Tough Times at Pleasure Beach

WICC caught vandal on camera at oft-attacked transmitter site
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'The photographer just happened to be walking along Pleasure Beach when he saw what was happening and took the photos,' Ed Butler said.
Vandalism is an ongoing problem for managers of radio transmitter/antenna farms. The tower site of WICC(AM) in Bridgeport, Conn., went through a particularly bad stretch of it recently, with several incidents over the course of a few months.

During one attack last March, the station caught a break when a photographer snapped photos of a perpetrator atop WICC's 300-foot freestanding south tower as the suspect gleefully tossed beacons and lights to the ground at Pleasure Beach.

Those photos, and an all-consuming fire at an abandoned cottage where the vandal allegedly had left a candle burning, helped police make an arrest. Local resident Kevin Stewart, 23, was charged with criminal mischief and criminal trespass.

"The photographer just happened to be walking along Pleasure Beach when he saw what was happening and took the photos," said WICC Chief Engineer Ed Butler.

"This helped us track down the suspect. Meanwhile, a video surfaced that someone shot of Stewart that day that included audio clearly linking him to the earlier attack on our tower [the previous September]. That attack seriously damaged our lighting and the transmission path on the ground. In fact, it knocked us off-air."

Butler said in the end Kevin Stewart reimbursed the station for the damage costs it incurred.

However, after the arrest, WICC's transmission site was attacked yet again in April.

"At about 4:15 p.m. I received a call from Sonitrol Security reporting the sound of breaking glass and loud bangs coming from inside the WICC transmitter building," Butler says.

"The Bridgeport Marine Police and I responded to the transmitter. When we arrived, I found the whole transmitter and generator building had been spray-painted with graffiti. The air conditioner unit was ripped out of the front window and the board that covers up the glass above the air conditioner was also ripped out and the glass was broken."

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Graffiti on the generator shack. The good news? Unlike an attack in September of 2008, "from what I can tell, they did not get inside the building." And although the perps were not captured on camera, they were apprehended in person. In fact, thanks to the Sonitrol alert, "The police and myself caught 15 teenagers from Norwalk, Conn., with spray paint cans in their backpacks."

Victim of urban decay?

Because radio transmitter sites may be left unattended, they can be prey for looters and vandals.

"Yet we've never had problems with copper thieves," says Butler. "In fact, we've never really had problems with vandals until that guy attacked us twice for kicks last September and this March. The [last] attack was probably a copycat, after the kids learned how vulnerable our tower site is."

The long-depressed economy of Bridgeport may play a role. After boom times in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this once-prosperous factory town saw its factories close down in the 1970s and 1980s as work went elsewhere. The story that played out elsewhere in the Rust Belt did so in Bridgeport: As unemployment, poverty and crime rose, city tax revenues fell. After the only bridge to Pleasure Beach burned down in 1996, no one could afford to replace it. Now only boaters and those willing to hike along the shoreline can get in.

When WICC — the call letters stand for "Industrial Center of Connecticut" — opened its two-tower transmitter site in 1936, life was different at Pleasure Beach. The area was home to a thriving amusement park and weekend seaside community that served Bridgeport and area. Its location not only gave WICC a transmission path that boomed into southern Connecticut and parts of Long Island, it made the cottage-like transmission building — where the engineer lived on the premises — a local attraction.

Today, Pleasure Beach is so deserted that it has been designated a "ghost town" by www.ghosttowns.com.

After the bridge was destroyed, the town of Stratford, which owned 45 cottages here, realized there was no longer any way to drive fire engines and ambulances into Pleasure Beach. So residents were evicted and the one-time summer fun center was left to local wildlife, hikers and boaters and vandals.

What buildings remain gradually are being destroyed by the elements and human malice; everything else is gone.

Cost of business

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A damaged AC unit. Over at the WICC transmitter site, the live-in engineer is but a memory. Today, when heavy equipment is required at the site, it has to be ferried from Bridgeport using an amphibious landing craft.

Also lost to memory are the details that made this clapboard building look homey. The windows have long been boarded up, the wooden entrances replaced with steel doors and frames, and a tall fence with barbed wire has been erected around the site.

"But it's possible to get over the fence by throwing a blanket over the wire and climbing," says Butler. "That's how the people who got in the last three times did it."

In the wake of the latest attack on its transmitter site, Cumulus Media is trying to harden the site further.

"We could get extreme and build a steel-and concrete bunker, I guess, but if people really want to get in, they're going to find a way to do so," says Gary Kline, corporate vice president of engineering and IT for WICC's parent. "So our goal now is to take whatever measures we can to deter most people from causing damage."

Clearly, the audio monitoring by Sonitrol Security that allowed Ed Butler to catch the April vandals is a help. But the fact that he has to boat to the site is a problem, as is its isolation and the number of unemployed local youth who apparently have nothing better to do.

Unfortunately for Cumulus Media, fighting the consequences of Bridgeport's urban decay has become a cost of doing business in this market.

James Careless wrote about NPR's iPhone application in the Dec. 2 issue.

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