Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We’re back from a longer-than-intended holiday hiatus to Site of the Week; because the cupboards are relatively bare of new material until we can start traveling again in earnest, we’re trying to stretch out our limited reserve of unseen pictures, but we’ll try to resume weekly publication for as long as we can, starting with this timely “extra” edition.
When the phone rings here at Site of the Week with a call that starts, “hey, you MUST get down here to New York City, and fast,” we get on the road – even if it’s pandemic times and we don’t have the opportunity to visit most of our usual haunts in the city.
Why the urgency? Because the clock was running down on one of the oldest AM sites in New York, and when we made the trip down in August, we weren’t sure just how quickly the big news would break: that Family Stations was selling the land under WFME (1560) and its 50,000-watt signal would soon be going dark.
To understand what we’re looking at at this site in Maspeth, Queens, let’s rewind more than 90 years to the early days of experimental television. John V.L. Hogan’s experimental license, W2XR, was one of a handful of pioneering signals transmitting low-definition signals up above the top of the AM dial, which then ended at 1500 kc.
As TV moved from mechanical experiments to electronic experiments, Hogan changed course in the 1930s: the classical music he was transmitting as an audio accompaniment to his TV pictures became his main focus, with W2XR becoming an experimental high-fidelity AM signal at 1550, one of a several such broadcasts in the 1500-1600 band around the country. (Others were in Kansas City and in Bakersfield, California.)
By 1940, W2XR was evolving into a “real” radio station. It changed calls to WQXR, built a new 5 kW transmitter plant here at Maspeth, a few miles away from Hogan’s lab on Northern Boulevard, and in the NARBA shuffle of 1941 that expanded the standard broadcast band up to 1600, WQXR landed at its “forever home” on 1560.
(Not, however, without a bit of intrigue: the original NARBA plan was to put WQXR on 1600 as a class III regional station with 5000 watts. But the pre-NARBA layout of New York radio was creating some conflicts – over in Jersey City, WHOM on 1450 would have moved with other 1450 signals to 1480, but that would have been directly adjacent to 1490, the class IV local channel where WWRL and WCNW in Queens were supposed to move along with hundreds of other stations then operating on 1500. So the FCC instead proposed to put WHOM on 1560, but WQXR successfully pushed for a swap that gave WWRL and WCNW the 5 kW 1600 channel, clearing them from 1490 and allowing WHOM to go to the 5 kW regional 1480 facility and WQXR to claim 1560. WCNW soon split from WWRL, moving down the dial to 1190 as WLIB. Anyway…)
In 1944, Hogan sold WQXR to the New York Times, which operated the station for 54 years. For most of that time, it remained classical, simulcasting with WQXR-FM (96.3); as the classical audience transitioned entirely to FM, the Times flipped 1560 to standards in 1994 as WQEW, picking up much of the format that had just been abandoned by WNEW 1130. Along the way, WQXR went from 5 kW to 10 kW with two towers, and in 1956 to 50 kW with three towers and a directional pattern with a deep null due west to protect the 1560 signal out in Bakersfield (originally KPMC, now KNZR.) In 1964, the final technical modification here added a fourth tower, allowing for a more relaxed day pattern that eliminated much of the null to Bakersfield. That day pattern hit the air at New York sunrise and was allowed to stay on until Bakersfield sunset, when WQXR had to switch to the tighter night pattern.
And then, in 1998, the station was leased out to become the New York home of Radio Disney. Disney bought 1560 outright in 2007, then sold it in 2015 to Family Stations, the religious broadcaster that had recently sold its original New York-market home, WFME (94.7 Newark).
Family, as it happened, got an incredible bargain for its new WFME: the $12.95 million it paid for 1560 was a reasonable value for a 50,000-watt AM license – but it was the land under the towers that turned out to be worth much, much more.
In the decades between Hogan’s start out here and today, the neighborhood changed more than a little. The warehouses that dotted the neighborhood early on eventually paved over the entire area, while the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Long Island Expressway were built just blocks away. The only green patches left in the area were several large cemeteries – and 1560’s patch of land, now landlocked by warehouse complexes. (Its official street address is on Grand Avenue to the north, but there’s no longer access from that side; it’s now reached by a circuitous path through the Manhattan Beer Company’s lot to the south off Metropolitan Ave.)
That’s a lot of prologue just to get us to this site on a sunny August morning for a final tour of this bit of history, isn’t it? But it’s important history, not just because of WQXR’s stature in New York radio. It matters, too, because by the end of 2020 this was one of only two AM sites remaining within New York City limits, and the only one left “in the city.” (The WFAN 660/WCBS 880 diplex site, while officially within city limits, is as far from “the city” as you can get, on High Island in Long Island Sound off the Bronx.)
Everyone else had decamped to New Jersey over the decades: WLIB had been on piers off Astoria, Queens until 1967; WNYC at Greenpoint, Brooklyn until the 1980s; WEVD 1330 at a nearby site across Newtown Creek until diplexing with time-share WPOW on Staten Island and eventually also moving to New Jersey.
And now the time has come for 1560 to move out. A few months after our visit, the official announcement was made: the site Family bought as part of its $12.95 million deal in 2015 was being sold to a real estate company, Prologis, for $51 million. Why so much? Because the rise (even before the pandemic) in “just in time” delivery made sites like this vitally important: all those one-day packages headed in to Manhattan addresses needed somewhere to be loaded on trucks and dispatched over the bridges and through the tunnels to get where they were going, ideally within an hour or so. That’s the fate of this property: more trucks, more warehouses – and no AM radio.
But let’s look around before it’s all gone, because there are generations of interesting things to see here. The building is actually two buildings – on the left as we enter, the original 1940 building, which apparently started with a homebrew 10 kW transmitter. Where that rig once sat is a space later occupied by a Continental 317, and it’s now an empty space filled with old gear, adjoining the original shop and kitchen/bathroom area at the corner of the original building. (How much equipment was built and tested over the years on that historic workbench?)
There’s lots of vintage paperwork in here, too – DA proofs and such, bearing signatures of almost every important consultant over the years.
The newer side of the building dates to the 1956 power increase, which required more space for transmitters, power handling, a bigger phasor and the relocation of the original 10 kW rig as an auxiliary transmitter. It’s a poured concrete box, where one corner still bears the shadow of the old “WQXR” and “New York Times” lettering, now long gone, that went up back in the fifties.
The middle room of the building was where the Westinghouse once sat, and it’s almost completely empty now, save for a disconnected 10 kW Gates box that was (I think) a later auxiliary transmitter.
So where’s all the current equipment? All tucked into one room on the right side of the building, which was extensively rebuilt in the 1990s by then-engineer Herb Squire, complete with its own HVAC system and a new electrical plant and dummy load just outside. Squire put in a new phasor and a new Harris DX50 transmitter, which replaced the Continental on the other side of the building. (We did see that rig before it left – our original visit to this site was in 2007, where you can see the exterior much better.)
Disney filled out the room with a Nautel transmitter, and there it sat for more than a decade under Disney and then Family Radio, relaying programming from studios far outside New York, right up until 11:16 AM on Monday, February 15, 2021, when Tom Ray hit the switch that took Family programming off the air after a week of a looped announcement directing listeners to Family’s stream and two outlying FM signals.
Will there be another chapter in 1560’s history? The license remains with Family, which is looking for a new site where it can diplex a 1560 signal sometime before February 2022. When they do, we’ll be waiting by the phone for the call – and we’ll head right back downstate to document it for you.
Thanks to Tom Ray for the tour!
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Next week: Back to the rest of our Texas trip, 2019