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The Day the Empire Master FM Failed

Contingency plans were put to test in the nation’s most populous radio market

When the master FM antenna failed at the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan on Monday, Oct. 18, 2010, it put 19 FM stations off the air.

iStockphoto/Katie Clarke Joe Giardina, CEO/CTO of DSI RF Systems, was in charge of restoring service to the antenna. His company of engineers, designers and certified tower climbers, based in nearby Somerset, N.J., manages the combiner room and antenna at Empire.

“I was in Rome when this failed. My guys were on the tower and were able to take photos and e-mail them to me in Rome. I was able to look at the damage and advise them what to do, in advance of my arriving back in the country the next day, to figure out what we were going to do to repair this.”

He’ll talk about the logistics of this case study at the upcoming NAB Show, discussing circumstances surrounding the failure and the importance of station backups and contingency/disaster recovery plans.

What Giardina is trying to get across to people, he says, is that this type of failure “just happens, and there is nothing you can really do to prevent this. But once it did happen, we had a logistical plan in place that allowed us to get back on the air very quickly.”

Night shift

Giardina says that in the bustle of keeping stations serving the nation’s largest market on the air, he often forgets that what he does and the challenges he faces may be of interest to other engineers around the country.

The center aisle in Empire’s Master FM room. The October failure affected the power dividers at the top of the iconic building. The damage included a burned transmission line and a burned power divider with holes in the sidewall and output port.

“Now, in 20/20 hindsight, anyone could say, ‘Why didn’t you have a spare power divider?’ Well, you know we never thought of that, because antenna power dividers usually don’t fail,” Giardina said — which is exactly one of the lessons he hopes to impart.

The current master FM antenna was made custom by Electronic Research Inc. and installed in 1994. There were no off-the-shelf parts available. Once DSI engineers determined that the problem could not be solved on site, two people rushed the damaged units to ERI in Chandler, Ind., for repair. In the meantime, Giardina and his crew were prepared to handle getting transmissions back on the air.

“There was a plan in place to switch to the upper bay of the antenna and run at reduced power to stay on the air, and we were able to do that once we were able to inspect the antenna, and make sure the damage was on to the lower bay.

“Because of restrictions and the uniqueness of the Empire State Building and its observation decks, we couldn’t just go up on the tower at 5:45 p.m. and start doing inspections. I had to coordinate 19 FMs, plus all the TV stations in New York, all had to agree to go off the air at 12 a.m. so that we could do work. That (off-air) plan was in place. So what could have been a catastrophe from a logistics point of view operated quite smoothly.”

At midnight, as Monday night turned into Tuesday morning, all broadcasting ceased from Empire. The stations had the choice to shut down operations for overnight hours or transfer broadcasts to a backup. For most of the broadcasters affected this meant transferring operations to 4 Times Square. DSI workers had from 12:01 a.m. to 4:42 a.m. to complete inspections and remove the damaged power divider.

These photos reveal the damage to the power divider. When the repaired parts had completed their round trip from ERI two days later, the antenna was again shut down overnight so the crew could reinstall and test the power divider.

“We had 4-3/4 hours to do what takes most crews a day to do. We had six people in the tower doing two jobs simultaneously, getting done at literally 4:45 a.m. each day.”

A portion of his presentation will focus on how to prepare and develop contingency plans for a variety of situations. In the case of the power divider failure, Giardina was able to mitigate many of the problems with the repair, by following well-laid plans.

“As part of your logistical plan, on a station level — and in this case on a master antenna level — make sure you have adequate backup. (In this case) we only manage the combiner room, we don’t manage each individual station. Whether you had an onsite backup was meaningless, since you had an antenna failure.”

Giardina’s moral is to work on many levels to ensure you are covered in the case of a failure. This includes not only creating disaster plans, but training talented staff who can follow those plans.

Joe Giardina will present at the NAB Show on Wednesday, April 13 at 4 p.m.

Laura Mir, CBNT, is a board member of SBE Chapter 37.