July 22 & 29, 2005

FM128, Newton, Mass.


For the tower hunter with a passion for tall FM/TV towers, there are few drives more inspiring than the one around the west side of Boston on Route 128 (or, if you're from out of town, "I-95.")

Within just a mile of the interchange of 128 and Highland Avenue, there are three guyed towers and one self-supporters, each more than a thousand feet tall. In previous installments, we've taken a close look at one of the big guys (the WBZ-TV tower, 1296 feet tall), and in future installments we hope to take closer looks at the self-supporter (WHDH-TV, 1062 feet) and the lone candelabra (WFXT/WSBK/WLVI, 1200 feet).

But this week, we turn our attention to a June visit to the fourth tower in the cluster, the stick at 1165 Chestnut Street in Newton Upper Highlands known as "FM128."

1082 feet to the top of the tower, 1252 feet to the tip of the antenna, this tower's history goes back to 1957, when it was built by the Boston Herald-Traveler newspaper to be the site of the city's third commercial VHF TV station, WHDH-TV 5, which signed on November 26 from the WHDH radio studios on St. James Street in the Back Bay (later moved to Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester) and a transmitter right here where Newton meets Needham.

From that day until 1972, this tower was home to just two stations: WHDH-TV and WHDH-FM 94.5, later WCOZ. (The FM had been on the air since 1948, transmitting from the old John Hancock building in the Back Bay.)

And then, on March 19, 1972, WHDH-TV lost its fight to keep its license (a story documented extensively elsewhere). The Herald-Traveler had to give up the channel 5 license, but it was under no obligation to sell any of its facilities to the new channel 5, Boston Broadcasters' WCVB. So WCVB was forced to find new studios (in a converted International Harvester dealership just across 128 from here) and a new transmitter site (sharing an antenna with WBZ-TV at its Needham tower), and the old WHDH-TV tower was ready for a new life.

With Boston's TV stations already accommodated at other locations (the candelabra, which had gone up in 1971, took care of UHF needs for many years), the future was in FM - and so it was that this tower became "FM128", a new home for many FM stations that had been at lower and less-desirable locations around the city.

Over the next decade or so, WVBF (105.7) moved in from Framingham, WBOS-FM (92.9) from the candelabra, WBUR (90.9) from the Boston University Law School building on Commonwealth Avenue, WJIB (96.9) from the candelabra (where it had moved after relocating from its original site, Zion Hill in Woburn), WROR (98.5) from the channel 7 tower nearby and WEEI-FM (103.3) from its original tower in Malden.

As the original occupant, 94.5 kept its original antenna; the rest (except WBUR, which was directional) ended up with a master antenna system.

That was the lineup when your editor first saw the inside of the building in the early 90s, and it was another decade or so before this 2005 visit. Let's poke around a bit, shall we?

The basic layout of the site - now owned by American Tower Systems - has changed little in the last decade. When you walk into the building, you first enter a stairwell, then the room that was once home to the WHDH-TV transmitter. When the site was rebuilt, this room was carved up in three dimensions. The floor space was divided into a series of glassed-in transmitter rooms lining a wide hallway. And what was once a very tall room had a metal-grid mezzanine put in, above which was mounted the FM combiner in a sort of low-ceilinged loft area.

The lineup of stations along "Transmitter Row" has changed rather dramatically over the last few years. In the early nineties, WBOS, WJIB and WVBF were each under separate ownership and each had its own room. Today, they're all owned by Greater Media, and they've all moved their primary transmitters to the Prudential Tower. But Greater Media has kept space at FM128 for backups for those stations, along with WMJX (106.7), and today those four (now WBOS 92.9, WTKK 96.9, WROR 105.7 and WMJX 106.7) occupy one room, with their BE transmitters neatly lined up one next to the other. (I think this space belonged to WBOS in days gone by.) The descendant of WCOZ, Clear Channel's WJMN 94.5, is next door on one side. On the other is a vacant space that will eventually be used by WBMX 98.5.

Across the hallway, another station has moved in: WCRB (102.5 Waltham) had been on the WBZ-TV tower for many years, but it was displaced by construction there, and now it calls FM 128 home.

At the end of the hall, a locked door keeps us out of the lone full-power TV station here, WBPX-DT (Channel 32); there's also an LPTV on channel 24.

This is also where the door that leads out to the tower is found - but before we go outside, we need to take a look downstairs. This was where the power transformers and whatnot for WHDH-TV were once located, but today it too is divided into several FM transmitter rooms (blocked in, rather than glassed in, alas.)

WODS (the former WEEI-FM 103.3) and WBMX (the former WROR 98.5) are down here, and so is the station we actually came to visit, WBUR-FM. It's a small room, but very well-equipped: an older BE transmitter that was the original when WBUR moved here in the late eighties, the newer Harris Z-series for main use, and (out of frame, to the right) the new IBOC transmitter, which sends much of its power to an Altronics load out by the side of the building.

And what about the antenna configuration up there today? The two-bay ERI master antenna at the top of the mast is primary for WJMN, WBMX and WCRB, with WJMN having moved up there from a separate antenna of its own a few years ago. It's also where the four Greater Media stations' aux transmitters go. Below that, at the very top of the tower itself, is WBUR's two-bay Shively directional antenna, and below that is a four-bay Jampro main and a two-bay Jampro aux for WODS. WBPX-DT is side-mounted below that.

It's certainly not what the folks at the Herald-Traveler had in mind almost fifty years ago, but it's impressive nonetheless, isn't it?

Next week - off to the biggest AM signal in the region!

Thanks to Michael LeClair of WBUR for the tour!

It's here - the 2005 Tower Site Calendar is now available at special clearance prices! Click here for ordering information!