October 28, 2011

Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Athlone, Ireland

It's Tower Site Calendar time - and that means the next few installments of Tower Site of the Week will be devoted to the sites you'll find depicted in the brand-new 2012 edition, now available for immediate shipping. In this week's installment, it's the September 2012 page - and a rare trip across the Atlantic to the delightful Emerald Isle.

What brought us to Ireland in the early spring of 2011 had nothing to do with radio - it was a family wedding that is a story unto itself - but we weren't about to spend a week traveling this beautiful land without taking in some RF along the way and sharing it with all of you.

And of all Ireland's broadcast sites, there was none we wanted to see more earnestly than the one you see above. This is Athlone, the facility that served as the central medium-wave (and later shortwave) transmission site for Ireland's state broadcaster from 1933 until 1975 and remained in use as a secondary site until 2006.

When this site came on line (some sources say it was actually as early as 1932), it was the first high-powered transmitter in the nascent Republic of Ireland, augmenting and eventually replacing lower-powered facilities that served only small areas around the two biggest coastal cities, 2RN in Dublin to the east and 6CK in Cork to the south. This location at the eastern edge of the small town of Athlone in County Westmeath was chosen with considerable deliberation: near the banks of the River Shannon, it enjoys excellent ground conductivity while sitting just a few miles from the exact geographic center of Ireland.

With 60 kilowatts of power, later increased to 100 kilowatts, the new Radio Éireann signal from Athlone at 565 kilocycles quickly became a fixture on the European radio dial, and "Athlone" itself became the informal nickname for all of Ireland's radio service. (One of Van Morrison's more obscure later albums includes a tune called "In the Days Before Rock and Roll" that's a hymn to his Irboyhood days listening to the European radio dial, namechecking famous broadcast sites such as Luxembourg, Budapest and Hilversum...and Athlone, too...)

I don't have a lot of technical details on how this site was configured in its heyday, though my understanding is that it used a T-antenna strung between the two 100-meter (328') towers arranged on an east-west line behind the transmitter hall.

I do know that there was a brief Radio Éireann shortwave operation here, though it went silent in 1948 - and I know that by 1975, as RTÉ (the new name the state broadcaster adopted after adding television in 1961) began to focus more on its newer FM services, it shut down the 100-kW national radio service from Athlone, relocating that facility to a new transmitter site east of Tullamore, in County Offaly some 40 km to the southeast and a little closer to Ireland's biggest population centers.

With 500 kW on 567 kHz, the Tullamore site used a vertical antenna instead of the "T" antenna at Athlone, and at 290 meters (951'), it was not only the tallest structure of any kind in the Irish Republic but also very possibly the tallest medium-wave-only antenna in the world. (It's about 24 feet taller than WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, the tallest of its kind in North America.)

Athlone returned to the airwaves in 1979 on a new frequency of 612 kHz, now broadcasting RTÉ's Radio Two (later 2FM) service instead of the Radio One service it had carried on 565/566 khz.

And then, in 2008, RTÉ decided its FM services had become sufficiently mature to make medium-wave service redundant. On 24 March 2008, the transmitters at Athlone and Tullamore were shut down, as were lower-powered MW facilities at Cork and Galway. In their place, RTÉ took over Ireland's only longwave facility, the 252 kHz transmitter at Clarkstown, County Meath that had been built in the 1980s for private broadcaster Atlantic 252. (We'll show you that site, and the RTÉ studios at Donnybrook in Dublin, in a future Site of the Week installment.)

Since then, the Athlone and Tullamore sites have been mothballed, ready to be reactivated if they're again needed at some point for either digital (DRM) service or to be leased to private broadcasters; the Christian broadcaster Spirit Radio was at one point licensed to operate on 612 from Athlone, but at last check had not yet put that signal back on the air.

Having been massively tempted by the photo galleries of the Athlone site posted by our Irish friend Andy Linton, complete with the 1933-vintage Marconi transmitter still in place inside, we'd hoped to get inside ourselves to see what remained inside the old transmitter halls, but it was not to be: though we exchanged plenty of e-mails with some very nice folks at RTÉ, no inside tour was forthcoming - just the chance to walk the grounds a bit on a surprisingly blue-sky Sunday afternoon in early April, shoot some pictures and enjoy a bit of trans-Atlantic radio history.

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