Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Ah, November in the English Midlands! While we enjoyed some surprisingly warm and even sunny days on our trip there in late 2017, our final day in England was rather decidedly none of those things.
But no amount of cold or rain or clouds could stop us from making a few broadcast stops around greater Birmingham before boarding a discount flight to equally gray-and-rainy Germany – and no broadcast site in this region is more important than the one known as “Sutton Coldfield.”
You can see the current 270-meter mast here for miles and miles as you drive toward the north side of Birmingham, which was exactly the point when the BBC built on this high spot of ground back in 1949 for the first TV transmission station outside greater London. That makes this the oldest TV site in Britain, since the BBC’s London site in that era was at Alexandra Palace, and it didn’t move to the current Crystal Palace tower until the mid-fifties.
The original mast here carried just one 405-line black-and-white TV signal; when commercial TV launched in 1956, it was from a separate site a few miles to the east at Lichfield. (The 305-meter mast at Lichfield still stands, but it’s not used for much; when 625-line UHF color TV arrived in the 1960s, BBC and ITV shared the Sutton Coldfield site, leaving Lichfield to run out the final years of 405-line black-and-white ITV service and then to serve as the analog site for the new Channel 5 network from 1997 until the analog switchoff in 2011. Today Lichfield carries only a few DAB services and one low-power FM, while everything else is here at Sutton Coldfield.)
There’s a fairly dense upscale suburban neighborhood now surrounding the driveway that leads to the gate at Sutton Coldfield. We didn’t expect to be able to get inside, and indeed we did not – but we did have an amusing conversation with an engineer who was headed to the gate, wondering if we planned to send the pictures we were taking to Mike Brown’s outstanding Transmission Site Gallery – and indeed, we intended to do so!
The present mast at Sutton Coldfield went up in the mid-1980s, sitting alongside (and then replacing) the 1949 version. There was a third mast here as well, briefly – a temporary structure that supported some of the site’s antennas during the conversion to digital TV that was completed in 2011. Today, there are Freeview digital UHF TV multiplexes galore coming from the top of the mast, DAB antennas down below, and then an FM antenna array that supports very high powered (250 kW!) signals for the BBC’s four national FM services, 110 kW for national Classic FM, and lower-powered (10-11 kW each) signals for “BBC WM,” the regional service on 95.6, as well as commercial stations Free Radio (96.4, long known as “BRMB,” the original independent local radio service here), Heart West Midlands (100.7), Absolute (105.2) and Smooth (105.7).
Speaking of BRMB: when independent local radio got its start here in 1974, it was primarily heard on medium wave. Squeezing in new MW signals so late in the game required the Independent Broadcasting Authority to reuse the same frequencies in several locations – which meant the first serious use of US-style directional arrays. London’s LBC, BRMB here in Birmingham and several other new stations all had to share 1151 (later 1152) kHz, which required the use of a four-tower directional array at a new site, “Langley Mill,” a few miles northeast of Sutton Coldfield.
Today, the Langley Mill site is easily seen from the new M6 Toll motorway that cuts just west of the towers, through what surely was a much more rural site back in 1974.
The original BRMB medium-wave service on 1152 is now known as “Free Radio 80s,” sharing these towers with the BBC’s Asian Network on 1458 kHz. (That started as the original BBC WM medium-wave service, from a longwire antenna at Sutton Coldfield, before moving here in 1981.) The pattern from this site is aimed mostly south and west into Birmingham, protecting co-channel signals from the Saffron Green site north of London and other similar sites near Manchester and Newcastle.
In the mid-1990s, a second site was added here, at the south end of the open field where the four 1152/1458 towers sit: “Langley Mill B” is a single mast (made directional by a sloping wire off the side) that carries “Radio XL,” a commercial Asian-language service on 1296 kHz.
And the BBC’s national MW and LW services? They reach Birmingham and the Midlands from the historic Droitwich site, southwest of the city. We didn’t get there on this 2017 trip, but we saw the site back in 2002.
A few hours after these visits, we were at Birmingham Airport, boarding a flight over to Stuttgart, Germany for what was mostly designed as a few days of intense automotive tourism. Stuttgart is, of course, the home of both Porsche and Mercedes Benz, both of which have fascinating new museum complexes and factory tours that consumed most of our time here.
But Stuttgart has an important place in broadcast transmission history, too: drive up into the hills south of the city center and you’ll arrive at the local landmark called “Fernsehturm Stuttgart.”
“Das Erste,” proclaims the poster they sell in the gift shop here – “The First” – because when this 217-meter structure went up between 1954 and 1956, it was the very first reinforced-concrete telecommunications tower in the world, setting a model for future ventures such as the CN Tower in Toronto.
This is more than a broadcast site – it’s a pretty important local tourist attraction, boasting a restaurant and observation deck up the tower, though it was so heavily fogged in on this November afternoon that we skipped the 7-euro elevator ride and contented ourself with browsing the gift shop. (They sell a guidebook, albeit only in German, as well as tower-shaped bottle openers, pens, and so on.)
There’s actually not that much broadcasting going on these days at the Fernsehturm, which is still owned by the state broadcaster SWR. Analog TV went away here back in 2006 and commercial FM never operated here, so all that’s here now are SWR’s four FM networks and the national Deutschlandfunk at the top of the mast, as well as some newer DAB antennas just below.
Everything else in town comes from another reinforced-concrete tower to the east, the Fernmeldeturm (“telecommunications tower”) Stuttgart. It’s not open to the public, but we get a nice view of the 192-meter mast and its unusual elevated ring of transmission rooms as we drive up to the Fernsehturm. The newer tower, which went up in 1970-72, carries Germany’s advanced DVB-T2 digital TV services as well as a plethora of commercial FM signals for the region and DAB services, too.
And as we prepare to end our European adventure, it’s up the autobahn we go – where roadside vistas in the drizzle include this interesting-looking local tower near Phillipsburg, which doesn’t appear to carry anything broadcast, but is still a very different sort of roadside communications tower than anything you’ll see on this side of the pond.
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Next week: Elmira, NY