May 19, 2006

Four Boston-Market AMs


This week on Tower Site of the Week, we conclude our "Things That Won't Be There Much Longer" tour of Boston, which took place over a couple of days in March 2006.

In this installment, we actually begin with one that will be around for a while, albeit probably not with the current calls and format. Having lived for some years in the RF shadow of what's now WWZN (1510 Boston), on Waverly Oaks Road near the Waltham-Belmont line, we thought it would be nice to actually see what was inside the transmitter building and at the base of the towers.

On the final morning of our quick New England jaunt, our good friend Grady Moates, who has WWZN as one of his contract engineering clients, was more than happy to oblige, and so more than 15 years after first setting eyes on the towers, we can finally show you what's inside.

The history, first, of course: 1510, historically WMEX, was operating as WITS when it moved to this site in 1981. The station had just won the rights to the Red Sox, and the team wanted its broadcasts on a 50,000-watt signal. At its existing site in Quincy, WITS ran 50,000 watts by day, but was required to drop to 5,000 watts at night to protect several other 1510 facilities in Nashville and Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Even a quarter-century ago, land in the Waltham-Belmont area was expensive and hard to come by, and so WITS ended up putting its four 366-foot towers (199 degrees at 1510 kHz) close together in the back parking lot of what was then a brand-new business park at 411 Waverly Oaks Road.

It would prove to be an expensive, and questionably successful, solution. Putting that much RF that close to the business park buildings required extensive mitigation measures, and the high field strength of 1510's directional signal to the east meant many residents of Belmont and Watertown still hear the station in their telephones and all over their cheap radios to this day. Giving up the salt-water path from the Quincy site meant 1510 traded excellent coastal coverage for a signal that covered somewhat less ground inland, even by day. And the 50 kW night signal, with its deep nulls to the co-channel stations, missed big chunks of the market, not only in the deep null to the west but also on the North Shore and South Shore.

All that - coupled with what I've been told is relatively high rent for this site - has made it hard for 1510 to find much stability in ownership or formats over the years. Since the days of news-talk WITS, it's been standards, country, soft AC, Spanish, talk, religious, and most recently sports under the ownership of Sporting News Radio (formerly One-on-One Sports.) The entire Sporting News operation is now for sale, and so it's a pretty good bet that within a few months, 1510 will be doing something else again.

So what about the actual facility there in the parking lot? It's powered by a Nautel transmitter (on the left in the photo above), which pushed the original Harris MW50 (on the right) into auxiliary duty. The phasor is in a container at the base of one of the towers, surrounded by a tall fence in the middle of the parking lot. (It was rebuilt a few years back, when the demise of WNLC 1510 in New London, Connecticut cleared the way for WWZN to loosen up its daytime pattern.)

One more note before we leave WWZN - check out those unusual insulators on the guy wires in the photo at the top of the page! With its towers in the parking lot of a busy business park, there's lots of traffic passing right through this directional array every day. Not long ago, a truck actually clipped one of the guy wires, bending this tower and leading the station to turn to these double insulators, which are designed to handle far more than the usual guy-wire tension, allowing the guy wire to remain in place even if one half of the insulator breaks. (There's also a big sign reading "Danger - Do Not Drive Under This Sign" at the offending low-clearance spot.)

From WWZN, we follow Grady to the site that's currently his pride and joy - the 100 Mount Wayte Avenue facility in Framingham that was built for WKOX (1200) but now serves as a transmitter site for not only WKOX but also Alex Langer's WBIX (1060 Natick) and WSRO (650 Ashland). In an earlier installment of Tower Site of the Week, we looked at the site a few miles away that handles WBIX's night signal and the day and night signals of WAMG (890 Dedham). By day, though, WBIX is a big 40 kilowatts from Framingham, and Grady recently retired the station's venerable Harris MW50 (which began its life at WRKO) in favor of the very newest thing in transmitters, the Broadcast Electronics 4MX50. Yes, that's 50 kilowatts of solid-state power coming from a box no bigger than some of the fancy refrigerators in the expensive homes out west of Boston, and the unit Grady's posing with is the very first one to enter broadcast service anywhere. (A month later, we'd spot Grady at the NAB convention wearing a badge with a similar photo, reading "Ask Me About My 4MX50!")

That's the old MW50 - part of it, anyway, to the left of the BE, and that's the little WSRO transmitter in the rack behind Grady. (Oh - and that's Todd Rundgren on Grady's shirt. He's a huge Rundgren fan. Check out the New Cars's good stuff.)

This was supposed to be the last stop of the day, after which we were going to head home to Rochester - but on the way down the hall to the WBIX transmitter (in the former WKOX garage), we pass the WKOX transmitter room, where a new BE AM10A transmitter has just replaced the old Continental that went in when WKOX moved from 1190 to 1200 and boosted power from a kilowatt in the late eighties.

That prompts us to ask how things are coming with the huge construction project in Oak Hill, Newton, where WKOX and WRCA (1330) will move in with WUNR (1600 Brookline), and everyone will get a power increase.

And that prompts an invitation from Grady to come get a "before" look at the WUNR site - after a nice deli lunch at Joan and Ed's, conveniently located in the Sherwood Plaza on Route 9 in Natick. (C'mon - do I at least get a free bowl of soup for that plug?)

The upgrade and renovation at WUNR has been in the planning stages for years, and as a result, the existing facility is - how to put this delicately? - rather overdue for an overhaul.

The little building on Saw Mill Brook Parkway once served as both transmitter site and studio for not only WUNR but former sister station WBOS (92.9), and to get to WUNR's row of racks and transmitters (a BE AM5E as the main, an old MW5 as the backup, and a nifty old Raytheon phasor), we pass dusty racks of really old automation gear and a long-disused studio.

Very soon now, the AM5E and the phasor will be moved into a container behind the building, which will be gutted. Five new 199-foot towers will go up on the property, new 4MX25 transmitters will go in for WUNR (which will run 20 kW day and night) and WRCA (25 kW day, 17 kW night), and a new 4MX50 will go in for WKOX, which will be 50 kW fulltime. (The 4MX was an obvious choice because of its size - the zoning deal with the city of Newton prohibits any exterior changes to the transmitter building, so a small transmitter was needed to make everything fit inside.)

Once the new towers and transmitters are completed, WUNR's old towers will come down, and a very long battle between the stations and the neighbors will, we hope, finally come to an end.

Our day in Boston, however, is not quite over - Grady invites us to make one more stop on the way out of town, and we're happy to take him up on the invitation. WRCA's current home is in its city of license, Waltham, in the parking lot of an office park on South Street (just a stone's throw from your editor's alma mater, Brandeis University). The station began as WCRB(AM), and even though it's been many years since it was commonly owned with classical WCRB-FM, the 1330 transmitters remain housed in the middle of the building that - many additions and renovations later - is still WCRB's studio.

The main transmitter, a Harris DX10, actually faces the back wall of the transmitter room (it reduced noise in an adjoining studio), and there's also an old MW5 as an auxiliary - but not for very long, since this facility will no longer be needed once the new WUNR/WRCA/WKOX site goes live.

That, as it turns out, is a lucky break for the Beasley-owned station, because it's not likely that WCRB-FM will be here much longer, either. After decades of family ownership, WCRB, along with its sister stations in Rhode Island and on Cape Cod and its classical-music network, went up for sale a few months back, and when we visited, nobody was quite sure when a sale agreement would be completed or when WCRB's long legacy as a classical voice might come to an end.

It's never pleasant to see so many pieces of Boston radio history draw to a close all at once, but at least they're now well-documented for future historians, and we're glad to have seen them while we could.

Thanks to Grady Moates for the tours!

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