June 18, 2010

Mount Beacon, Beacon, N.Y.

We'll pick up again next week with our look at the ever-changing studios of New York City - but I just couldn't wait to get these pictures up here first.

The images you see here were taken just a week ago atop Mount Beacon, 1500 feet above the Hudson Valley at the southern edge of Dutchess County, 60 miles or so north of New York City. In its present state, this would be a pretty impressive site no matter what, seeing as how it's home to one big-signalled class B FM station, WSPK (104.7 Poughkeepsie) as well as the only two full-power TV stations between New York and Albany and a slew of translators to boot.

But what makes Mount Beacon really interesting, beyond the million-dollar view up and down the Hudson River, is the history.

Today's engineers bump their way up a winding dirt road past a reservoir to get to the transmitter sites up on the north summit of Beacon, but they're following paths that go back to the Revolutionary War era, when the signal fires that were set up here could be seen as far away as West Point. In the early part of the 20th century, there were resort cottages and a hotel up here, served by the Mount Beacon Incline Railway, which shot straight up the west flank of the mountain at as much as a 65% grade. (It ran until 1978, was destroyed by fire in 1982, and is now the subject of a restoration effort; check out the link above to learn more.)

And in 1928 it became home to a radio station. In those early days of broadcast engineering, it seemed logical enough that a spot like this, with that view up and down the valley, would be a good place to put a transmitter, so it must have been something of a disappointment when WOKO, which had been slowly migrating north from New York City to Peekskill since its founding in 1924, signed on at 1440 kilocycles from its new longwire antenna strung between two towers amidst the cottages here. The view might have been great, but the ground conductivity up on the rocky mountaintop was not, and WOKO's 500 watts didn't go as far as expected.

WOKO tried valiantly, carrying CBS programming to the mid-Hudson region and even experimenting with some very early television transmissions, but by 1930 it was on the road again, relocating 90 miles north to Albany, where it settled down at 1430 (and later 1460) on the dial. (Its history after that remained quite interesting; its license was revoked after the FCC found that a CBS executive, Sam Pickard, had been given a partial ownership share in the station in exchange for the network affiliation. WOKO stayed on the air with a new license and new owners, and is today Radio Disney's WDDY.)

Mount Beacon didn't stay silent on the radio for long. In December 1947, this site became home to an early FM outlet, WHVA (104.7), a sister to Poughkeepsie's WKIP (1450) and to the Poughkeepsie Journal. Like all those early FMs, WHVA struggled at first, picking up programming from New York City's WQXR-FM (96.3) and then from the Rural Radio Network, which found the Beacon site to be an ideal link between its chain of upstate FMs and New York City. In 1950, RRN bought WHVA from the Journal (in lieu of $3,000 annual rent!) and changed the calls to WRRH; three years later, 104.7 was back in the hands of WKIP, becoming WKIP-FM with a simulcast of the AM.

104.7 split off from the AM for good in 1970, changing hands to a new owner, Beacon's WBNR (1260), and taking the calls it uses today, WSPK. By 1980, it had become top-40 "K-104.7" - and so it remains today, running 7400 watts from that 4-bay Shively antenna on that 315-foot guyed tower at the center of the photo above. The tower, erected in 1966, belongs to the Archdiocese of New York, which used it as part of its ITFS microwave network carrying Catholic programming north from New York City into the Hudson Valley; those big reflectors at the top directed (and maybe still do direct?) microwave signals down to big dish antennas mounted horizontally at ground level next to a building housing the Archdiocese's gear.

Two TV stations came to the mountaintop in the digital age: Trinity Broadcasting Network's WTBY-DT (Channel 54/RF 27) had operated in analog from Illinois Mountain in Highland, across the river to the west and about 15 miles north; it set up its digital transmitter in a new building next to the old steep-roofed WHVA/WSPK building (which may even have been the original WOKO building, though I've also heard otherwise) and installing its antenna atop an SBA-owned tower here. (In the big picture at the top of the page, WTBY-DT is just to the right of the big guyed Archdiocese/WSPK tower.)

The other TV station up here is WRNN-DT, which today is mostly infomercials but once tried to be an all-news channel for the Hudson Valley. WRNN descended from WTZA (Channel 62), licensed to Kingston and transmitting from Overlook Mountain north of Woodstock; its digital operation on RF 48 comes from the basement of the WHVA/WSPK building, with an antenna on another SBA tower, seen at left in the photo at the top of the page.

The WHVA/WSPK building has FM translator antennas mounted at both ends; on the west side, a pair of vertical antennas carry W293AE (106.5, relaying WDST 100.1 from Woodstock) and W229BH (93.7, relaying WNYX 88.1 from Montgomery), while on the east side a Scala antenna transmits W212CC (90.3, relaying WFSO 88.3 Olivebridge).

Just uphill to the west of the main tower complex, there's another smaller facility owned by American Tower that carries, among other things, two translators. W280DJ (103.9) is part of the extensive relay network for Albany's WAMC (90.3), while W233BM (94.5), the newest translator on Mount Beacon, is a 7-watt relay of New York's WFUV (90.7) aimed at the fast-growing arts and cultural community down below in the town of Beacon.

So why was I so eager to get these pictures up here right away, when there's still a year-long (and then some) backup of cool pictures from Phoenix, Tucson, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Harrisburg and all sorts of other places to show you here on Site of the Week?

The answer is simple: while we still have a few remaining copies of Tower Site Calendar 2010 to sell you, we're also hard at work getting Tower Site Calendar 2011 ready to go to the printer - complete with that fabulous view of Mount Beacon on the cover!

And for a very limited time - just from now until the end of June - we're giving you the chance to pre-order Tower Site Calendar 2011 at a special early-bird discount. If you order now, you'll get to be among the very first people anywhere to see the new calendar, since we'll ship it out to you just as soon as it comes back from the printer right around Labor Day.

(It's much more than just pretty pictures and dates - the modest sum we raise from each year's calendar helps make possible the travel needed to make this feature happen every week on the website...and we're grateful for all your support!)

Thanks to Mike Fitzpatrick of NECRAT.us for the ride up the mountain - and for identifying all those translator antennas!

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