“Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a-waiting for me …”
The view down to Avalon Harbor and the city of Avalon, Catalina Island’s population center. The Four Preps didn’t quite get the mileage right — it’s only about 20 miles from the nearest point on the southern California mainland to the ferry dock at Avalon on Catalina Island — but their 1958 hit record was right on the money when it pinpointed “the island of romance.”
However, the romance of Catalina dissipates quite a bit when you’re trying to keep an AM directional array running at an island location that’s not only a long ferry ride from mainland United States but which is remote even by Catalina standards.
That’s the challenge the operators of what’s now KBRT(AM) have faced for six decades, and it’s the challenge the station’s current owner, Crawford Broadcasting, is giving up as it moves KBRT to a new site in the hills of eastern Orange County.
That site is an engineering marvel in its own right, as you’ll be reading about shortly in the pages of RW, but the island site deserves a full accounting of its own as it heads into the sunset of radio history.
“Water around it everywhere, tropical trees and the salty air …”
KBRT’s Catalina story begins with John H. Poole, one of southern California’s most colorful broadcast owners.
Poole built his own ham radio station at age 14, shipped out as a Merchant Marine radioman before World War II, then spent the war serving in the Army Signal Corps. Afterward, he bought stations in Santa Maria (KSMA) and Pasadena (KALI) before turning his attention to Catalina in the late ‘40s.
KBRT chief engineer Bill Agresta stands in front of the station’s island transmitter site. While conventional wisdom said there was no room for another new signal on the already-crowded Los Angeles-area AM dial, Poole quickly figured out that by locating offshore, he could blast out a 10,000-watt daytime signal at 740 on the dial that would carry over the Pacific salt water to blanket the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
When Poole signed KBIG on the air in 1952, it wasn’t the first offshore broadcaster in the region. Major Jordan L. Mott had run 250-watt KFWO (“Katalina For Wonderful Outings”) from his home in the island town of Avalon from 1925–1928, using the station to promote tourism to a mainland audience.
A few years later, a Panama-registered ship hosted its own high-powered unlicensed station, “RXKR,” targeting coastal listeners in southern California. Poole, too, took advantage of his exotic offshore location to build an audience.
Operating from studios in downtown Avalon, a few blocks from the ferry docks (with additional mainland studios and sales offices in Hollywood), Poole’s KBIG billed itself as “The Island Station,” and he boasted to Broadcasting magazine in 1953 that his new station was operating in the black within four months of sign-on.
By then, Poole was off to a new challenge. He’d already dabbled in UHF television with an experimental transmitter on Signal Hill in Long Beach. In 1953, Poole was granted a commercial construction permit on Mount Wilson for what would become KBIC on Channel 22 — and while KBIC never broadcast more than a test pattern, the “John Poole Building” on the mountain became home by 1959 to a new KBIG-FM, with a massive signal on 104.3 that reached all of southern California not only by day but also after sunset, when the KBIG(AM) daytime signal yielded to 740’s clear-channel occupant, KCBS from San Francisco.
By the 1960s, KBIG-FM’s fulltime signal had outpaced its AM sister in the ratings. The downtown Avalon studio was closed, and whatever limited Catalina-produced programming on the AM station remained was originating from a small studio at the three-tower transmitter site up in the hills.
Poole exited the broadcasting business in 1969, starting yet another new career as a winemaker. (After his death in 2003, Poole’s son took over operations of the Mount Palomar Winery, which continues in operation.)
Bonneville took over the KBIG radio stations, and 740 began a slow transition to a mix of music and religious programming. In 1980, Bonneville sold the AM (by then renamed KBRT) to Crawford Broadcasting. Crawford moved “K-Bright” to new mainland studios in Costa Mesa, Orange County.
Under Crawford, KBRT’s programming went entirely to religion, still using that big signal from Catalina to reach listeners up and down the coast. The breakdown of the clear channels in the 1990s landed KBRT a limited night authorization, but with a measly 113 watts, KBRT after dark couldn’t overcome the big KCBS signal anywhere on the mainland, and so it continued to operate daytime only.
Transmitter room at ‘KBRT Ranch’ in its final months. Processing and STL racks are at far left. In the bay, at left is the Nautel AMPFET backup transmitter, at center is the Kintronics phasor and at right is the Nautel XL12 main transmitter that will become a backup at the new mainland site. KBRT’s next big brush with the headlines was an unfortunate one: In the spring of 2007, a contractor working on replacing the station’s guy wires was using a circular saw to cut up the scrap metal from the project. Sparks from the saw ignited the dry brush around the site, touching off what would turn out to be a 4,200-acre blaze that scorched much of the central part of the island, destroying power and electric lines and stopping just short of the edge of Avalon itself.
The towers and transmitter building remained standing, and KBRT was back on the air within days on generator power, first playing CDs from the on-site studio and then establishing a satellite link to the mainland. The fire’s aftermath brought lawsuits that weren’t settled until just last year, and helped to push Crawford to seek out a more accessible site off the island.
“Forty kilometers in a leaky old boat, Any old thing that’ll stay afloat …”
If you set out, as we did, to visit KBRT’s island home, you most likely begin your trip on the water. Unless you’re chartering a plane or helicopter, the route to Catalina starts on the mainland at either Long Beach/San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles, or Dana Point in Orange County. After a little more than an hour on the ferry, you arrive in Avalon, the island’s main town.
For most visitors, Avalon itself is the main tourism destination: There’s a quaint shopping district on the water just a few blocks from the ferry landing, an assortment of bed-and-breakfasts and small inns, and if you’re adventurous, you can rent a golf cart for the day and drive up into the hills to look down on the pretty little town tucked into a cove.
A golf cart can even take you up to the low hill overlooking the ferry dock that’s home to the antenna for the island’s community radio station, 100-watt KISL (88.7). But if you’re hoping to go see KBRT’s transmitter site, you’ll need something heftier than a golf cart, because carts can’t go beyond the gate that blocks access to Airport Road as it heads up into the hills going north from the city.
The gate, and most of the rest of the island, belongs to the Catalina Island Conservancy, established 40 years ago by the two families that had owned most of the island’s land for more than half a century. (One of those families was the Wrigley family, heirs to the chewing gum and baseball fortune; the Wrigleys’ Chicago Cubs held spring training on Catalina from the 1920s until the 1950s.)
Detail of a mosaic map of the island outside the ‘Airport in the Sky,’ a few miles north of KBRT. For over half a century, the ‘Island Station’ has been a prominent Catalina landmark. Private vehicles are a rarity on Catalina, with a waiting list for the island’s 3,600 residents that can last years. Most of those vehicles aren’t allowed into the wild part of the island north of the gate, and so the half-hour drive up to the “KBRT Ranch” finds us passing only a handful of other trucks on the paved, but bumpy, road that ascends into the hills over some tight switchbacks.
“A tropical heaven out in the ocean, covered with trees and girls …”
The Four Preps’ search for “romance, romance, romance, romance” would not have ended very happily up at the KBRT site, where both trees and girls are in notably short supply. But for those of us enamored of the romance of AM radio, it’s here in abundance.
The “Ranch” sits nestled in a clearing up among the hills, some 1,500 feet above sea level along the winding road that runs from Avalon north to Catalina’s famed “Airport in the Sky.”
From the airport road, a short driveway leads past the gate to the low-slung building that serves as KBRT’s transmitter facility, backup studio and for many years now as the home of the station’s resident engineer, Bill Agresta.
Our visit in early December is actually something of a homecoming for Agresta; for several months now, he’s been spending all his time on the mainland (“America,” as the islanders call it) working with Crawford’s corporate engineering team, led by Cris Alexander, on the construction of the new KBRT.
The impending move explains why the transmitter room isn’t quite as pristine as Agresta kept it when he was living here. It’s full of gear that will be shipped off the island in the months to come, once the new site in Orange County is up and running.
In the meantime, we get a brief opportunity to see what’s involved in keeping an offshore transmitter site running. Like most Crawford properties, the transmitter of choice here — as at the new site — is Nautel: There’s an XL12 running as the main transmitter and an AMPFET as the backup.
There’s already floor space blocked off at the new transmitter site for the XL12 to be shipped over to become a backup itself to the new NX50 already in place there; the AMPFET will be sold, probably to start a new life in some other country.
The rest of the plant is simple but very functional. To the side of the transmitter room, there’s a small studio, filled with dusty cassettes and reels of the “Island Talk” public affairs show that once met the community service requirements out here.
Behind the transmitters, a workshop contains every part imaginable, a necessity when the nearest Radio Shack is half an hour away in Avalon and anything more extensive must be procured from the mainland.
There’s a small apartment out here where engineers resided for more than half a century, and next to that a set of covered bays where KBRT stores its lawn mower and its generator, also a necessity when shore power can be an iffy proposition. (While there’s been talk of a power cable from the mainland to Catalina, Southern California Edison generates all the island’s power from a diesel generator plant on the coast just outside Avalon, right next to the terminal where barges bring in all the island’s commercial needs.)
Back in KBRT’s early days, there was even a backup antenna here, a longwire stretched between two poles on the hill that rises behind the building. The antenna is still there, but the ATU is gone, though Agresta points out the passthrough where the RF came out of the building.
Two satellite dishes just outside the building are relatively recent additions, put in place quickly after the 2007 fire to provide a more reliable signal path from KBRT’s Orange County studios after the flames destroyed the AT&T line that ran up the hills from Avalon.
Five years later, the effects of the fire are hard to see. Hard work by Agresta and his family kept the flames away from the transmitter building, where the roof was kept wet and foliage carefully trimmed back. (Agresta was injured during the fire when an overly-eager worker at the site commandeered a tractor and accidentally hit him, breaking three ribs.)
The three towers out back survived as well, though Agresta says it was touch-and-go at points when the fire neared the guy wires.
Sometime in February, according to the latest schedule, KBRT will have moved from these three 285-foot towers to its new home more than 50 miles away “in America.”
With the move complete, things will begin to wind down. Agresta and a hired crew will return to the island to finish packing up whatever’s left in the building that’s worth keeping, and it will all make its way down the hill and on to a barge bound for the mainland. The land up here at the Ranch will go back to the conservancy, which will also figure out what to do with the towers.
When it’s all gone, now we — and you, at least virtually — can at least say we saw “The Island Station,” and experienced a little bit of the “romance, romance, romance” of Catalina Island’s radio days.
The text above has been tweaked to correct the timing of the change of call sign to KBRT.
Scott Fybush, a longtime RW contributor, is the editor of NorthEast Radio Watch (www.fybush.com) and a broadcast journalist based in Rochester, N.Y.All lyrics are from the song “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” written by Bruce Belland and Glen Larson.