September 30, 2011

"FM 128," Newton/Boston, Massachusetts

We've featured the cluster of FM/TV towers along Route 128 west of Boston in previous installments of Tower Site of the Week (here, for instance). But one of the joys of having done this column for a long time is the chance we've had to see broadcast facilities in some of our "home" markets evolve over time - and few towers have done as much evolving over the years as the tower known over the years as the "WHDH Tower," the "Sconnix Tower," "FM128" and the "American Tower."

1082 feet to the top of the tower, 1252 feet to the tip of the antenna, this tower's history goes back to 1957, when it was built by the Boston Herald-Traveler newspaper to be the site of the city's third commercial VHF TV station, WHDH-TV 5, which signed on November 26 from the WHDH radio studios on St. James Street in the Back Bay (later moved to Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester) and a transmitter right here where Newton meets Needham.

From that day until 1972, this tower was home to just two stations: WHDH-TV and WHDH-FM 94.5, later WCOZ. (The FM had been on the air since 1948, transmitting from the old John Hancock building in the Back Bay.)

And then, on March 19, 1972, WHDH-TV lost its fight to keep its license (a story documented extensively elsewhere). The Herald-Traveler had to give up the channel 5 license, but it was under no obligation to sell any of its facilities to the new channel 5, Boston Broadcasters' WCVB. So WCVB was forced to find new studios (in a converted International Harvester dealership just across 128 from here) and a new transmitter site (sharing an antenna with WBZ-TV at its Needham tower), and the old WHDH-TV tower was ready for a new life.

With Boston's TV stations already accommodated at other locations (the candelabra, which had gone up in 1971, took care of UHF needs for many years), the future was in FM - and so it was that this tower became "FM128", a new home for many FM stations that had been at lower and less-desirable locations around the city. (WCOZ, which remained on the tower after its former TV sister went away, ended up in the hands of Sconnix Broadcasting, hence the "Sconnix Tower" name that was also in use here in the seventies and eighties.)

During those years, WVBF (105.7) moved in from Framingham, WBOS-FM (92.9) from the candelabra, WBUR (90.9) from the Boston University Law School building on Commonwealth Avenue, WJIB (96.9) from the candelabra (where it had moved after relocating from its original site, Zion Hill in Woburn), WROR (98.5) from the channel 7 tower nearby, WCRB (102.5) from the nearby WBZ-TV tower in Needham and WEEI-FM (103.3) from its original tower in Malden.

In the years since we last featured this site, the "FM 128" moniker has become increasingly inaccurate, which may explain why it's known lately as the "American Tower" or "Chestnut Street," too. That's because recent years have found several FMs moving away from here, and TV coming back after a decades-long absence. That new structure added to the front of the old WHDH-TV building is home to one of the new DTV signals at the site, WMFP (RF 18/virtual 62), which moved its DTV signal here after operating in analog from the One Beacon Street skyscraper in downtown Boston.

Inside, the core of the building hasn't changed much since it was rebuilt in the years after WHDH-TV moved out. When Channel 5 was here, standing in the spot shown above would have put a visitor right in the middle of the main transmitter room; I'm told WHDH-FM/WCOZ would have been on the left, while the WHDH-TV transmitter would have been on the right.

When the TV station moved out, the room was divided both vertically and horizontally: walls of glass sliding doors divided up a series of FM transmitter rooms, while the high ceiling of the old transmitter room made room for a short loft area up above the FM rooms to house the combiner that feeds the FM master antenna, mounted near the top of the tower on what used to be the support mast for the channel 5 TV antenna.

The occupants of those rooms have come and gone over the years, but one has remained constant: what was WHDH-FM and later WCOZ eventually became WZOU and then WJMN, and it's in the first room on the right as you walk in from the main entrance. Now owned by Clear Channel, 94.5 now has a sister station in its room, too: WXKS-FM (107.9) has its main transmitter at the Prudential Tower in the city, but there's an auxiliary transmitter here that "Kiss 108" can use if the Pru site is down.

Continuing down that side of the transmitter hallway, the room that once belonged to WBOS (92.9) now houses auxiliary transmitters for several of Greater Media's stations: WBOS, WTKK (96.9), WROR (105.7) and WMJX (106.7) all make their main transmitter homes at the Pru these days, but all are backed up here.

The last room in that row was, I think, once the home of 105.7 before its move to the Pru , but it was already changing when we stopped by in 2005. Back then, there were transmitters in the hall and the room was being refinished to become the new home of what was then WBMX (98.5); it wasn't long afterward that 98.5 came upstairs from its old room in the basement, and there it has remained through callsign and format changes that turned the signal into all-sports WBZ-FM (98.5 the Sports Hub).

Across the hall, the first room went through several occupants over the years: this was, if I'm not mistaken, the home of 96.9 for several decades - and when 96.9 went to the Pru, WCRB (102.5) moved over here from the WBZ-TV tower in 1998, spending just over a decade with its main transmitter here before returning to the WBZ-TV tower in 2009. (More on that in a moment!) The 102.5 room remains active as an auxiliary site for the station, now WKLB.

The next room down the hall is walled in, with an entrance down the hall and around the corner. I'm not sure what was in here historically, but it's a TV room now: ion Media moved WBPX-TV here when it went digital, leaving behind the old analog channel 68 facility at the top of the Prudential mast in favor of a new RF 32 facility side-mounted on the "FM 128" tower.

In the WHDH-TV days, the basement of the building contained a few small tenant rooms and the power transformers and air handling for the TV transmitter.

Today, those TV rooms (on the left in the photo above) are used for storage, but the tenant rooms across the hall remain in use for radio, while the spacious hallway provides storage for excess transmission line, combiner cans and antennas. (That red Shively radomes in the foreground of the photo above is part of the old WJMN antenna that used to be mounted near the base of the mast, and I think the ERI bays behind it were the old 98.5 aux antenna lower down on the tower.)

Public station WBUR-FM (90.9) occupies the first room, shown above in 2005; in addition to the old blue BE unit that was the first WBUR transmitter to make the move from the Boston University campus out to FM 128 in the 1980s, there's a newer Harris solid-state analog transmitter, and our visit coincided with the installation of another Harris for WBUR's digital signal.

WBUR is now the last remaining FM signal on this tower not to use the master antenna; because it's directional, it has its own separate two-bay antenna mounted near the top of the tower itself; in days gone by, as noted above, 94.5 used its own two-bay antenna near the base of the top mast, while 103.3 used a side-mounted Jampro that's now an aux; today, both 94.5 and 103.3 are on the two-bay ERI Cogwheel master antenna mounted near the top of the mast.

The next room down the hall was where WROR (98.5) ended up in the early 1980s after losing its longtime perch on the channel 7 tower nearby (that tower's operators have long shunned the rental business), but after 98.5 moved upstairs a few years back, that middle room was renovated for a sister station, WODS (103.3). That station had been in the last room on this row, and its old Continental transmitter is still in that room, where it serves as an aux. (CBS is in the process of building a new auxiliary facility at yet another nearby site, the old WSBK space at the Needham TV candelabra, which will back up 98.5 and 103.3 here and WZLX 100.7 and WBMX 104.1 from the Pru.)

And here's a little bonus to this week's installment: a quick peek at Greater Media's new 102.5 facility over at the WBZ-TV tower (which isn't really the "WBZ-TV tower" now that CBS has sold it to Richland Towers): built off-site in this prefab concrete structure and trucked in for assembly, this plant is designed for elevated digital power and has been used extensively by Ibiquity for tests of new HD Radio technology.

Thanks to WBUR's Michael LeClair, Greater Media's Paul Shulins, Clear Channel's John Mullaney and CBS Radio's Paul Donovan for the tours!

- Find out when the new Tower Site is posted, and much more! Follow us on Twitter @NERadioWatch - and don't miss your very first chance to order the new Tower Site Calendar 2012, now available at the Fybush.com store!