Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Sometimes, we plan out our tower site travels very carefully, making contacts weeks or months ahead of a trip and plotting out a tight hour-by-hour schedule.
And sometimes, we’re back on our own home turf and just open to any visits that happen to come our way. That’s what happened in September 2021, when we knew we were going to see WBZ on the occasion of its centennial, had an idea that we’d also go with our iHeart engineering contact to see the Prudential FM site – but then had some time to spare before the Red Sox game later that night.
“Want to go check out WRKO?”
“How’s the traffic up 128? Not bad? OK, let’s do it!”
And so it was that we found ourselves just outside the Route 128 beltway in Burlington, Massachusetts, seeing WRKO (680) for the first time in the 25 years since we left the Bay State.
Back then, WRKO was the archrival to WBZ, where your editor worked: we were owned by Westinghouse and then CBS, they went from American Radio Systems to Entercom after CBS had to spin off most of ARS’ Boston cluster when it acquired the company in 1998. And then came the great shakeup two decades later when Entercom acquired CBS Radio, triggering another swap of Boston stations in which CBS-owned WBZ and WZLX and Entercom-owned WRKO were traded away to iHeart.
It was just the latest chapter in a very long history of many changes at the studio end and very few out here at the transmitter. The 50,000-watt 680 signal came here to Burlington in 1947, ten years after WLAW had signed on at much lower power from the city of Lawrence, half an hour to the north. Targeting the Boston market from the start, WLAW became effectively a Boston-market signal with the move south; six years later, it sold the 680 signal to WNAC, one of Boston’s oldest stations. WNAC sold off its original 1260 signal (which later became WVDA, WEZE and is today WBIX), shut down WLAW-FM 93.7, which had broadcast from the middle tower here in Burlington, and spent 14 more years on 680 before the big 1967 flip that made it top-40 WRKO.
We didn’t get a great view of all three 680 towers on this gray, rainy afternoon – they’re harder to see in full these days after so many trees have grown up around the area – but we got a nice tour of the old building here.
It’s a fairly simple site: you walk in the same front door that WLAW’s engineers used 75 years ago, into the same big transmitter room they used, albeit with some new rigs. There’s a Gates-branded phasor straight ahead, from a 1975 transmitter replacement, surrounded by newer transmitters: a DX-50 to the right and the current main, a Nautel NX50, to the left.
And what’s that to the left of the Nautel? It’s a DX10, and it’s not presently connected to anything – but when WBZ left its studios on Soldiers Field Road in 2018, it lost its longtime auxiliary transmitter site at the studio building there (still used by WBZ-TV) not long afterward when the auxiliary AM tower was demolished in preparation for new development in the old parking lot there. So the DX10 from that site, barely used since it was installed in 2013 to replace an earlier unit, was moved up here for now while iHeart considers how best to back up WBZ’s main site down in Hull.
Go around behind the Nautel and the DX10 and there’s space that once held modulation transformers for older transmitters here – and behind it, an electrical room that still looks much like it did in 1948, complete with an original Boston Edison blueprint showing the four-digit phone number this then-rural site had. (Today, it backs up close to the bustling Burlington Mall and the retail and industrial sprawl that surrounds it.)
There’s one more relic out here of all the ownership turmoil: as Entercom moved out of its old studios in Brighton and into the former CBS Radio building down the road, its engineers salvaged a nice bit of Boston radio history and put it in storage out here. Under Entercom, the conservative talk of WRKO shared a roof with the wild active rockers down the hall at WAAF (107.3), and while WAAF is no more (it’s now EMF’s WKVB with K-Love), the old WAAF studio door lives on in a back room at Burlington.
CALENDARS ON CLEARANCE
If you don’t have your 2023 Tower Site Calendar yet, now is the perfect time to get it. Because we have lowered the price to just $14.
The calendar has great photos of broadcast sites near and far (everywhere from Navajo Nation on the cover to Boston to Toronto to Texas, and beyond), plus a lovely “centerfold” you can keep on your wall for 2024.
It’s still shipping regularly, and you can have yours in just a couple of days!
Order your copy and you’ll see what we mean.
If you have already ordered your calendar, make sure you check out the other items in the store, too!
And don’t miss a big batch of Boston IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: WARE are we headed on the way home?