February 4-11, 2005

A Return to Atlanta (Part II)

In November 2004, we took advantage of delightfully low airfares to hop a plane to Atlanta and spend a day and a half checking out some of the sites that we missed on our initial visit to the city back in 2002. And while it was fun to see WMLB and Stone Mountain and so on, there's no question about what callsign comes first to mind when thinking of Atlanta radio. It's WSB, of course, the 50,000-watt clear channel Voice of the South - and on this trip, we were going inside.

Last time, we had the chance to see the WSB studios in midtown Atlanta (you can recap that visit here), but of late we've been on a kick to try to get into the transmitter facilities of as many of the old class I-A clears as possible. And so it came to be that we found ourselves once again at the "Northlake Tower Festival" shopping center on the east side of town, where WSB's 662-foot tower rises from the middle of the parking lot. (A big boo-hiss to the developer, incidentally - since our last visit, the "Tower Festival" signs had been replaced with new ones that just say "Northlake.")

We had some company on this one - fellow DXer Ron Gitschier had been up since before dawn, driving north from his home south of Jacksonville, Florida to meet up with us for the WSB tour and the lunch that followed (after which he headed back to Florida, then turned around and drove north again to his native New England!)

You can't quite see Ron's collection of bumper stickers in this photo, but it's impressive - everything from Seattle's KISW to Bob Bittner's WJTO and WJIB are represented there. What you can see is the brick enclosure that surrounds the WSB site right in mid-parking lot, and this time, the gate's open and we're headed in. As the photo above right shows, the road from the gate actually slopes upward, depositing us on what's really the second floor of the transmitter building. Let's go in!

If we'd brought a picnic lunch, we could have eaten it off the floor of this facility, which was both spotless and large. A Continental 317C-series transmitter had recently given way to the Harris 3DX50 in the foreground. At center is the row of racks, which includes both the old (AM stereo mod monitors, among other things) and the new (a Harris Dexstar IBOC transmitter, which was not on the air this day.) At right is WSB's former main transmitter, a Harris DX50 that's now on aux duty. Just out of frame at the right is a spacious office area, with an emergency studio attached to it.

At the back of the building (behind me in the wide view above), a stairway leads down to the ground floor, where storage racks hold all the gear that's no longer in active use at the studios but is still too good (or insufficiently depreciated, as the case may be) to throw away. Cart machines, SEDAT satellite receivers, you name it...they're down here. (And even the basement is spotless, by the way.)

Upstairs, right next to the stairwell door, we see the last remaining relic from the original transmitter building at this site: the transom window that once sat above the entry door of the building, out where an Applebee's restaurant now sits along busy Lavista Road.

(It was in the early eighties that Cox leased out the land around the tower for the construction of the shopping mall. The tower is original, dating back to about 1939, but the construction of the mall meant the demolition of the original transmitter building and its replacement with the current structure in the middle of the parking lot. Back when this site was in the middle of nowhere, it would have been a very long walk back from the transmitter building to the tower, which sat in a huge empty field. Amazing what a difference less than thirty years can make!)

Having seen the inside to our satisfaction, it's back out to a beautiful Georgia autumn day to see the tower and the tuning house. The combination of the walled enclosure and the ramp leading up to the transmitter building gives the effect of a pit surrounding the tower, making it all the more impressive to look up from the base.

Those metal "cans" that surround the tower above each guy level are unusual indeed, and the best explanaton we've heard for them goes back to the World War II era, when there was a naval air training station nearby. The pilots used the tower as a landmark, of course, and the solid metal of the "cans" provided a more satisfying and consistent ping on the pilots' early radar systems than the latticework of the tower would have otherwise given. Sounds plausible to us!

Inside the tuning house, it's a fairly simple matching network - and, just as at several other recent visits (WLS and WABC come to mind), the Austin ring transformers for the tower lights are to be found inside the building instead of outside. A question to the engineers out there: is there an advantage to doing it that way?

One more note before we head out: WSB is only the second I-A clear channel we've visited without an auxiliary tower (the other is our own hometown WHAM 1180), but that may change soon. There's apparently a plan in the works to put a backup transmitter at one of the AM sites a few miles away on Cheshire Bridge Road to provide emergency backup capabilities for the mighty 750 should the need arise.

And with that, we're off for lunch at the deli just beyond one of the guy-wire anchors (which come down right at the sidewalks of the shopping center; all the steel in the framework of the shopping center's buildings is tied into the ground system to assist in shielding the buildings from excessive RF), and then for an afternoon of new towers out on the other side of town. Join us next week for those!

Thanks to Charles Youngs and the WSB engineering staff for their hospitality, to Dick Ferguson of Cox for helping to make the tour possible, and to Roddy Freeman for his tour-guide services!

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