Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When our transmitter photography pal Mike Fitzpatrick of NECRAT.us comes to town, it’s usually for sites in western New York. Last September, though, we hit the road for a somewhat longer day at the end of his visit, hopping in his Jeep for the long run down the Thruway to Albany (followed by an Amtrak ride home for me, while he continued east to his home base in New England.)
While we made one quick stop on the way east from Syracuse for a telephoto view of the WTRY-FM (98.3 Rotterdam) tower off US 20 southwest of Schenectady, our main destination in Albany was a location we’d visited several times before: the big FM/TV tower farm at Camp Pinnacle in the Helderberg Mountains southwest of Schenectady and southeast of Albany.
This site has been in use as an FM/TV tower farm longer than any other such multi-tower site in the country, going all the way back to General Electric’s early TV work here in the late 1930s and several early independent FM stations (W47A/WBCA and WFLY) by the mid-1940s.
It’s not hard to see why – from up here, we can look north and way down to see the Mohawk River valley as it meets the Hudson, a view that includes a distant shot of what was once GE’s flagship radio station, the tall tower of WGY (810 Schenectady) up along the Thruway where it meets I-88.
Over the years, the plateau up here sprouted individual towers for pretty much every separate TV and FM station to sign on – six analog TV stations and a slew of FMs, too. We didn’t stop by all of them this time, instead focusing on a few that have changed in recent years.
As you turn south on Pinnacle Road from Beaver Dam Road, the main road up to the sites off state route 157, the first major site you see on the right has been particularly transformed. It was built in the 1960s for WMHT-TV (Channel 17), the educational station serving the “Mohawk-Hudson” region, but WMHT left this site after the end of analog TV. In private hands now, it’s leased out for the post-repack site of Ion’s WYPX (Channel 55), licensed 30 miles west of here in Amsterdam, where its old analog and pre-repack DTV tower had been. It’s also still home to Siena College’s WVCR (88.3), which had been a tenant under WMHT as well. (And we’ve still never made it inside this buildng!)
Just north of WYPX/WVCR is the tower for one of the five commercial class B FMs up here, iHeart’s WPYX (106.5), with both a main and aux antenna on its short stick. Across Pinnacle Road to the east, there’s a cluster of sites that once included the analog tower for ABC affiliate WTEN (Channel 10) and still includes the tower for its former FM sister. That was once WROW-FM on 95.5 and is now Pamal’s WYJB; below the 95.5 antenna are antennas for two co-owned class A stations, WAJZ (96.3 Voorheesville) and WINU (104.9 Altamont).
What we’re really here to see, though, is just up Pinnacle Road to the south.
When Albany prepared to make the DTV transition in the early 2000s, its TV stations all got together to build a new combined site from scratch, and what a project it’s been, especially during the repack!
The project included the stations that were already up here – WMHT and WTEN along with the hill’s pioneering TV station, CBS affiliate WRGB (Channel 6), plus Fox affiliate WXXA (Channel 23) and CW affiliate WCWN (Channel 45), each moving from its own individual site elsewhere up here in the tower farm. But that wasn’t all – WMHT also moved its FM station, WMHT-FM (89.1), from its original site. And NBC affiliate WNYT (Channel 13), which had been on Bald Hill near Troy at the northern end of the market for decades because of short-spacing to channel 13 in New York City, was able to move its DTV signal up here, too, eventually to be joined by its MyNetwork sister station, WNYA (Channel 51).
For the most part, each station up here got its own big room in this new, high-ceilinged building – well, except for WNYT. Its VHF RF 12 transmitter has company here now, joined by WNYA’s post-repack RF 7. (Licensed to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, WNYA started with a transmitter site over that way for analog, then went to RF 13 up here at the old WRGB analog 6 site before finally joining the others here during the repack.)
Because several of these signals are on VHF-high, they end up with very small transmitters in very big rooms. Take WXXA, for instance: it was on RF 7 before the repack and is now on RF 8 with a one-rack Rohde & Schwarz rig in an otherwise largely empty space, a far cry from the days when it had a huge UHF analog transmitter filling a small building nearby off Pinnacle Road.
WTEN moved from RF 26 to RF 24 in the repack, getting its own new Rohde in the process, but even that somewhat larger UHF rig doesn’t fill much of that big room. The same is true for WCWN, the CW affiliate, now on RF 22 with yet another Rohde. This UHF signal also carries a rebroadcast of WRGB’s CBS programming to reach viewers who have trouble with the low-band channel 6 signal – at least for now.
Change is afoot here, though: recognizing that the channel 6 signal didn’t work as well as its engineers had hoped at the dawn of DTV, WRGB asked the FCC for permission to move to UHF channel 35, a move that’s now pending before the Commission. If and when it happens, it will open up space on the tower here, where there’s a big channel 6 panel antenna partway down. (At the top is a VHF antenna shared by WXXA on 8 and WNYA on 7, then the shared UHF antenna, then the WNYT channel 12 antenna above the WRGB 6 antenna.)
There’s a combiner room, of course, where the WXXA/WNYA signals go up to their VHF antenna (along with an aux for WNYT), and where WTEN, WMHT, WCWN and eventually WRGB are combined for the UHF antenna.
And we end our comprehensive look at this site with a peek at WMHT’s room – another Rohde for WMHT’s post-repack RF 25 DTV signal, and a more recent arrival, the Harris that powers WMHT-FM on 89.1, with its side-mounted antenna out on the tower.
Thanks to Nolan Stephany for the tours!
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Next week: More sites in western NY