July 9, 2010

4 Times Square, New York, 2009

As we continue our look at New York City radio, this week's installment takes us back to a site that's become increasingly important to the city's TV and FM community.

This is 4 Times Square, aka "the Conde Nast Building," and amazingly, it's been almost a decade now since we first made the pilgrimage here to watch the facility take shape.

When we stopped up for the first time in 2001, this was an FM-only backup facility, providing auxiliary transmission capacity for a handful of stations with primary facilities at the Empire State Building or the still-standing World Trade Center.

A return visit in 2003 found a site transformed: in the wake of 9/11 and the sudden pressing need for much more backup transmitter-site capacity, the original stubby FM tower had been removed and was in the process of being replaced by a much taller (385-foot) structure with antenna space, at least in theory, for the entire New York City FM and TV dial.

It had been a few years since we last stopped by, so a visit to New York in October 2009 provided a good excuse to check out the latest developments up at Four Times Square - even if the weather was a little less than cooperative.

Up on the roof, the antennas that went up in 2003 are still there: an Andrew Trasar up top that carried WFUT (Channel 68)'s analog signal until analog TV went away; below that, a pair of Dielectric broadband UHF antennas for channels 40-60 (top) and 24-45 (bottom), a Dielectric high-VHF antenna below that - and then a modified Shively 6016 FM master antenna below that. (There's room on the mast for low-band VHF as well, though no antennas for those frequencies were ever mounted here.)

The temporary FM antenna that was used during the reconstruction of the big tower is still mounted atop the steel framework holding one of the signs on the side of the building - and from there, we get a nice view across the street to the new Bank of America building, which also has a nifty mast rising from its roof, though that one is purely decorative.

There's another new FM antenna since our last visit: just above the top of the steel framework surrounding the base of the tower, there's a set of yagi antennas for WFMU-FM1, the 22-watt on-channel booster for WFMU (91.1 East Orange NJ), which was in testing mode when we visited in 2009.

Before we head inside from the roof, one more note about the level of detail that went into the design and operation of this facility: to comply with regulatory requirements that RF safety information be provided to anyone going out on the roof, site manager John Lyons installed that nifty boxes shown above at right, delivering recorded information about which areas are safe and which ones require additional protection. They don't use just any random voice, either - as befits someone with deep New York radio connections, John got former WLTW (106.7) afternoon legend Valerie Smaldone to do the VO for that little project!

Inside we go - and we'll start on the top floor of the facility, the 52nd floor space that was largely empty the first time we came to visit. Today, the big space on 52 is filled with combiners for the TV tenants whose transmitters feed the antennas up above. There's just one station on the VHF antenna, ABC's WABC-TV (Channel 7); in the wake of the DTV conversion, the UHF combiners will end up being reconfigured for their digital tenants, Univision's WXTV (Channel 40) and WFUT (Channel 30) and city-owned WNYE (Channel 24).

The 52nd floor is also home to a small rack of gear for WFMU-FM1, and to several racks of transmitter and processing for Columbia University's WKCR (89.9), one of two FM signals that use 4 Times Square as their primary site.

One floor down on 51, the FM combiner that served five stations in 2001 now serves 11 stations: it's an aux site for the original five Clear Channel FMs (WHTZ 100.3, WKTU 103.5, WAXQ 104.3, WWPR 105.1, WLTW 106.7); SBS' WPAT-FM (93.1) and WSKQ (97.9); public radio WNYC-FM (93.9) and WQXR (105.9); WKCR (89.9) and city-owned WNYE-FM (91.5).

The Clear Channel, SBS and WNYC transmitters are in individual rooms that surround the combiner, while the WNYE room and the TV transmitters are one floor below, on the mezzanine floor that was built between the 49th and 50th floor as part of the broadcast expansion project. There's a particular bit of irony to go with WNYE's recent arrival as a tenant here: the FM station, then owned by the city schools, was the first one Lyons ever worked at, when he was a student at Brooklyn Tech in the sixties!

(I'd love to show you those mezzanine rooms, but we weren't accompanied by engineers from those stations during this visit, so we'll have to find an excuse to come back sometime soon to continue profiling the newest additions to this site!)

As it approaches the ten-year mark, a lot has changed up here, but one thing remains the same: it's still the only multi-tenant broadcast facility in the city that was designed from the ground up for FM and TV transmission, and it remains a vital part of the radio and TV infrastructure in the nation's biggest market. Since the new skyscraper that's going up at the old World Trade Center site won't include broadcast facilities, it's still up to just two major sites, Empire and 4 Times Square, to handle the city's needs - and if the talk of a major reconstruction of Empire's mast ever comes true, it's likely that still more broadcasters will look to 4 Times Square to provide alternate transmission capability in the interim.

Thanks, as always, to Durst Organization assistant VP/director of broadcast communications John Lyons for the tour!

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