June 22, 2007

Helderbergs TV/FM Tower Farm, Albany, NY

With 20 months and counting until the February 18, 2009 deadline to shut down analog TV, we here at "Tower Site of the Week" are trying to chronicle as much of the nation's TV infrastructure as possible, since so much of it will change, and we're all about change here.

In many markets, the changes will be subtle - antennas coming and going from existing towers, transmitters moving in and out of existing buildings, but nothing more that the casual observer would notice.

In last week's installment of Tower Site of the Week, we showed you one of the exceptions - the joint site that the broadcasters of Albany, New York built a few years ago for their digital operations. This week, we offer some pictures from the other half of that June 2006 tour, in which we visited some of the analog sites that will be dark and silent in just over a year and a half.

History? You betcha. The Helderberg Mountains, just south and west of Albany, have been home to FM and TV in this market almost since the dawn of FM and TV. General Electric's WRGB-TV was up here as early as the late thirties, as was FM outlet W2XOY, and by 1941, an independent FM station, W47A (44.7) was operating from here as well.

W47A didn't make it (though another independent FM station, WFLY 92.3, appeared up here not long after the war), and we'll come back to the WRGB story in a bit - but for now we'll turn to the second TV station to broadcast from this plateau some 1500 feet above sea level.

WTEN (Channel 10) signed on from here in 1963, but its history goes back nine years earlier. WROW-TV had signed on as channel 41 in 1954, from a tower north of Albany on the banks of the Hudson River. It soon became WCDA, spawning a three-station network that also included WCDB (Channel 29) in Hagaman, near Amsterdam, and WCDC (Channel 19) in Adams, Mass. In 1957, it moved to channel 10, initially licensed to Vails Mills, also up near Amsterdam, making WCDB superfluous, and it took some tussles with Rochester's channel 10 (WVET/WHEC) over spacing issues to finally land the renamed WTEN here at the best of all sites for Albany TV.

(Albany's third VHF station, then known as WAST channel 13, never did get up here; it had been WTRI on channel 35 before getting the channel 13 authorization in 1958. Because of short spacing to channel 13 in Newark, N.J., WAST remained at the old WTRI site on Bald Mountain east of Troy. Only with the coming of DTV did the station, now WNYT, get up here for its digital signal.)

WTEN's 1963 site sits at the end of "TV Lane," which runs east from Pinnacle Road, the north-south axis that connects most of the sites up here. From the outside, it looks pretty much the same as it must have appeared back then; inside, a modern Harris transmitter sits in the space that was probably filled by a huge GE transmitter back in the day.

WTEN, we should note, was owned in 1963 (and for many years thereafter) by a little firm called Capital Cities, which also owned WROW (590) and WROW-FM (95.5), and which would later go on, 23 years later, to swallow ABC. Today, WTEN is owned by Young Broadcasting, while the former WROW-FM is now Albany Broadcasting's WYJB. It transmits from a tower on TV Lane just west of the WTEN site. In addition to WYJB's two-bay antenna at the top of the tower and its one-bay aux down near the bottom, this tower now holds two newer signals: WAJZ (96.3 Voorheesville) and WZMR (104.9 Altamont, itself a move-in from the west, having come in to the Albany market from Johnstown a few years back.)

Behind the WTEN tower sits WGNA (107.7), another venerable Helderbergs FM, and while we didn't get any good pictures of it this time, the WFLY site sits just a few hundred feet away to the north. (Is WFLY's site the same location used by W47A back in the day? I'm not sure; the W47A building shown on Norm Gagnon's GGNInfo.com site doesn't seem to exist any longer, in any event.)

From WTEN, we head north to the end of Pinnacle Road, overlooking the steep dropoff that presents a dramatic vista of Albany and Schenectady, and east on Beaver Dam Road to the gate that leads back up the hill to the WRGB site, the easternmost of the Helderbergs towers.

Here, too, there's no sign at all of the early building pictured on GGNInfo, nor of the short towers on which the early GE engineers mounted their experimental antennas.

Instead, there's a building that looks like a green metal garage - and no GE transmitter inside, either. (GE hasn't owned WRGB since the eighties; it's now owned by Freedom.)

That Gates BT-18 is carrying analog channel 6 to the end of its days - and up a spiral staircase, on a narrow loft overlooking the Gates, we find the transmitters for WRGB's former sister station. It even says "WGFM" on one of them, but the 99.5 signal here is today Clear Channel's WRVE, and I'm pretty sure there's now an HD transmitter up here instead of that vintage Gates next to what was then the Harris main transmitter.

Also tucked in here is WNYA-CA (Channel 15), the LPTV that relays My Network TV affiliate WNYA (Channel 51) from Pittsfield, Mass. When we visited a year ago, WNYA was being operated out of the WRGB studios, but now that WRGB has purchased CW affiliate WCWN (Channel 45) as a sister station, that's changing, we think.

(And as we noted last week, we still don't know whether WRGB-DT will come back here in 2009, when it's slated to move from its present channel 39 to channel 6, or whether WRGB will build a channel 6 DTV facility over at the new DTV tower, or whether it will end up staying on 39 after all. The historian in us would note, too, that a plan was floated back in the fifties to make Albany an all-UHF market, moving WRGB to channel 47 alongside the existing channels 35 and 41, but GE's political power quashed that idea.)

Outside the building, we spend a few minutes admiring the cluster of towers here - a very solid-looking self-supporter for WRGB, a short aux tower for WRGB that looks as though it could date back to the early days here, and the guyed WRVE tower right behind the building - before returning to Pinnacle Road to see the towers on its west side.

The first building on the west side of Pinnacle, heading south from Beaver Dam, is the oldest of Albany's current UHF stations.

WMHT (Channel 17) signed on in 1962 as one of the state's first public TV stations, and its tower now holds not only WMHT-TV but also two FMs - Siena College's WVCR (88.3) and WMHT's own FM outlet, which signed on in 1972 on 89.1, usurping WVCR's former frequency in exchange for a deal to raise that station's power and move it to the Helderbergs on 88.3.

Next door to WMHT is the little ranch-house style building that's home to WPYX (106.5), with its tower right out back.

From there, it's about half a mile south (and uphill) to the newer towers in the cluster, starting with the former site of channel 45, which signed on as indie WUSV in the 80s, was sold to WMHT as public station WMHX a few years later, went dark, returned as public station WMHQ, then went commercial as WEWB and then WCWN. By then, as we showed you last week, 45's analog signal had moved to the new DTV tower that went up on the next parcel to the south. (The old 45 tower is on "Tower Two Lane," while the new stick is on "Tower Three Lane.")

Another half-mile or so brings us to the southernmost of the sites up here: the analog tower for Fox outlet WXXA (Channel 23), which signed on in 1982. It suffered a disastrous antenna failure a few years back, and the burned-up old antenna now sits in the grass outside the building.

And that, save for a look inside the WXXA analog building (which we'll get someday, though the station's CE is on a well-deserved vacation during this visit), is pretty much all there is to show you about TV up here in the Helderbergs.

We'll come back here at some point and show you more about the FMs up here. In the meantime, check out more great Albany tower pics at NECRAT.com, and tune in to our sister site tophour.com for some Albany radio legal IDs, and come back next week as we launch a series of Sites of the Week featuring the stations in our own backyard - Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester!

Thanks to Arthur Neveu of WTEN, Eric Brucker and Fred Lass of WRGB, Sarge Cathrall of WXXA and Derk van Rijsewijk of WMHT for the tours, and for arranging for the tours!

The Tower Site Calendar 2007 is sold out! But we still have other back issues and more goodies availale at the Fybush.com Store - and check back soon for your first chance to order Tower Site Calendar 2008!