In this week’s issue… A giant of NYC broadcasting is gone – Remembering Robert FX Sillerman – Standard grows in Southern Tier, beyond – WPEN PD out – 100 years of radio in Montreal
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*If you’re one of the 18 million or so people who listen to FM radio or watch TV in greater NEW YORK in the 21st century, you can thank John Lyons for making it possible.
Lyons, who died Friday, did more than any other single engineer to shape the physical form of New York broadcasting through his work at all three of the major sites in Manhattan, first at the Empire State Building, then at 4 Times Square, and then most notably as the mastermind who returned television to the rebuilt 1 World Trade Center in the long years after 9/11.
His broadcast life began (as did so many New Yorkers’) at Brooklyn Tech, then continued with work at WRFM (105.1) and WWRL (1600). While at WWRL, he also moonlighted in the Caribbean, building ZDK in Antigua and serving as its chief operator. From there, it was off to Manhattan and WOR (710), as assistant chief engineer, then sister station WXLO (98.7), where he spent a decade as chief engineer.
His work at WXLO brought him into the orbit of the Master FM committee at Empire, where he was a key part of the planning that led to the early 1990s move from the Alford master antenna to the new ERI master antenna a few hundred feet higher up on the mast. By then, Lyons had moved on to new roles, first with DSI Communications, then with Sony Worldwide as it built out its new radio network.
He came back to radio, and to Empire, at Viacom’s WLTW (106.7) and then as chief engineer of new sister station WAXQ (104.3), a role he retained while once again chairing the Empire FM committee. In the early 2000s, with WAXQ and WLTW now part of a larger Clear Channel cluster, Lyons led the charge to build out a new auxiliary site for all five FMs in the group.
That’s where I first met him, in the early spring of 2001. As a new writer for Radio World, I made my first visits to the Empire transmitter rooms and to John’s brand-new auxiliary site a few blocks away, on a short tower atop the 4 Times Square office tower, among the first significant new skyscrapers to go up in Manhattan in more than a decade.
“Next time you come visit,” he said as we parted, “I’ll take you down to the World Trade Center to see WKTU,” the lone Clear Channel FM that was then broadcasting from downtown.
There was never a next time, of course. On 9/11, Lyons’ careful planning paid off: in the midst of the tragedy, WKTU’s signal smoothly switched to 4 Times Square, one of just two WTC signals that had a substantial aux site ready to go. (The other, WCBS-TV, had retained space at Empire only by accidentally failing to cancel a lease.)
Within a few months, Lyons was already at work planning out a much more robust auxiliary site. He left Clear Channel in 2002 to join the Durst Organization, the owner of 4 Times Square, where he plotted out the replacement of the original 143-foot tower with a 385-foot tower carrying enough antenna capacity for most of the New York TV and FM dial. Other broadcasters, including Univision, ABC, WNYE, WKCR, SBS and WNYC, joined that project over the next few years.
Then came Lyons’ crowning achievement: Durst became involved with the new 1 World Trade Center tower, putting John at the center of the New York TV world. While the new 1WTC wasn’t an appealing prospect for FM stations for a variety of spacing and height reasons, it was a natural spot for TV broadcasters to relocate.
As a newly-minted vice president at Durst, it was Lyons’ responsibility to design the new 1WTC facility from the ground (or at least the 98th floor) up. What did the antennas need to look like? How would a 21st century transmitter room be laid out? And, of course, who would occupy that room and who would choose to stay uptown at the Empire State Building as that venerable facility also rebuilt itself for 21st century broadcasters?
John Lyons shone in his new role at Durst. He learned the commercial real estate business as he took on Durst’s end of the negotiations with America’s biggest broadcasters – and he landed nearly all of them for 1WTC. CBS, NBC, Fox, WNET and Ion all signed on for the new building. On half of a high floor just below the public observation deck, Lyons built out a transmitter room like few others in North America: with highly reliable transmitters, there was little need for full-time engineers or even separate rooms. Instead, he designed what looked like a data center with the world’s most spectacular view out the (usually shaded) windows: a row of racks for each station on one side, a pair of combiners on the other feeding a pair of antennas up above.
The combiners and the antenna were another complex dance of the sort John excelled at: he traveled to Australia to oversee design and construction at RFS, planning from the beginning for the 2019 repack work that would require almost every station feeding the combiners and antennas to change frequency. As ever, it was planned to the tiniest detail with John at the helm, and it went off without a hitch.
How could I possibly have known, when I last saw John up at 1WTC a year or so ago, that it would be the last of his great projects? John suffered a heart attack over the Thanksgiving holiday, we’re told, and was gone suddenly on Friday, at just 71.
Read on for a few more personal recollections of John.
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