.9, the descendant of the old KPOL(FM). Channel 22 still sits on the original Poole tower, which also hosts an auxiliary antenna for KXOS(FM); the original KBIG(FM) tower was replaced in 2005 by a new tower at the same location that’s now home to both KBIG and KXOS.

There’s also the “green tower,” a monopole that carries an auxiliary antenna for KBIG and will soon also be an auxiliary site for iHeart’s KYSR(FM) on 98.7, and a wooden H-pole lattice structure that carries two-way antennas. Heymann says the site still has capacity available for additional broadcast and non-broadcast users.

After John H. Poole’s death at age 86 in 2003, the tower site stayed in the hands of family-owned Poole Properties Inc., until now. Meanwhile, other tower sites on the mountain have changed hands in larger group deals, most notably CBS Corp.’s sale of many of its towers to Richland Towers and the subsequent purchase of Richland by American Tower.

“You can make a case that Mount Wilson is the premier broadcasting site in all of America,” Heymann said, since it’s the primary TV and FM site serving the top-billing radio and TV market nationwide.

The sale of the site comes at a time when “vertical real estate” is a red-hot market.

“For public companies, the investing community views these types of companies as having tremendous growth potential,” Heymann said. “That gives the public companies the opportunity to acquire cash flowing assets and have them create value for shareholders.”

The Los Angeles Business Journal reports that the Poole property could sell for between $5 million and $10 million.