Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When we started visiting tower sites in earnest, almost 30 years ago now, we had a few quests in mind. One was to see the towers of every one of the 25 original class I-A clear channel AM stations in the US. It took a few decades, but last September in Texas, we completed that particular goal, and you’ll see the final installments in that journey in this space over the next few months. (We still haven’t been inside all of those sites, mind you – two of them still elude us, and one has moved since we saw it, but that’s a different story.)
Another, related quest is to get inside as many of the remaining pre-World War II AM transmitter sites that still stand, and we’ve done pretty well chipping way at that goal.
One that had eluded us for a while was WBAL in Baltimore, which is not only a pre-WWII site but also checks off another, somewhat more complex list: the class I-B clear channel stations that were early users of directional antennas, allowing them to share their channel with usually just one other big station on the other side of the country. We’d driven past the pretty WBAL three-tower site in Randallstown, Maryland several times – but it wasn’t until last March that we finally made it inside, just after our tour of the spectacular rebuild of the WBAL radio studios down in Baltimore City.
Let’s history, shall we? WBAL started up in 1925, operated by the Consolidated Gas Electric Light and Power Company of Baltimore from a transmitter site in Glen Morris, up near Reiserstown, northwest of Baltimore. By 1929, WBAL had shifted from 1050 to 1060, entering into a long period when it was sharing time with another powerful signal on the channel, WTIC in Hartford, Connecticut.
But WBAL wasn’t content with a share-time arrangement. It soon began experimenting with synchronous operation, spending some of its nighttime hours operating on 760, where its carrier frequency was precisely synced up to the big signal on that frequency, New York’s WJZ, during hours when both stations were carrying NBC Blue Network programming. WTIC, meanwhile, had moved from 1060 to 1040 under its own experimental authority, leaving WBAL instead sharing 1060 with KTHS in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Reading through the complexity of the station’s FCC history cards from the 1930s, it appears WBAL settled into a pattern not long after it moved its transmitter site to a new location in Pikesville, Maryland in 1933: during the day, it ran 10 kW on 1060, sharing the frequency with KTHS. At sunset in Hot Springs, KTHS signed off at 1060, while WBAL had the channel to itself until 9 PM eastern/8 PM central. And when that hour arrived, WBAL moved to 760 to carry Blue Network programming synchronized with WJZ, using a 2500 watt directional facility that (we presume) had a null toward WJZ’s New Jersey site, while KTHS returned to the air in Arkansas on 1060 for the rest of the night.
(Throughout the 1930s, the license cards show that WTIC remained licensed on 1060, nominally sharing time with WBAL, even though WTIC was actually operating experimentally on 1040 and doing some synchronous operation with KRLD in Dallas; KTHS remained licensed on 1040, nominally sharing time with KRLD but actually operating experimentally on 1060 under its own arrangement with WBAL. This arrangement had to be renewed every six months starting in 1934 and running through 1941. If you don’t have a headache from all this by now, you have a stronger constitution than we do.)
By 1938, WBAL was on the move again, seeking out a new transmitter site and applying for full licensed operation on 1060, requesting 50,000 watts with nighttime DA from this site in Randallstown, west-northwest of Baltimore. In July 1941, WBAL applied for the license to cover the move, and by then the NARBA shuffle had moved WBAL to 1090. (Did WBAL’s nighttime operation shift to 770 for a few months when the NARBA shift took effect? We assume so, but the history cards are unclear here and further research will be required; in any event, by July 1941, the nighttime synchro operation with WJZ had come to an end at long last.)
Meanwhile in Arkansas, KTHS built its own directional array, allowing it to go full-time on 1090 with 10 kW by day and 1000 watts at night; in 1954, it changed sites and itself went to a full 50,000 watts, DA-N, later to relocate to Little Rock as the legendary KAAY.
Still with us? Good, because we’re done with all that busy history leading up to 1942 – and when you walk in the front door of this building almost 80 years later, it’s not hard to see how this building was laid out back then.
You enter today through the original doors, right into a big transmitter room that’s well lit by big windows at the rear. The transmitters themselves have changed several times: the original Westinghouse is still represented by the original control desk in the middle of the room and by the former phasor cabinet off to the right. There was an RCA BTA-50H main and BTA-10U aux later on, then the Continental 317 that still lives off to the left side, and finally the current Harris DX50 that now occupies the center of the room.
There’s a new phasor on the opposite wall, next to the tidy wall of STL and monitoring gear. And what’s on the sides of the vintage clock on top of the old Westinghouse phasor cabinet? The cards that used to tell the on-duty engineer what the sunrise and sunset times were each month – and they still get changed out when the engineers visit today!
Go down the stairs on the left side of the room and you’re half a flight down in what was probably once a workshop or office area. With emergency preparedness always in mind, the WBAL engineering team has configured this room as a backup studio that can be used by WBAL or by its sister FM station, WIYY. There’s a full automation system here with an off-site backup for the main studio’s audio and logs, a full phone system to take calls – and yes, it’s been tested and is ready to hit the air at a moment’s notice.
Off to the other side of the transmitter room is a vintage-1940s bathroom complete with shower facilities; there’s also a bomb shelter that was built out later, judging by the faux-wood paneling inside.
Downstairs, the main transmitter room sits over a full basement floor where the original power transformers for the Westinghouse once sat.
There’s plentiful generator capacity here, of course. And unlike so many of these sites, the WBAL team has kept things unbelievably pristine upstairs and downstairs, an impressive feat in a building that’s nearly 80 years old.
Behind that big metal vault door, there’s a modern electrical system, of course.
The current transmission system also runs through the basement, where the lines to the three towers output from the base of the phasor cabinets upstairs, then run across the ceiling and out the back, where they run above ground out to the tower field.
The three towers are each just over 500 feet tall, 200 electrical degrees at 1090, and they’ve long remained a landmark out here on Winans Road, which was probably open country back in 1941 but is now fairly densely populated suburbia.
Impressive, isn’t it? It’s always nice to see a vintage site like this that’s been kept up over the years, and we salute the WBAL team for their hard work on keeping the electrons flowing here.
Thanks to WBAL’s Drew Pinkney for the tours!
We are officially into the new year and out of the holiday season. If you didn’t get a calendar as a gift, now is the time to buy one for yourself.
You can also purchase a bag to keep it after the year is over, since the pictures are so pretty. You can even purchase a pen to put notes on your calendar.
Visit our store to buy the calendars and check out our other products.
The Radio Historian’s 2020 Calendar is SOLD OUT. If you didn’t order but wanted or meant to, please contact Lisa immediately. No guarantee we can get more, but we’ll at least ask.
And don’t miss a big batch of Charm City IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Southern Connecticut