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October 2-9, 2003
Roxborough Tower Farm, Philadelphia PA (part
There are a few
tower sites in America that deserve a place in the Tower Site
Hall of Fame. There's Mount Wilson above Los Angeles, South Mountain
above Phoenix, Cedar Hill south of Dallas, the Empire State Building
in New York - and our featured attraction this week and next,
Philadelphia's Roxborough tower farm.
Located in a suburban neighborhood verging on rural, yet within
Philadelphia city limits, just five miles or so northeast of
City Hall on the northern banks of the Schuylkill River, Roxborough
offers a little of everything that makes a great tower site great:
plenty of history, impressively tall steel (eight towers over
1000'), and even a three-tower AM directional amidst all the
FM, TV and DTV.
In all, there are thirteen significant towers amidst the cluster
(and just a couple of miles out to the west along Ridge Pike,
the very significant AM sites of WZZD 990/WFIL 560 and KYW 1060
add to the picture); by my count, Roxborough is home to 10 full-power
analog TV signals, 11 DTVs and 16 full-power FM facilities -
not to mention a dynamite view from I-76, the Schuylkill Expressway
that runs along the southern banks of the river.
Let's start our look at Roxborough with the view looking south
from Ridge Pike, the main east-west highway that runs past the
towers, as captured on a cloudy day in the summer of 1995 and
again, in bright sun, eight years later (this should really be
an animated GIF, I suppose, if anyone wants to turn these two
images into one):
Former WFLN tower:
The appropriate place to begin our look at Roxborough, though,
is at the one site not shown in the images above.
Out on the western
edge of Roxborough, this self-supporting tower went up in 1949
as the home of WFLN (95.7), Philadelphia's first stand-alone
For nearly 50 years, WFLN called this building and tower at
8200 Ridge Pike home, and for most of that time, it was Philadelphia's
voice of classical music. (It added an AM facility in the late
fifties, a little station squeezed onto the dial at 900 kHz;
that AM is now WURD and will be featured on a later Site of the
But not long after our 1995 visit, WFLN was sold to Greater
Media. The classical music came to an end in 1997, replaced by
modern AC as WXXM ("Max"), which later gave way to
rhythmic oldies WEJM and then to AC WMWX ("Mix"), none
of which ever achieved the ratings success of WFLN.
By the time WMWX came around, 95.7 had abandoned the 8200
Ridge transmitter location. The tower ended up in the hands of
American Tower, while the building became the studio of public
TV WYBE (Channel 35). Today, the tower is a temporary home for
Fox's WTXF-DT (Channel 42) and many non-broadcast tenants.
By the time WFLN was building its tower up by Ridge Pike
and Port Royal Avenue, the first tower had already gone up in
what would become the heart of the Roxborough cluster.
At the dead end of Wigard Avenue, south of Ridge, Walter Annenberg's
WFIL-TV (Channel 6) signed on in 1947 from a 600-foot four-sided
guyed tower that rose on a huge piece of land Annenberg bought
for the purpose. WFIL-TV was the second station in town; Philco's
WPTZ (Channel 3) had already been on the air for years from Wyndmoor,
a few miles to the north, while the Philadelphia Bulletin's WCAU-TV
would sign on a few months later on channel 10 from the PSFS
Building in Center City Philadelphia.
WFIL-FM (102.1) became the second FM in Roxborough when it
signed on from the WFIL tower not long after its TV sister.
By the late 1950s, all of Philadelphia's TV stations were
looking for increased tower height to serve a market that was
growing to include the Lehigh Valley, northern Delaware and all
of south Jersey - and that's when Annenberg got a new tenant
at Roxborough. In 1957, channel 3, by then owned by NBC and operating
as WRCV-TV, abandoned the old Wyndmoor site and, in partnership
with WFIL-TV, put up an 1116' tower on Annenberg's land. Channel
6 moved from its original tower to share the new tower; WFIL-FM
stayed put on the original tower, where it lives to this very
day as WIOQ.
1965, another tower went up on Annenberg's land, as he leased
space behind the channel 6 transmitter building to the new Kaiser
Broadcasting UHF outlet, WKBS-TV (Channel 48), which built its
own 1108' stick and transmitter building.
WKBS lasted almost 20 years, signing off in 1983 amidst great
uncertainty about the renewal of the lease for its tower site.
The channel 48 license was reopened for competitive applicants,
and one of them - Cornerstone Television of Pittsburgh - bought
the tower and transmission equipment from WKBS in hopes of getting
In the end, channel 48 went instead to Dorothy Brunson, and
the old transmitter and antenna were shipped to Altoona, where
Cornerstone put them back on the air on channel 47 as...yup,
WKBS. Brunson bought a used Townsend transmitter from Charlotte,
N.C., where it had been operating on channel 36, where it had
been purchased by one R.E. Turner for the station he named after
(You might know
Mr. Turner better by his nickname, "Ted," and you might
be interested to know that he sold the Charlotte station to Westinghouse
to finance the startup of the Cable News Network.) Brunson finally
got channel 48 back on the air in 1993 as WGTW, a relatively
low-budget independent operation.
Around that same time, the University of Pennsylvania's WXPN
made a big move, jumping from 88.9 to 88.5 and increasing power
substantially so as to qualify for Corporation for Public Broadcasting
funding. To alleviate the potential for interference to channel
6 (by then known as WPVI), WXPN moved in right next door at the
channel 48 facility. (Its move also allowed for the creation
of three new stations, WXVU at Villanova University and WYBF
at Cabrini College sharing time on 89.1 and WBZC at Burlington
Community College in New Jersey on 88.9.)
And just last year, WXPN and WGTW got some company in a corner
of their building, as WPLY (100.3 Media) moved into the Roxborough
farm from outlying Newtown Square. That move required an unusual
ERI nine-panel cogwheel directional antenna on the channel 48
tower, but it finally gave WPLY a signal that's truly competitive
with the other big Philly FMs at Roxborough.
Also last year, yet another tower went up behind the venerable
channel 6 building. In order to accommodate their new digital
TV signals, channel 6 (now owned and operated by ABC) and channel
3 (now CBS owned-and-operated KYW-TV) again joined forces to
build a new tower and transmitter building.
At 1276 feet, the new KYW-DT (Channel 26)/WPVI-DT (Channel
64) tower is the tallest of all the Roxborough towers. You can
see the new DTV building at the left of the picture below, behind
the long transmission line that leads from the old channel 6
building to the 1957 channel 3/6 tower. The new DTV tower is
the leftmost of the three behind channel 6's building; channel
48 is in the center and the original 1947 tower (now used solely
by 102.1) is at right.
can get a sense of how high Roxborough is in relation to the
rest of Philadelphia (this piece of land is about 250 feet above
sea level, while Center City is pretty much at sea level) by
noting how short the STL tower next to the channel 6 building
One more tower, not shown here, sits next to the channel 3
transmitter building, which is out of frame to the left of this
photo. It went up here when channel 3 moved to Roxborough in
1957, and housed the old channel 3 antenna that was moved from
Wyndmoor. That antenna was used as an auxiliary channel 3 facility
for decades before finally being replaced by a weather radar
system ("Live Mega Doppler 3") for KYW-TV.
When I first visited Roxborough in 1995, there was an engineer
working at the KYW-TV transmitter building that day, and as a
fellow Westinghouse employee back then, I was welcomed in for
the nickel tour. Below you can see the old and (then) new Harris
transmitters; that's a young Garrett Wollman, on one of his first
long tower-hunting trips, to the right of the "new"
(One of the biggest regrets of my tower-hunting career stems
from that day: offered a ride up the 3/6 tower's elevator, I
declined, since Garrett and I were in a hurry to meet up with
a radio convention touring several stations in New Jersey. What
was I thinking?)
An additional note about this KYW-TV facility: Westinghouse
seems to have ended up getting it pretty much free, when all
was said and done. You see, when channel 3 moved from Wyndmoor
to this site in 1957, it had just been sold by Westinghouse to
NBC, and not completely voluntarily. NBC badly wanted an O&O
station in the number four market, so it let Westinghouse know
that it faced losing the NBC affiliations in Philadelphia and
Boston unless it was willing to trade its Philadelphia properties
(KYW 1060 and WPTZ-TV 3) for NBC's Cleveland operations (WTAM
1100/105.7 and WNBK-TV 3). Westinghouse went along with the trade,
moving the KYW calls to Cleveland and building "KY11"
radio into a powerhouse top 40 operation for a few years, but
it also challenged NBC in court and won. In 1965, the FCC forced
NBC to unwind the deal, transferring Philadelphia back to Westinghouse
without being able to realize any profit on the arrangement.
WRCV 1060 and WRCV-TV 3 thus became KYW 1060 and KYW-TV 3, and
Westinghouse took control of a channel 3 facility in Roxborough
that was far superior to the old Wyndmoor facility it had given
up nine years earlier. (A final irony came just a few months
after these pictures were taken, when Westinghouse swallowed
CBS and had to divest CBS' WCAU-TV in Philadelphia in order to
keep KYW-TV, which became the CBS O&O in Philadelphia. The
natural buyer for WCAU-TV was none other than NBC, which finally
ended up with its Philly O&O forty years after it began trying.)
WNWR 1540: In the mid-sixties, AM radio came to Roxborough
as well. WJMJ 1540 had been a 1000 watt religious daytimer with
a transmitter site in New Jersey, but it needed a new transmitter
site when it won a construction permit to go to 50,000 watts
with three towers. So Rust Craft Broadcasting ended up with a
piece of land on the south side of Ridge, west of Domino Lane,
and 1540 was reborn as country WRCP. In later years, 1540 would
become WSNI, then WPGR and finally multiethnic WNWR. It had a
CP for night operation in the early nineties, and even operated
after dark for a time, but with only 100 watts it just wasn't
worth the trouble, so WNWR remains a daytimer. That's its transmitter
building in the foreground of the two wide shots of Roxborough
at the top of the page.
In part two next week, we'll
go over to Domino Lane and take a look at the WCAU-TV site and
the towers known as "Banks," "Fox" and "Gross"
- stay tuned!
(And in the meantime, the current issue of Radio World contains
an article of mine with more historical information and nifty
photos of Roxborough - check
it out here!)
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