December 19, 2002 - January 2, 2003
The Birthplace of FM Broadcasting, Alpine, N.J.
For the last year or so, I've been working on a book called
The Airwaves of New York, Volume II, a sequel to the incredibly
detailed The Airwaves of New York (McFarland &
Co., 1998) by Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek and Peter Kanze. That book
documented the history of 156 AM stations that have come and
gone from the Big Apple airwaves over the last eighty years or
The new volume, due out in 2004 (if all goes well), will track
the history of the stations that have graced the New York FM
dial over more than sixty years. That's meant plenty of time
on the road, much of it heading from the cousins' home in Rockland
County down to Manhattan by way of the Palisades Interstate Parkway
and the George Washington Bridge.
There could be no more appropriate route to take, as it works
out, because not long after passing the New York-New Jersey state
line, drivers on the Palisades see an unusual tower poking up
above the trees, with three big crossbeams carrying a small forest
Most drivers probably don't pay much attention to this stick,
but if you're reading this column and you've driven this road,
odds are that you too have slowed down and gotten off the highway
at exit 3 to get a better look at this magnificent piece of steel.
For it was right here, in the woods along Route 9W, that FM
broadcasting as we know it was born in the late thirties, on
a tower erected by none other than the inventor of FM radio,
Major Edwin Howard Armstrong, born this very week 112 years ago
in New York City.
Long before his invention of frequency modulation, Armstrong
had already contributed immensely to the development of broadcasting;
his invention of the regenerative circuit in 1912 and the superheterodyne
receiver in 1917 made it possible to build the inexpensive, super-sensitive
tube radios that began to appear in the early twenties and were
soon household staples.
The story has been
told many times (see Lawrence Lessing's Man of High Fidelity
and Tom Lewis' Empire of the Air, in particular) of
the early friendship between Armstrong and David Sarnoff, the
head of RCA and founder of NBC, which began when Armstrong demonstrated
the superheterodyne receiver to Sarnoff during a late-night DX
session on the New Jersey coast.
The legend tells, as well, of Sarnoff's challenge to Armstrong
to develop "a little black box" that could eliminate
the static that plagued AM broadcasting in those early years,
a challenge that occupied Armstrong throughout the late twenties
and early thirties, culminating in Armstrong's announcement to
Sarnoff in 1933 that his "black box" was ready - a
roomful of equipment that represented the first successful use
of frequency modulation. It was obvious from the first that the
new "FM" technology represented a vast improvement
over the sound quality of existing broadcasts, offering much
wider frequency response and the absence of the background noise
that marred AM reception, especially in small towns and rural
areas that lacked their own radio stations.
At first, Sarnoff and RCA encouraged Armstrong's research
into FM, giving him space in their laboratories at the top of
the Empire State Building to continue his work and experiment
with FM transmission.
But the development of FM, particularly the ability to relay
programming from city to city by direct off-air pickup (which
Armstrong was demonstrating as early as 1936), posed a threat
to NBC's domination of "conventional" radio - and in
those Depression years, the challenge of selling a new broadcasting
system to replace the already sizable existing base of receivers
also made NBC nervous, particularly as it geared up for its impending
launch of commercial television.
So Sarnoff and RCA
cut their ties with Armstrong, exiling him from the Empire State
Building and removing his chief source of funding.
Locked out of the highest point in New York City, Armstrong
returned to his family home in Yonkers and looked across the
Hudson River to the towering New Jersey Palisades on the other
In early 1937, he bought land in what was then an undeveloped
area along Route 9W, a spot that provided an excellent view to
the south from more than 500 feet above sea level, over the new
George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan.
Never afraid of heights, Armstrong went to work building a
400-foot tower in a clearing in the woods that lined 9W (the
Palisades Parkway was still more than a decade in the future).
With an eye toward future development, Armstrong made sure his
new tower would have plenty of room for antennas, designing the
three-arm configuration that remains a unique feature of the
Alpine tower even today. At the base of the tower, he built a
two-story brick building to house his transmitter, engraving
his call letters, W2XMN, in the concrete above the door. Along
both sides of the steps leading to the building, he placed small
replicas of the metal globe that sat atop Aeolian Hall in Manhattan,
the RCA facility where he had famously been photographed in the
twenties perching precariously on one foot, high in the air.
months, the tower was carrying W2XMN's signal out over the New
York metropolitan area and beyond; on the old 42-50 MHz FM band,
summertime skip in 1938 produced regular static-free reception
at the eastern tip of Long Island and, at least once, down as
far as Virginia.
The signals from W2XMN were also being picked up in Connecticut
at West Peak in Meriden, where Armstrong was working with Franklin
Doolittle's WDRC and John Shepard's Yankee Network to build a
network of FM relays that would eventually stretch north all
the way to Mount Washington, New Hampshire.
But the advent of World War II stalled both FM and TV (though
Armstrong's FM system would see wide use for military communication,
where it soon became the standard), and when the war ended, the
industry's attention was fixed on the introduction of television,
a medium many thought would replace radio completely. RCA attempted
to further delay FM by leading a charge to move FM stations out
of the 42-50 MHz band and up the dial to 88-108 MHz. While history
would eventually prove that to be a wise move (it created more
than twice as many FM channels as had been possible in the old
band and eliminated the nearly-regular skip that would have plagued
local FM reception in the summer), it had the unfortunate effect
of rendering existing FM radios useless and raising consumers'
doubts about the long-term viability of FM.
himself, meanwhile, found himself embroiled in a patent dispute
with RCA. While the FCC had handed Armstrong a victory by choosing
FM as the audio standard for television in 1941, RCA was unwilling
to meet Armstrong's demands for royalties on the use of his FM
patents in RCA's TV transmitters and receivers.
Always a stubborn man, Armstrong became obsessed with the
lawsuit against RCA, refusing settlement offers and devoting
all of his energy to fighting the radio giant in court. The pressure
eventually became too much for him to bear, and on February 1,
1954, Armstrong stepped out of the thirteenth-floor window of
his New York apartment to his death.
Across the Hudson, his radio station had remained active all
those years, under the calls KE2XCC and later WFMN (although
it's unclear that the latter call was actually used on the air),
moving to 93.1 MHz after the old FM band was vacated. On March
31, 1954, Armstrong's staffers turned it off for the last time,
and the tower went silent.
While Armstrong himself was largely forgotten, even by many
in the radio community, in the years that followed, his tower
remained standing as a legacy to his engineering skills. It began
to attract various non-broadcast users, and in 1971 it again
became home to an FM transmitter, WFDU (89.1 Teaneck), the broadcast
outlet of Fairleigh Dickinson University.
By 2001, the tower had become a fixture in the New York radio
spectrum, playing host to a wide variety of two-way users, cellular
and PCS antennas, satellite uplink/downlink facilities and television
ENG (electronic newsgathering) receivers.
And then, on September 11, Alpine returned to the headlines.
With the destruction of the World Trade Center, the television
stations that lost their transmitters needed an alternate location
that would give them usable coverage of New York City and already
offered the infrastructure needed to get back on the air quickly.
All of Armstrong's foresight more than 65 years earlier, combined
with the investment current tower owner CSC
Management had made in state-of-the-art facilities at the
tower's base, made the Alpine tower a natural choice for several
stations. Within a week of the attack, Alpine was on the air
with TV signals, ultimately playing host to WNBC (Channel 4),
WABC-TV (Channel 7), WPIX (Channel 11), WNET (Channel 13) and
WNJU (Channel 47) over the year that followed.
Those who remembered the story of Edwin Howard Armstrong and
his battles with RCA surely appreciated the irony in WNBC's use
of the tower; the station is the descendant of W2XBS, the RCA
experimental TV station that ousted Armstrong from the Empire
State Building all those decades ago. (You can read more about
the fascinating story of the New York stations' return to the
air in our special issue of NorthEast Radio Watch, "9/11 Plus One.")
You might think, after reading about all the history of this
magnificent site, that the fine people of Alpine, New Jersey
would appreciate that they have in their midst one of the true
landmarks of American broadcasting history. (You might even think
that Armstrong's tower deserves landmark status of some sort,
and we'd be the first to sign on to such a campaign.)
Alas, a visit to Alpine these days will show you that the
pristine forest that surrounded this site when Armstrong began
building in 1937 has given way to million-dollar McMansions,
occupied in no small number by the sort of people who seemed
surprised to suddenly realize that there was a radio tower -
a big, painted, lit radio tower - there in the backyard
of the home they'd just built in, say, 1994. That, in turn, has
meant vocal, well-funded opposition to CSC's proposals to improve
the Alpine Tower to provide higher-powered auxiliary capabilities
for television broadcasters in the event they again lose their
Manhattan signals. Check out the neighbors'
Web site - and note that this "grassroots" group
is asking for an average contribution of $2500 per household!
"NIMBY," indeed... (You can keep reading, if you're
so inclined, for unfounded assertions that digital TV is somehow
"believed to cause much greater health risks, and in a wider
area, than traditional broadcasting" and that "there
are very few towers of this type in all of America located in
But never mind the neighbors; the next time you turn on your
FM radio, stop and give a thought to Edwin Howard Armstrong,
one of the true heroes of American broadcasting, and to his steel
legacy high above the Palisades.
We'll take a week off from posting a new Tower Site for the
holidays, but we'll be back with more on January 2, 2003. Have
a happy and safe holiday, and we'll see you in the New Year!
[* - The Alpine neighbors might want to take their $2500 and
spend it on visits to Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Rochester,
Pittsburgh, Detroit, Washington, Kansas City, Seattle and San
Francisco, just to name a few of the "very few" communities
in America that have high-powered TV transmission facilities
in decidedly residential areas. Or perhaps when they say "towers
of this type" they mean the unique three-arm design, in
which case there are simply no other towers of this type
located in any area, residential or otherwise, anywhere in the
country. And as for their concerns about the effect of the tower
on real estate values, a quick search shows that the least expensive
single-family home currently listed for sale anywhere in Alpine
is a bargain at $675,000, far below the average sale price of
more than $2.8 million - and this on a housing stock whose average
age is 14 years! (Again, that tower's been in town for 65 years
Want to see more neat sticks all year
round? Nashville's WSM (at left) is one of the more than
a dozen Tower Site images featured in the 2003 Tower Site Calendar,
coming this fall from Tower Site of the Week and fybush.com.
If you liked last year's edition, you'll love this one: higher-quality
images (in addition to WSM, this year's edition includes Providence's
WHJJ; Mount Mansfield, Vermont; Buffalo's WBEN; KOMA in Oklahoma
City; WTIC, Hartford; Brookmans Park, England; WPAT, Paterson;
Four Times Square, New York; WIBC in Indianapolis; WWVA in Wheeling,
W.V.; WGN Chicago and more), more dates in radio history, a convenient
hole for hanging - and we'll even make sure all the dates fall
on the right days!
This year's edition is back from the printer, and shipping
is underway. Orders placed now will be shipped within 24 hours!
And this year, you can order with your Visa, MasterCard,
Discover or American Express by using the handy link below!
Better yet, here's an incentive to make your 2003 NERW/Site
of the Week subscription pledge a little early: support NERW/fybush.com
at the $60 level or higher, and you'll get this lovely calendar
for free! How can you go wrong? (Click here
to visit our Support page, where you can make your NERW contribution
with a major credit card...)
You can also order by mail; just send a check for $16
per calendar (NYS residents add 8% sales tax), shipping included,
to Scott Fybush, 92 Bonnie Brae Ave., Rochester
Thanks for your support!