KAAL is the ABC-affiliated television station for the Driftless Area of Southeastern Minnesota and Northeastern Iowa. Licensed to Austin, Minnesota, it broadcasts a high definition digital signal on UHF channel 33 (or virtual channel 6.1 via PSIP) from a transmitter in Grand Meadow Township, Minnesota. Owned by Hubbard Broadcasting, KAAL has studios on 10th Place Northeast (along I-90/U.S. 218) in Austin. Syndicated programming on the station includes Entertainment Tonight, Hot Bench, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Meredith Vieira Show and Rachael Ray among others. In addition to its main signal, KAAL operates a low-powered translator licensed to Mason City, Iowa. This airs a digital signal on UHF channel 33 from a transmitter in Garner, Iowa along U.S. 18.
The station signed on the air on August 17, 1953 as KMMT and aired an analog signal on VHF channel 6. Its first owners were local businessmen Martin Busted, Harry Smith, and Palmer Ulland, who also owned KAUS radio (AM 1480 and FM 99.9). Originally, the station was a primary CBS affiliate with secondary ABC and DuMont relations. After KGLO-TV (now KIMT) launched from Mason City in late 1954, KMMT switched its primary affiliation to ABC. DuMont would eventually be dropped in 1956 after that network shut down operations. This station is the longest-tenured ABC affiliate in the Upper Midwest.
During the late-1950s, the station was also briefly affiliated with the NTA Film Network. It shared studios with KAUS radio on MN 105 in Austin where the two radio stations continue to operate today. The television station produced a few local programs most notably The Family Hour hosted by Christian Pastor Joe Matt. The program aired until April 2001 and was one of the longest-running, locally produced religious shows in the United States.
KMMT and KAUS radio were purchased by Waterloo, Iowa-based Blackhawk Broadcasting in 1958. The station would add color television in 1967. Its call letters became KAUS-TV (for AUStin) in 1968 to match its radio sisters. The outlet would begin carrying the yearly Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon in 1973 and remains the area's affiliate to this day. KAUS-AM-FM-TV separated operations in 1974 after the television station moved to its current location on 10th Place Northeast along I-90. The building previously housed a Volkswagen dealership and showroom. The call letters were changed to the current KAAL-TV in 1975 referring to Austin and Albert Lea. Blackhawk sold KAAL to the News-Press & Gazette Company of St. Joseph, Missouri in 1980.
In December 1985, Dix Communications acquired the station and the new company added stereo programming in November 1990. Another ownership change occurred in 1997 after Grapevine Communications of Atlanta, Georgia purchased KAAL. It would eventually drop the use of the -TV suffix on September 23, 1998. Grapevine, in turn, divested the station to GOCOM on January 1, 2000. Exactly a year later, current owner Hubbard Broadcasting assumed control. The year 2001 also saw the launch of KAAL's digital signal on UHF channel 33. As part of the DTV transition on June 12, 2009, KAAL turned off its analog transmitter and moved its digital signal to UHF channel 36.
Its previous digital allotment would eventually be used to sign-on a fill-in translator to cover Mason City. During the analog era, its signal used an FM audio carrier which could be heard at 87.75 in areas where the video signal could be received (and some where it could not). The same practice was true of all analog channel 6 television stations in North America. However, this analog FM carrier no longer exists for full-powered stations after the conversion to digital-exclusive transmission.
At 8 p.m. on June 17, 2009, Austin was struck by an EF2 tornado in the city's north side. It passed one half mile to the north of KAAL's studios. This tornado was powerful enough to take out power for the entire city including this station. However, it continued to cover the severe weather event with a backup generator only able to power a few lights, computers, and camera set up in the weather center. The station would remain without electricity until 2 p.m. the next day. Normal operations resumed with the 5 p.m. newscast on June 18. The EF2 tornado caused structural damage to buildings on the north side of the city from US 218 near 4th Street Northwest to the golf country club.
It has been announced that KAAL will build new high definition-ready studios in Rochester, on Salem Road Southwest, as part of the T.J.Maxx plaza. This facility will be a full base of operations for its news and sales departments. The opening of the new studios will occur in early 2015 but the station will still maintain broadcast operations and studio located in Austin.
Local news, weather, and sports have been provided on the station since its first day of broadcasting in 1953. Under News-Press & Gazette Company control in the early-1980s, its news department was significantly expanded complete with new equipment for live reporting from the field. Since KIMT is licensed to the Iowa side of the market, it has traditionally focused coverage on that state compared with the area's other stations (KAAL and KTTC) which are based in Minnesota.
Most of KAAL's technical operations are currently based at its studios in Austin. However, it also operates a full facility on Salem Road in Rochester that allows the station to have a solid presence in that area as opposed to a smaller bureau. For several years during its weeknight newscasts, KAAL maintained special technology to offer the unique practice of producing live newscasts from its Rochester studios while also featuring live weather forecasts and sports highlights originating from the Austin studios. As of February 2015, KAAL has moved all of its studio operations to their building on Salem Road in Rochester, and feed it back to their main broadcast operation in Austin where it is sent to their broadcast transmitters. KTTC, with its main studios in Rochester, operates an Austin Bureau. For its coverage of Minnesota, KIMT operates a small advertising sales office and newsroom in Albert Lea.