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The Twisted Path to a New FM

The project speeds up

Even 220 feet of 3-inch heliax comes on a pretty large spool. Specialized trucks are required to spin off the line safely. Engineer John Kosian met the delivery and made sure the spool was rolled off inside the fence to protect it from theft before installation. This month I return to the story of a recent station build of a Class B FM in the noncommercial band, begun last time (“Three Weeks to Build,” June 11 issue).

This project was on a fast track; we had acquired rights to the construction permit just five months before expiration from an applicant that had decided not to build. It was essential for us to execute the construction quickly to avoid going past the deadline. However, we had been tripped up by the 307(b) Diversity rules under which this permit had been awarded.

At this juncture of the process, our quest for a new station was in the hands of the FCC. They respectfully informed us that we would need to pursue a waiver in order to move the construction permit from an unbuildable site to an unregistered tower close by.

Following the wise advice of our legal counsel, we decided to work closely with the staff to pursue the waiver. I thought we had a pretty good argument in our favor for two primary reasons.

First, it has been a part of the FCC mission since the Communications Act of 1934 to encourage the creation of new broadcast services in unserved areas. This particular application included a large region unserved by non-commercial services due to the long history of Channel 6 protection rules. Faced with an eager and experienced applicant that could build out to more than 99 percent of the population in the originally awarded construction permit, it would seem to be consistent with that mission to allow the station to be constructed, rather than let it lie fallow for another 10 years until the 2007 NCE window process repeated itself.

The second reason is that our station’s application, as I mentioned in the previous column, had been evaluated by the FCC’s own public process and found to be the technical equivalent of the winning applicant. The tiebreaker was based on who owned the greater number of licenses. As we were owners of more than one license, the FCC in its original decision deferred to an applicant with no ownership (or previous experience). In other words, if there had been no competing applicant in 2007 that offered facilities nearly identical to what we proposed, we would have been awarded the construction permit following the 307(b) analysis.

The author and John Kosian press the button to bring on the FAX 10 transmitter into the test load for the first time. Note the Shively line sections on the floor, awaiting the arrival of a tower crew. To summarize my way of thinking, even if the FCC decided to award it to us with a waiver, it was a decision that protected the fairness of the original decision process — the largest proposed new service ends up the winner.

Of course, the above was only my opinion and I had to admit I was rather biased in my views. And for obvious business reasons, before we could commit to delivery of equipment, we felt it was necessary to obtain informal permission from the FCC that our waiver request would be looked on favorably. This meant I had to hold off placing final orders for all the key transmission equipment. Good news came two weeks later when we received a go-ahead from the FCC. But by this time, we only had three weeks left to get the signal on air before the deadline.

I had put several broadcast suppliers on alert about our project when the construction permit first became available to us. The day we heard from the FCC, GatesAir shipped a new FAX 10 10 kW transmitter and a pair of matching equipment racks. Shively moved their schedule around to produce within a week a four-bay horizontal-only antenna that, combined with the transmitter, would provide full ERP.

However, I think the most difficult task fell to Jim Peck at SCMS, who had bid on this job in January and now had to try and provide approximately 33 line items of broadcast equipment to us in about a week. Jim and I conferred on the telephone the day before he left to attend the NAB conference in Las Vegas, and we went through the whole list item by item, working our way through what they could ship immediately, what we could live without for a while, and what had to be found or substituted to get us on the air. (Peck is also a photographer whose images have appeared in Radio World, though this was not a factor in our award of the job.)

Just to make things more interesting, Commscope/Andrew was in the midst of a factory shutdown and had been reducing inventory on everything. Fortunately, they still had about 300 feet of 3-inch heliax and two flanges. We bought the two flanges, even though they did not have the correct types in stock. On Jim’s advice, we modified one of the flanges to allow pressurization of the antenna by drilling out holes in the Teflon gas barrier before installation. When we finally realized that everything we absolutely had to get was on its way, it was a huge relief.

As it turned out, Murphy wasn’t done with us yet. Just about this moment, the tower owner informed us they would not allow our regular tower rigger to climb any of their towers due to a dispute over a previous job. I had counted on our regular rigger to identify and purchase a number of smaller items, like grounding kits and butterfly clips to mount the line to the tower. I had to turn to an emergency crew that I didn’t know that well, and they informed me that I had to get these parts or they would not be able to do the installation.

The tower crew hoists an assembled line section with antenna bay. Jim Peck got another call, mid-show at NAB, with the further parts requests. Although Andrew was essentially closed at this point, he was able to locate what we needed and get it shipped overnight to us for the installation. I can’t say enough what a great job was done by Jim and SCMS on this project — this was truly above and beyond the normal course of service.

With all the orders on the way, our transmitter engineer, John Kosian, and other staff were busily prepping the site for the installation. The transmitter shelter came equipped with a reasonably modern electrical panel, lighting and HVAC, which saved us a great deal of installation time. Only the transmitter itself required electrical wiring, and there was already a conduit of sufficient size right to the location above where the transmitter would sit. We took a few days to patch holes in the walls, touch up the paint, and repair the floor tiles where they were broken away.

This repair and prep work was soon combined with meeting delivery trucks and shipments of equipment from all over. It is funny how different delivery people can be helpful or not — sometimes you have to catch the boxes off the end of the truck and sometimes the driver will do everything in his power to help. I usually find it necessary to uncrate most large equipment before trying to get it inside the building. When the transmitter arrived, we literally used the wooden sides and pieces of the crate to build a 12-foot ramp over the 14-inch step up into the transmitter shelter so that the transmitter could be rolled in on a two-wheeler. I call that “using the tools and materials at hand to get the job done.” The driver stuck with us all the way, to the point of taking turns with the hammer to pull nails out of the framing wood on the crate

Trash disposal became a regular end-of-the-day task, as we could not leave packing materials in the room and there was no dumpster or regular pickup at this site. It became a game to see how much we could pack in the car or truck on our way home at night.

There was one little treat still in store for us. We needed to get the coveted NTP, or Notice to Proceed, from the tower owner. And to get this key permission, we had to get past the Tower Troll.

New antenna installed to tower and crew making final attachments for the transmission line. The tuning section can be seen at the bottom and looks like two brass cylinders jutting out sideways. As delivered by the factory, the antenna required no tuning at all, showing 5–6 watts of reflected power at 10 kW forward. Those who have done a recent build or modification on a tower owned by a national firm are probably smiling in recognition at the term Tower Troll. All the big tower companies use them now. Trolls are probably a response to the fast-paced competition that was characteristic of the cell phone industry about 10–15 years ago. The heated market brought with it an atmosphere of rapid change and little documentation or planning. Stories of cell companies climbing without permission, installing and removing equipment without telling anyone and just doing whatever they felt like doing are well-known in the industry. I once even had a cell company climber short out an AM station with jumper clips while it was on the air just so that he could do “a little quick climb.” He was surprised but not apologetic when I arrived and told him I had called the owner and he had better get off the tower quick. Tower companies really had to do something to get their properties back under their control.

So what is a Tower Troll? Imagine one of those dolls that has a button that when pressed will cause it to say one of a set of stock phrases. This person has never climbed a tower and probably doesn’t go to visit them very often if at all. This person knows virtually nothing about what it takes to install antennas and transmitters. This person is there to make your job more difficult and to slow everything down. This person has been assigned by the tower owner to “help” you “manage” your project. He will treat you like a convicted criminal.

You can recognize a Tower Troll by spoken lines like this:

• “Do you have a building permit?”

• “Send me the construction drawings!”

• “I need a written construction timeline.”

• And my personal favorite, “We’re going to have to do a structural analysis on that!”

Tower Trolls characteristically will not tell you everything you need to complete in writing. That’s because they have no idea what you are doing — they are filling out a checklist even they are not clear about. But they have a great deal of power over your project in that they can ban your crew from all of their sites if they become unhappy with you. Most tower crews, not wanting to lose access to potential work, will not climb without the final written NTP.

We did everything we could to satisfy the Troll for this site, including an advance payment for a structural study that came back positive, and he still would not allow us to proceed. I explained that we were under an FCC deadline and that the whole project would go up in smoke if we were not on the air by a certain date. This made no impression. At one point he called the emergency crew I had scheduled to hang the antenna and told them they were not allowed to proceed until he gave them personal notice, the night before they were scheduled to work and five days before our deadline ran out. I explained to him that $250,000 of lease money for his company was on the line — he couldn’t care less. Finally his own legal department told him to back off and let us build.

Although heliax cable is meant to be bent carefully into position, it takes a large radius to pull it safely off the spool and up the tower leg. The pulley wheel in the lower left corner will be mounted to make sure the line does not get caught in any of the tower members while being raised by the winch. If the line is crimped accidentally, it becomes essentially worthless; so this portion of the project is done very carefully. And with that, our luck began to change. The next three days the sun came out and we had perfect climbing weather to get the antenna up. While one crew worked on the tower, a second crew was working inside to run the interior lines from the transmitter to RF switch and dummy load. At the same time, we wired up the remote control and the transmission path. Everyone was pulling together to meet the deadline. I knew at this point we were going to make it.

This station was intended to act as a relay of our programming from our Boston studios, bringing a high-quality program service to Cape Cod in response to many years of requests from our listeners. We had to build an STL from 60 miles away and over the ocean. Neither Comcast nor Verizon had available circuits into the site without about a 60-day lead time.

What we ended up doing was building a temporary STL using a Cradlepoint router with two wireless cell carriers to create a wireless IP stream to the site. I used a Musicam Roadwarrior at the transmitter side, fed by a studio side Suprima. It sounded beautiful and had enough reliability that we could run this way until we got our terrestrial circuits in place and built a permanent STL with a WorldCast SureStream system and two ISPs.

The story has a happy ending. At about 4 in the afternoon, before the midnight deadline expired, we filed for license with the FCC. We had a license in our hands within a week or so. There was still a lot of work to do to get the site into proper condition, but the deadline was passed, and we could now go back and fix anything that had been done in a rush or only partially completed.

Looking back, I find it amazing that we succeeded at all. The problems that came up during this project were enough at several points to make it fail. Our perseverance paid off, but there were definitely moments when we felt we had lost the game. The FM broadcast business is relatively mature now, and over the years, it has become harder to build new stations, particularly in the dense Northeast. Federal, local and corporate regulations on towers and telecommunications facilities have grown into a gauntlet of obstacles to surmount. But with the right amount of luck, and the great support offered by the suppliers, manufacturers, and workers — all broadcasters at heart — we were just able to pull it off.

Michael LeClair is chief engineer for radio stations WBUR(AM/FM) in Boston; he has been technical editor of RWEE since its inception in 2005.

Three Weeks to Build, Part I