Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Over the many years we’ve been offering up this column, we’ve featured deep looks at three of the four huge broadcast towers that flank the Route 128 corridor through the Boston suburbs of Newton and Needham: the WBZ-TV tower, the WHDH-TV tower and the FM128 tower (and then the FM128 tower again, more recently).
Until now, though, we’ve never presented a close examination of the fourth tower in the farm, the candelabra-topped guyed tower that rises more than a thousand feet from a small hill behind the Sheraton hotel off Highland Avenue in Needham.
The history, first and foremost: this was the last tower to go up here, and by almost a decade. The tower we now know as “FM128” went up in 1957 for what were then WHDH-TV (Channel 5) and WHDH-FM (94.5), and at the same time Westinghouse had just finished its tower for WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and WBZ-FM (106.7).
WNAC-TV (Channel 7) and WNAC-FM (98.5) came along in the early 1960s, building the prominent self-supporter on Tower Road, just off Needham Street in Newton very near the spot where it crosses the Charles River into Needham to become Highland Avenue.
(In the wide-angle photo above, that’s the FM128 tower way off at the left, and the channel 7 tower visible just to the right of the candelabra.)
By then, UHF television had made some early inroads into the Boston TV dial. Cambridge-licensed WTAO-TV (Channel 56) had come first, signing on from Zion Hill in Woburn in 1953 and struggling along for a few years before folding its tent ahead of the arrival of WHDH-TV as the third VHF in town. Under the calls WXHR-TV, channel 56 was resurrected in the early 1960s for testing purposes.
Two other early UHF channels existed only as construction permits in the 1950s: Herbert Mayer’s Empire Coil had a CP for channel 38, holding the WXEL calls that Mayer had earlier used in Cleveland, but it was never built and deleted by 1960; on channel 44, the colorful J.D. “Jack” Wrather held a CP for WJDW that was also never built. Wrather, who at various points owned Muzak and the Lassie franchise, eventually donated that CP to WGBH, which signed it on in 1967 as WGBX, joining WGBH-TV (Channel 2) over on the WBZ-TV tower.
By then, two UHF signals were on the air for good. A new channel 38, WIHS, hit the air in October 1964 from the rooftop of the brand-new Prudential Tower in the Back Bay, carrying religious programming from its licensee, the Boston Catholic TV Center, as well as general entertainment later in the day. The dormant channel 56 was sold to a consortium of the Boston Globe and Kaiser Broadcasting, which put it back on the air in 1966 as independent WKBG, using the old WTAO-TV/WXHR-TV site up in Woburn.
Neither of those sites worked especially well: rooftop antennas in the region were all aimed at the Newton/Needham tower cluster where the three big commercial VHF stations and WGBH all had their transmitters, and channel 56’s Woburn site in particular was too low and in the wrong spot to reach the growing southern and western suburbs.
By the late 1960s, it was clear to both WKBG and to Storer Broadcasting, which had purchased channel 38 and renamed it WSBK, that the tower farm was the place to be.
In 1968, Kaiser/Globe and Storer joined forces to build the first community tower in the market, securing this site in Needham and putting up a 1200-foot guyed tower. (The guy wires land in various corners of the industrial/office landscape that surrounds the tower; it’s not uncommon for ice to fall near the hotel in the wintertime.)
Atop the tower, channels 38 and 56 put up a three-tined candelabra; each station took an arm, with the third reserved for future use. At the base of the tower, each station built its own brick transmitter building, each with its own street number on “Cabot Street,” which runs up the west side of the site from First Avenue to dead-end in the big parking lot outside the buildings.
Channel 56 changed calls from WKBG to WLVI not long after it arrived here, when the Globe sold its portion of the station to Kaiser, which eventually sold to Gannett (and later to Tribune). When we visited in 2009 at the end of the analog era, WLVI’s room was quite full, since it had to squeeze in both the analog channel 56 transmitter and a newer digital transmitter on RF channel 41. And by then, WLVI had become a CW affiliate and a sister station to WHDH-TV (Channel 7). Sunbeam, which owns the stations now, wisely decided not to combine them both at the channel 7 tower it owns, just up the street, instead choosing to maintain some redundancy with two facilities.
As for WSBK, the end of analog TV in 2009 was also the end of its four decades at this site. As a sister station to WBZ-TV, WSBK built its channel 39 digital facility over at the WBZ-TV tower (later sold to Richland and now owned, like this site, by American Tower), leaving only its legacy analog here at the candelabra to operate up to the end.
WSBK’s eventual owner, CBS, kept its space here at the site, though. A room adjacent to the old WSBK analog transmitter room has been built out in recent years as a backup facility for CBS Radio’s four FM signals in town, and now WBZ-FM (98.5), WZLX (100.7), WODS (103.3) and WBMX (104.1) can operate from here if their main sites – FM128 for WBZ-FM and WODS, the Pru for WZLX and WBMX – can’t be used.
The third TV station to call the candelabra home took a long road to get here. The first construction permit for WREP-TV (Channel 25) was issued back in 1965, and as early as 1970 trade publications featured ads for the candelabra tower that touted it as the home not only to channels 38 and 56 but also the soon-to-debut channel 25. But a lengthy FCC investigation into the sale of the CP to Metromedia held up the station’s arrival; in the end, it was deleted and Christian Broadcasting Network (which had tried to buy the WREP CP) was granted a new channel 25 CP, which finally saw air in 1977 as WXNE, using the third tine of the candelabra and a new brick building just south of WSBK’s space.
CBN eventually sold WXNE to Fox, the first station the fledgling network had purchased on its own after swallowing the Metromedia station group as its launch platform. Fox in turn sold WFXT to the Celtics in 1989, then bought it back in 1995 after divesting the Boston Herald, then sold it again to Cox this year in a trade for Cox’s San Francisco stations.
And who’s that guy doing the transmitter engineering for WFXT? None other than our good friend and fellow tower photographer Mike Fitzpatrick of NECRAT.us, who now gets to spend lots of time here amidst the tall towers, taking care of WFXT’s main and backup rigs. You can see his candelabra pictures here, including some great views of the analog-to-digital transition.
The candelabra looks a little different these days from the way we remember it in its heyday: instead of the three big UHF analog antennas mounted on top, only WFXT’s main antenna for its RF 31 digital signal rises all the way to the sky. An auxiliary DTV antenna hangs below WFXT’s tine. At the center (as seen from the top of the page), WLVI’s old analog antenna has been removed, with only a much smaller channel 41 antenna side-mounted on what had been the base of the channel 56 antenna. And there’s nothing left on the third tine where WSBK used to be.
There’s also nothing left here (except some signage) from any of the other FMs that once made their homes here. WBOS (92.9 Brookline) was an early occupant of this site, a huge step up from its original location on one of the towers of sister station WUNR (1600) over in the Oak Hill neighborhood on the other side of Newton; it later moved to FM128 (leaving behind an aux for many years) and eventually to the Pru. Framingham-licensed WVBF (105.7) became a full Boston-market FM with its 1970 move to the candelabra, but it too moved on to FM128 and then the Pru. When Westinghouse sold WBZ-FM (106.7) to Greater Media in 1981 to become WMJX, it spent some time here as well before joining the crowd atop the Pru. And while there was a sign here for WBMX (98.5) for many years, it never actually occupied that space, remaining over at FM128.
One more FM has arrived here since our last visit: W243CD (96.5) signed on in 2014 as a translator of WXRV (92.5 Andover) – which means we’ll have something new to see next time we go back!
Thanks to Mike (NECRAT.us) Fitzpatrick, Bob Yankowitz and Doug Kerhig for the tours!
OUR CALENDARS ARE ON THE MARCH
If you’re still waiting to buy your Tower Site Calendar, we’ve got a great reason not to put it off…it’s on sale!
Go to our store, click on the “Broadcasting Calendars” tab, select the options for the Tower Site Calendar (be sure to click on “yes” or “no” for a storage bag) and add it to your cart. Click on the “View Cart” button, and you are ready to check out.
And don’t forget our hand-numbered autographed calendar. It’s also on sale, but this is a limited edition.
John Schneider’s “Radio Historian’s Calendar” has been so popular this year we’ve had trouble keeping it in stock, but we’re still selling it, and it’s price is lower, too. This year’s calendar features buildings that once housed radio.
And don’t miss a big batch of Boston IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Our recap of Big Trip 2013 (Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota) begins…