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To Sell or Not to Sell?

A leasing company wants your tower — should you go for it?

Shot looking up at tall telecommunication tower.
Getty Images/exipreess

Over the last handful of years, we have seen the rise of tower leasing companies nationally and worldwide. 

These companies will build new towers but also often buy existing broadcast towers to use as a “rental property” and lease back to the broadcaster. 

Selling their tower is appealing to some broadcasters because it puts a large sum of money in the broadcaster’s hands immediately upon the sale closing. Also the tower maintenance, lighting, site upkeep and other overhead items now become the tower leasing company’s responsibility. Overall, this concept adds a nice bit of money to use for other areas of the business. 

I must say, on the surface, this arrangement looks very appealing to a cash-strapped station owner. But unless the station owner reads and negotiated the details of the sale and lease-back agreement carefully, he or she may eventually encounter some unexpected situations. 

DEVIL IN THE DETAILS

Once the broadcast tower is sold, the new tower leasing company is free to put whatever antennas and services they desire on that tower. 

In today’s world those antennas typically are cell site antennas, although microwave links, LPFM, FM translators, FM broadcast, TV and two-way antennas are still being installed on leased towers. 

During the installation of those antennas, it is not unusual for tower climbers to ask that the broadcast station turn down or turn off its signal for the climbers’ RF safety. 

Without a doubt RF safety is an extremely important issue, but station owners are not happy when their signal is off. This is an important consideration when you think about selling your tower.

SELL YOUR FM-ONLY TOWER? NO PROBLEM

Selling an FM-only broadcast tower is an ideal situation, as very few things can go wrong with the lease back arrangement. The only issues that plague these towers are the occasional request to power down the FM station so workers do not get RF overexposure. 

Site maintenance, road access and vegetation control are small items that come up but are often quickly remedied. 

YOUR AM TOWER? UH OH

Over the years, I’ve seen an increase in AM stations using skirted FM towers for their antenna. This is a great way to consolidate your tower usage when you have an FM station along with your AM. 

However, if you choose to sell that tower to a tower leasing company, you may find issues with that AM skirt antenna that you weren’t expecting. For instance, I have seen skirt wires shorted out by the installation of new cell antenna platforms. The installation crew just let the skirt antenna wire rest against the grounded platform and knocked the AM station off the air. 

Unfortunately, many tower crews are well educated at cellular antenna installations but know little about AM antennas. So the radio station owner contemplating the sale of a tower that has a skirted AM antenna may want to include written protection of that AM antenna into the sale and leasing contract. 

HIDDEN TROUBLE FOR AM TOWERS

Another issue that I have run into when dealing with leased towers is the AM ground system. 

Often, the AM tower is sold and the land around it is purchased by the tower leasing company. Frequently, the cellular companies will build their facility in a 10-by-12-foot building close to the tower. During the construction of the building, I’ve found, in some cases, the AM ground system is dug up and destroyed and the AM station’s signal is significantly reduced. 

Understand that this is not malicious destruction, just a result of an industry that is focused in a different direction than AM broadcasting. 

When contemplating the sale of any tower that functions as an AM antenna, a long discussion regarding the protection of the ground system is needed. While you are at it, mention the buried coax cables and signal lines you may have, too. 

STATION OWNERS BEWARE

Radio station owners need to be aware that once the tower is sold, crews will be accessing the tower to climb, often without prior notice to the broadcaster. It is not unusual for radio stations to get a phone call from a tower crew asking that the station shut off immediately so they can perform their work. 

Therefore, it is wise to include a 24- to 48-hour advance notice shut-off clause in the sale or lease contract. This would give you the right to protect your station’s programming and have some say on when your station is shut down. 

Radio station owners can help shape the sale and lease back contract and include whatever provision they feel important. A discussion with your station engineer is wise in order to make sure you are protected from technical mishaps. 

WHAT I’VE SEEN THIS YEAR

Another item that radio station owners need to keep in mind is site maintenance, which includes the roadways, building roofs, vegetation control, sometimes air conditioning and heat, FCC-required signage and tower lights. I mention these as I have seen neglect in these areas by some tower leasing companies. 

One company with a very tall tower near Chicago has tower light issues. I’ve checked and found that they keep renewing their NOTAM (Notice to Airmen). After eight months, the tower, which is located near a regional airport, is still unlit. An issue like this could fall back onto the broadcaster if they are not careful. 

A broadcaster in Connecticut I visited recently was having site access issues because site vegetation had become overgrown. He knew this was no longer his responsibility but had to chop his way to the site to work on his transmitter. He also complained about a damaged air conditioner the tower leasing company keeps promising to fix. Needless to say, he isn’t happy with how this lease arrangement has deteriorated. 

The same broadcaster has another issue that has affected his revenue. The new site owner sold off some of the site land, only to have a residential home built on it and the AM station ground system dug up and never repaired. This is disheartening, as I measured signal deterioration of the station due to this problem. 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Selling your broadcast tower to a tower leasing company can put some cash in your pocket, but you have to be specific about the conditions included in the sale and the lease-back arrangement. 

A wise station owner will have their engineer and lawyer review the sale and lease-back documents and include stipulations that protect the station operation and technical equipment. Make sure the sales and lease-back contract address how any future damage to radio station gear will be dealt with, in the rare case that it does happen. Who will pay for those repairs, address the timeliness of repairs, discuss compensation for off-air time and negotiate common area costs for site maintenance?

If you iron out all the details to your satisfaction, you can create a comfortable arrangement that frees up some operating expenses and keeps your radio station running smoothly. 

Comment on this or any article. Email radioworld@futurenet.com.

Dave Dybas is a veteran broadcast chief engineer and the owner of AM Detuning Services in Chicago. Visit www.amdetuning.com.

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