Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Master FM antenna systems are among the most fascinating objects in broadcasting. They first came into prominence in the US exactly 50 years ago this fall (a topic we’ll be discussing when your editor moderates a panel on the anniversary of the Alford master antenna at the Empire State Building October 29 at the Audio Engineering Society convention!), and in the subsequent decades they’ve become the FM sites of choice in a handful of big US markets.
There’s New York and Chicago and Boston, cities where tall downtown buildings provide the highest perch around for FM but offer only limited antenna space.
And then there are the flatlands where a 1500′ or 2000′ tower for full class C FM coverage is an expensive proposition to build – but easier to afford when a consortium of broadcasters all share a common antenna at the top. Over the years, we’ve been lucky enough to visit sites like those in Minneapolis and St. Louis, but a few more big combiners eluded us.
We still haven’t been to Senior Road in Houston (someday…), but our March 2015 trip to South Florida included a very special afternoon at another one of the biggest FM combiner sites in America, the American Tower site along the Broward/Miami-Dade county line that’s widely known as the “Guy Gannett Tower” after the broadcast company that built it back in the 1980s or as the “441 Tower” for the highway that runs just east of its location on NW 210th Street. (Remember, you can always click on any image here for a larger version!)
Before this tower went up, FM was still a somewhat scattered medium in Miami and neighboring Fort Lauderdale. A few FMs were on other big towers in the tower farm here, several others were downtown, and several were on shorter towers out in Broward County that didn’t provide full Miami coverage.
But then came Guy Gannett, which owned WINZ (940) and WINZ-FM (94.9) and was looking for a better home for its FM station than the leased space it occupied at another of the sites in the tower farm. That’s how WINZ-FM (later WZTA, “Zeta 4,” and now iHeart’s WMGE) became the lead partner in the construction of this 1042′ tower with a massive building at the base to house FM and TV transmitters.
WINZ-FM built its transmitter room right at the center of the main first-floor hallway, directly underneath the upstairs room where the original Shively combiner system went in. In its original configuration, this room had carpeted floors and Continental transmitters built into a wall; later renovations took down the wall and put in a Harris/Gates Air transmitter. Other tenants who landed on the first floor included what’s now Univision’s WAMR (107.5), CBS Radio’s WPOW (96.5) and Cox’s WEDR (99.1), the lone station here that doesn’t use the master antenna because it has its own directional antenna.
Two UHF stations moved in here, too: independent WBFS (Channel 33) and later independent WAMI (Channel 69), but they didn’t stay into the digital era. WBFS ended up on the new CBS tower just west of here, while WAMI-TV is now at the Hallandale Beach Blvd. candelabra we showed you last week.
The departure of WBFS from its big first-floor room created room for ERI to install a new analog/digital combiner system in 2004, which feeds an ERI cogwheel antenna at the top of the tower. The original Shively 10-station combiner remains in place upstairs as a complete backup transmission system, feeding a separate Axiom antenna mounted below the cogwheel.
The rest of the transmitter rooms are on the upper floor, and we were lucky to bring together three of the market’s engineers to show off most of them at once. Cox’s WFLC (97.3) sits in a room adjacent to the upper combiner, down a hallway that leads to a second-story doorway that can be opened to lift transmitters in by crane. WFEZ (93.1)’s room sits along the hallway that leads to the combiner from the main part of the building, and Cox sister station WHQT (105.1) is up here as well. All three have similar setups, with the older Continental 816-series units now backing up newer GatesAir hybrid transmitters.
iHeart’s stations share a complex of rooms around the corner, several of them behind a sliding steel door that looks almost like an industrial refrigerator.
WMIA (93.9 Miami Beach, the former WWWL/WLVE), WMIB (103.5 Fort Lauderdale, ex-WSHE) and WHYI (100.7 Fort Lauderdale) have a mix of equipment including Continental, BE and Nautel in their rooms (and spilling out into the hallway that connects them, where several stations have auxiliary and HD transmitters.)
And we conclude back down the hall at Lincoln Financial’s WMXJ (102.7), which has its all-Harris transmitter lineup in a room with an odd intersection of transmission line and equipment rack. The rack rolls out of the way to access the equipment behind that angled transmission line, and a planned replacement of that older Harris should lead to a reconfiguration of the line to avoid that particular problem.
Thanks to Gary Blau, Jim Leifer and Mitch Wein for the tours!
The Fybush Media podcast is back – for real! Listen to our latest episode right here!
Season two of “Top of the Tower” offered you several preview editions during the NAB Show last month in Las Vegas – and now we’re (finally!) back to regular weekly editions. Join host Scott Fybush and a wide variety of industry insiders every Wednesday for interesting conversation about what’s happening in the business of radio and TV, not to mention programming, engineering and the newsroom.
Find “Top of the Tower” on all your favorite podcast platforms or right here at fybush.com – and check out our Season 1 Archives, too!
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Next week: Miami AM sites, 2015