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Where Are the Oldest Tower Sites?

But when Editor in Chief Paul McLane asked me to write about some of the more unusual and distinctive sites I’ve seen in my travels, my thoughts turned to some of the oldest radio artifacts still out there in the field.

(click thumbnail)Brant Rock

(click thumbnail)The demolition of Frank Conrad’s garage in Wilkinsburg, Pa., the original 8MK/KDKA, in March 2

(click thumbnail)WLW’s 500 kW monster rig …

(click thumbnail)… and its 1927 Western Electric.

(click thumbnail)KWG, Stockton. That’s engineer Paul Shinn dusting the 1930 transmitter.

(click thumbnail)At KWG, these sawed-off poles once supported the antenna.

(click thumbnail)The 1921 WBZ antenna towers in East Springfield, Mass.

(click thumbnail)WCCO’s original 1924 transmitter building, constructed at the Coon Rapids site for the ‘

(click thumbnail)WTIC’s 1929 transmitter building, built to house the station’s first 50,000 watt RCA traMost issues of Radio World are filled with pages of information about what’s newest in the world of radio, and rightfully so.

But when Editor in Chief Paul McLane asked me to write about some of the more unusual and distinctive sites I’ve seen in my travels, my thoughts turned to some of the oldest radio artifacts still out there in the field.

What’s the oldest transmitting facility still standing? I suppose there’s an argument to be made for Reginald Fessenden’s Brant Rock, Mass., tower, where that famous Christmas Eve 1906 broadcast may or may not really have happened.

But all that’s left now of the 400-foot hollow steel tower erected a century ago is a hulking concrete base and some cracked insulators, and in any event it’s a bit of a stretch to describe this as a true “broadcast” facility.

Long gone

The towers of most of the earliest stations that were indisputably “broadcasters” are long gone.

You’ll look in vain to find any physical remnants of 8MK/WWJ in Detroit, or of 9XM/WHA in Madison. The Conrad garage where the earliest broadcasts of 8XK (later KDKA) in Pittsburgh was torn down a few years ago, and the original KDKA transmitter towers on the roof of Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh plant are gone as well.

Another early Westinghouse station still stands, though: atop the old Westinghouse factory in East Springfield, Mass., there are still two rusty towers that can be dated all the way back to September 1921, when a little station called WBZ went on the air out there.

The wire antenna that was strung between the towers remained in use until 1962, when WBZ finally shut down the Springfield transmitter, by then known as WBZA. (The WBZ license moved to Boston in 1931, and of course it’s still going strong there.)

Another 1921 site is not only still standing, it was still in use until just a few years ago. WSAJ in Grove City, Pa., was born from an earlier amateur station at Grove City College, and it survived for decades as a relic of the dawn of American broadcasting.

Long after most college stations had gone full-time from vertical antennas, or been sold off to commercial owners, WSAJ carried on with a longwire “cage” antenna strung between two towers on the college’s electrical engineering building, pumping out 100 big watts every Wednesday evening and Sunday.

Alas, Grove City College eventually put a full-time FM signal on the air. The old AM transmitter failed, and despite offers from engineers in (and far beyond) western Pennsylvania to help keep the historic station on 1340 on the air, the college chose to surrender the AM license.

Midwest giant

To find the oldest AM site that’s still on the air, we have to look to the Midwest.

It was in late 1924 that WCCO in Minneapolis built a transmitter site “way up north” in Coon Rapids, Minn. Boasting a superpower output of 5,000 watts, the new WCCO site quickly made the station one of the giants of the upper Midwest.

The towers that supported a “T” antenna on the site are gone now, and the original 1924 transmitter building is now used only for storage, but WCCO still calls the Coon Rapids site home. Its 1931 transmitter building, constructed for WCCO’s 50 kilowatt power upgrade, remains in use, feeding a vertical tower that replaced the longwire in 1939. (The current version of WCCO is the cover photo on my 2007 Tower Site Calendar, by the way.)

WCCO is far from the oldest 50 kilowatt site still in use. That honor goes to Cincinnati’s WLW, which turned on its Western Electric rig at its Mason, Ohio site in 1927.

The Western is still there, and it’s still more or less in working order — in fact, it was used on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, on the theory that it was inevitably Y2K-compliant!

WLW takes pride in a veritable museum of transmitter history at the Mason site, including a heavily-modified Crosley Cathenode 50 kilowatt transmitter and, of course, the somewhat cannibalized remains of the 500 kilowatt transmitter (badged as an RCA product, but with substantial contributions from GE and Westinghouse) that WLW used on and off through the 1930s.

Another vintage 50 kilowatt site is WTIC, Hartford, Conn., which built its facility on Avon Mountain in 1929 and still uses it today. Of course, plenty has changed there in the meantime — the site is also now home to WTIC(FM), WWUH(FM) and two TV stations, for one thing.

The self-supporting towers from which the original wire antenna was strung went away many years ago, but the tuning house that sat at the center of the antenna still stands, as do the bases of the old towers.

From scratch

While we’re on the subject of those old center-fed dipoles, one other venerable site comes to mind.

KWG in Stockton, Calif., signed on in 1921, and it’s been at its current site on the city’s east side since at least 1930. The McClatchy engineers who put KWG on the air from this site did just about everything in-house, including building a transmitter from scratch.

That transmitter’s still there, though no longer in use, and there’s a patched-up hole in the roof right above it where the antenna once emerged. That antenna, strung between two painted wooden poles, lasted into the 21st century before it was replaced with a conventional steel tower out back. The poles were shortened, but they still stand. Combined with the dusty old rooms inside the building that were once live-performance studios, they make the KWG site another wonderful relic of the earliest days of radio.

At the other end of California, Los Angeles isn’t known for preserving its history, but the City of Angels can boast an AM facility that hasn’t changed much since 1927, when a little station called KGFJ went on the air from the roof of the Odd Fellows Hall just south of downtown Los Angeles.

The old building now overlooks the I-10 freeway, the KGFJ calls gave way to KYPA some years back, and the format’s now full-time Korean. But the antenna is still an inverted-L “hammock” strung between two towers up on the roof, and it works so well that KYPA ended up returning to this site after a brief attempt at diplexing with a sister station on a conventional series-fed vertical tower some years back.

This is far from a complete list of surviving early radio sites. I’m always eager to hear from engineers and historians who know of others. What relics of radio are hiding in your area?

Write to the author at [email protected]. Letters to the editor are welcome at [email protected].