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Building the FM band

Update and bump: I hate to rehash old stuff, but I added quite a bit of information to this post, including .pdfs of all the Barbeau letters, blue prints, etc. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work at this site lately, so it is in the front of my mind. I have also been reading about the Rural Radio Network, which covered western and central New York.

WFLY transmitter site, August 1949

WFLY transmitter site, August 1949

Several years ago, I rescued a old filing cabinet that was being trashed. This particular file cabinet was moved to a transmitter site during the great radio consolidation of the late 90’s and early 00’s. In it, I discovered a treasure trove of early documents about two radio stations from the Albany NY area. I thought it would be interesting to document the building of one of the early FM stations in Albany, WFLY.

Albany is the capital of New York.  There were several early (prior to 1940) AM radio stations in the Albany area:

  1. WGY previously owned by General Electric in Schenectady, signed on in 1922
  2. WHAZ, previously owned by RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), signed on in 1922
  3. WOKO (now WDDY), signed on in 1930
  4. WABY, (now WAMC-AM), signed on in 1934

General Electric, who worked closely with RCA in radio development and experimentation, was working on TV in 1928 and FM radio in 1938/39.  There were also several early (prior to 1950) FM stations in the area:

  1. GE owned W2XOY on 48.5 MHz (circa 1939), later W85A, WGFM, and WRVE 99.5 MHz.
  2. Independently owned W47A on 44.7 MHz (circa 1940), later WBCA 101.1 MHz, now gone.
  3. WTRY owned  WTRI-FM on 102.7 MHz (circa 1947), off air by 1954.  102.7 frequency later used by WEQX in Manchester, VT
  4. Troy Record owned WFLY on 92.3 MHz (circa 1948).

These stations operated from transmitter sites in the Helderberg escarpment on land that was formerly owned by the Albany Bible Institute.  It is interesting to note that two of the four FM stations did not make it past 1955. In 1967, WTRY did make a second attempt at FM, launching WDKC on 106.5 MHz, which is today known as WPYX.

It would appear the Troy Record initially applied for an FM broadcasting license in late 1946.   The paper trail that I have starts in early 1947, when the station hired consulting engineer Ernest Barbeau of Schenectady to oversee the construction process for the studios and transmitter site.  Ernest Barbeau, in an introductory letter to Frank York, publisher of the Troy Record, notes himself as a former GE engineer and assistant to W.R.G. Baker, General Electric’s television pioneer.  At the time, it was already understood the height means almost everything in FM broadcasting.  There are several letters dealing with land acquisition and transmitter building construction.

Below is a chart of all the various Barbeau letters written in 1947.  I have scanned and uploaded .pdf files of each letter, sorted by date (the entire archive is available here (6.5 Mb .zip)):

Date From To Subject
Jan 3, 1946 (sic) Barbeau York FM CP granted
Feb 5, 1947 Barbeau York Studio location
Feb 8, 1947 Barbeau York Coverage area, transmitter power, tower type
Feb 21, 1947 Barbeau York Scheduling
Mar 7, 1947 Barbeau York Transmitter/tower type, with attachments
Mar 9, 1947 Barbeau York Electric/phone service
Mar 15, 1947 Barbeau York DC consulting engineer John Barrons
Mar 23, 1947 Barbeau York Scheduling
Mar 23, 1947 Barbeau Barrons Transmitter site location
Mar 29, 1947 Barbeau Williams Transmitter site location
Mar 29, 1947 Barbeau York Transmitter site location, studio location
Apr 4, 1947 Barbeau York Helderberg land owners
Apr 4, 1947 Barbeau Rogers Camp Pinnacle
Apr 9, 1947 Barbeau York Transmission line
Apr 9, 1947 Barbeau Van Antwerp Camp Pinnacle
Apr 9, 1947 Barbeau Sherwood Transcription service
Apr 21, 1947 Barbeau York Helderberg land owners
Apr 21, 1947 Barbeau Rogers Camp Pinnacle
Apr 21, 1947 Barbeau Rousseau Helderberg land owner
Apr 21, 1947 Barbeau La Grange Helderberg land owner
Apr 21, 1947 Barbeau York WOKO
Apr 21, 1947 Barbeau Barron Transmitter site
Apr 23, 1947 Barbeau York Studio location
Apr 23, 1947 Barbeau Rousseau Studio location
May 1, 1947 Barbeau York Rogers land
May 21, 1947 Barbeau York Rousseau land
May 29, 1947 Barbeau York Camp Pinnacle
May 29, 1947 Barbeau Watson Studio Floor plans
Jun 2, 1947 Barbeau York Rogers land
Jun 2, 1947 Barbeau Rogers Camp Pinnacle
Jun 10, 1947 Barbeau Velie (York) Camp Pinnacle
Jun 10, 1947 Barbeau Reed Camp Pinnacle
Jun 21, 1947 Barbeau Velie (York) Camp Pinnacle
Jun 23, 1947 Barbeau York Helderberg Land
Jun 27, 1947 Barbeau York Helderberg Land
Jul 3, 1947 Barbeau York Camp Pinnacle
Jul 5, 1947 Barbeau York Helderberg land
Jul 15, 1947 Barbeau York Schedule
Jul 23, 1947 Barbeau York Camp Pinnacle
Aug 11, 1947 Barbeau York Telephone facilities
Aug 14, 1947 Barbeau York Telephone facilities, STL, land surveyor
Aug 16, 1947 Barbeau York Land Survey, building location, costs
Aug 20, 1947 Barbeau York Land transfer
Aug 20, 1947 Barbeau Barron Transmitter building locations, FCC
Aug 25, 1947 Barbeau Rousseau Studio location
Aug 25, 1947 Barbeau Winslow Watson
Aug 29, 1947 Barbeau York Telephone service, STL
Sep 8, 1947 Barbeau York Pep talk
Sep 15, 1947 Barbeau York Land transfer, survey, Watson, studio location
Sep 20, 1947 Barbeau Barron Antenna type, mounting
Sep 23, 1947 Barbeau York Pep talk
Oct 4, 1947 Barbeau Linge Antenna mast
Oct 6, 1947 Barbeau York FCC STL
Oct 6, 1947 Barbeau York Call letter choice
Oct 7, 1947 Barbeau York Well drilling, politics
Oct 10, 1947 Barbeau Barron WBCA interference
Oct 14, 1947 Barbeau IDECO Tower
Oct 14, 1947 Barbeau Lehigh steel Tower
Oct 14, 1947 Barbeau Truscon Steel Tower
Oct 14, 1947 Barbeau American Bridge Tower
Oct 15, 1947 Barbeau York Scheduling
Oct 15, 1947 Barbeau York Building location, tower type, height
Oct 18, 1947 Barbeau York Antenna mounting
Oct 20, 1947 Barbeau York Access Road Location
Oct 27, 1947 Barbeau York Antenna location, scheduling
Oct 27, 1947 Barbeau York Land title, survey, well drilling, antenna height, FCC
Oct 28, 1947 Barbeau Torlish Well Drilling
Oct 30, 1947 Barbeau York Well Drilling
Oct 30, 1947 Barbeau Barron Antenna mounting
Nov 4, 1947 Barbeau York Scheduling
Nov 5, 1947 Barbeau Schenectady Steel Support mast
Nov 5, 1947 Barbeau York WTRY construction progress (WTRI-FM)
Nov 5, 1947 Barbeau Barron Antenna mounting, STL
Nov 6, 1947 Barbeau York Land survey
Nov 7, 1947 Barbeau Torlish Well drilling
Nov 17, 1947 Barbeau York Progress report
Nov 17, 1947 Barbeau Barron Antenna mounting
Nov 17, 1947 Barbeau American Bridge Tower
Nov 26, 1947 Barbeau Barron Transmission line
Nov 29, 1947 Barbeau York Transmitter building design
Dec 2, 1947 Barbeau York Access road
Dec 3, 1947 Barbeau York Contractors
Dec 8, 1947 Barbeau York Contractors
Dec 9, 1947 Barbeau York Contractors, tower erection
Dec 9, 1947 Barbeau Zane Construction of Blaw Knox tower
Dec 9, 1947 Barbeau York Tower erection, observations of WTRI tower
Dec 11, 1947 Barbeau York Land clearing, building location
Dec 12, 1947 Barbeau York Building location, driveway
Dec 14, 1947 Barbeau York Studio location
Dec 29, 1947 Barbeau York Construction start

This is a treasure trove of information on how this, and perhaps other early FM and TV stations went about finding land and building remote transmitter sites.  Remember that before this, AM transmitters could be placed in any convenient location with enough space for the tower and ground system.  The line of sight nature of VHF required high locations, which in the Northeastern US,  means prominent hills or mountains.  Sadly, this paper trail goes away in 1948.

Here are some of the highlights found in the letters above:

  • Washington DC consulting engineer for the project is John Barrons, who at one point suggests a different transmitter location closer to the city of Troy.  Barbeau insists that the Helderberg location is best because the GE engineers chose it for their FM and TV experiments.
  • Negotiations with several land owners along the edge of the Helderberg escarpment are finally successful, with a 10 acre parcel of land purchased from Mr. La Grange, noted as being across Camp Pinnacle Road to the south of the WBCA transmitter and adjacent to the west of the GE parcel, cost $2,000.  From this, I surmise the former W47A/WBCA site stood where the former WHMT/WVCR site stands today.
  • Land survey completed by Mr. J. Kempf of Albany.
  • The FCC application is completed with new transmitter location, antenna height and frequency of 92.5 MHz (this was changed to 92.3 MHz prior to sign on).
  • At one point, Barbeau tried to hire Walter Watson, an RPI architecture student, to draw up the studio floor plan, paying him $15.00.  At first Watson agrees, then backs out of the deal.  Frank York hires an architect to draw the studio floor plan and the transmitter site building plan.
  • Once the plot of land for the transmitter site is purchased, several different building locations and antenna configurations are discussed.  It is noted that both WBCA’s and WGFM’s original antenna was mounted on a pole at ground level.  The later station was moved to a makeshift tower.
  • WBCA management raises concern with the FCC about potential interference from the new station’s transmitter and potential STL, noted as an S-T link.
  • In September of 1947, Frank York expresses some concern with viability of project, Barbeau sends several “pep talk” letters saying that FM radio is the future of broadcasting.
  • The building site is chosen, land cleared, access road installed, work done by Orsini Brothers Construction from Altamont, clearing and road work cost $2,000.
  • The call letters WFLY are chosen, they are the initials of Frank Lloyd York.
  • An 80 foot Blaw-Knox self supporting tower is purchased and installed by Zane Construction, cost of tower is $1,700 installation was another $200.00.
  • Well is drilled by Stewart Brothers well drilling from Guilderland, cost of $5.90 per foot drilled, total cost unknown.
  • Transmitter building work began, building is noted as a two story, concrete block construction, work done by Orsini Brothers.
  • A GE BY-4-C four bay circularly horizontally polarized antenna and 3 1/2 inch Andrew transmission line is installed on tower.
  • Building construction progresses, telephone and electric service installed.  Three phase electrical service cost $2,100 from New York Power and Light.
  • Studio site chosen in at the Troy Hotel in downtown Troy.
  • Living quarters constructed on second floor of building for full time transmitter engineer.
  • A GE BF-3A 3 KW FM transmitter purchased and shipped.
  • Building construction completed.
  • Transmitter installed and tested.
  • Telephone circuits between new studio installed and tested.
WFLY transmitter site building elevations

WFLY transmitter site building elevations

WFLY transmitter building floor plan

WFLY transmitter building floor plan

WFLY electrical drawing showing grounding and tower

WFLY electrical drawing showing grounding and tower

The transmitter site construction was finished in the spring of 1948.  The studios were completed in late July of 1948 and the station signed on the air on August 18, 1948.  This is the transmitter site that they ended up with. as it looks in 2015:

WFLY transmitter building, New Scotland, NY

WFLY transmitter building, New Scotland, NY

In addition to the construction, there was quite a bit difficulty from the WBCA management, who were concerned about possible interference.  WBCA was part of the “Continental Network” and received most of it’s network programing via direct over the air relay from W2XMN/W31NY, 43.1 MHz, in Alpine, NJ.  They complained to the FCC about potential interference on both their over air network relay (43.1 MHz) and the Studio to Transmitter Link from downtown Schenectady on 950 MHz.  In the end, the FCC was unimpressed with these arguments and granted WFLY its operating license.

The transmitter building was made twice as large as needed because the Record had plans to launch a TV station and possibly a radio facsimile service.  In addition to this, there were complete living quarters on the second floor which included a bathroom, shower, kitchen, bedroom and large living room area.  This was in the era before remote controlling of transmitters was permitted by the FCC.  It took a hardy soul to live at the remote transmitter site full time.  Even today, it is far outside of town and can be difficult to get to in the winter time

These mountain top transmitter sites did not exist prior to the advent of TV and FM.  The amount of planing and work went into launching this station is quite impressive. For the early FM radio stations, this type of effort and expense was probably typical.

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21 comments to Building the FM band

  • Lee Rust

    A classic postwar transmitter building. It looks very familiar. FM radio was cutting-edge new tech in those days and hopes were high. Very rare that those construction records survived, but they are a window into a vanished era.

    Surprisingly it has taken 60+ years for FM to supplant AM as the dominant radio broadcast system.

  • Jim Seaman

    Paul, I’m so happy that you found and preserved the files that I saved from the dumpster many years ago. The WFLY transmitter building of the late Bill Rust years was a storehouse of radio history, stacked to the ceiling with files and artifacts of early FM radio. The “Barbeau letters” To Frank L. York (on Hotel Ten Eyck stationary) that I saved are a treasure trove of history about Albany FM radio and how WFLY came to be built in the Helderbergs. With many misgivings, and because they were not mine, I left those files on the premises when I resigned from WFLY in 1986 with the hope that somebody following me would enjoy reading them as much as I did. When I visited the WFLY site in the early 2000’s with a mutual acquaintance of ours I looked for them and found them missing, and feared the worst. There was an equally valuable and enlightening file cabinet at the WPTR transmitter building which I presume was pitched many years ago. Happy New Year.

  • Paul Thurst

    Jim, I forgot you worked at ‘FLY in the 80’s. Thank you for having the foresight to save these. I found them at the WROW-AM transmitter site. I should scan some of the more interesting Barbeau letters in, they are a hoot.
    The WPTR files appear to be gone. The file cabinet, which was in your (and my) former office in the transmitter building, was cleaned out and reused for equipment manuals when the studios were rebuilt in 2005. When I was helping re-wire the studios, I asked what happened to all the stuff that was in the drawers and was told it was pitched into the dumpster. It made me almost sick. I know the mind at work here. Anyway, the good news, before I left WPTR, I made copies of the file regarding the 1953 plane/tower collision, which can be found here

    Lee, even though it took many years for FM to be dominant, it had listeners almost right away. Along with the above files, I also have a large file folder with listener letters dating from 1948-53. There are many, often from great distances away.

  • Jim Seaman

    I was not only at WFLY, I was the one who installed the new Continental transmitter, the ERI rototiller, and the Onan propane generator up there. When I arrived on scene, the building still looked exactly like the first photo you posted and was basically a time capsule. DG had the ground floor windows blocked up and we had the building painted the beige color you see now. The main rig was the Rockwell/Collins 10kW and I nursed along the original GE transmitter as an aux for as long as I could. We actually had two of those GE transmitters which were a 500 watt driver cabinet complete with the famous Phasitron tube exciter. A replica of that transmitter was built and used at the W2XMN Armstrong historic site in Alpine, NJ to mark the anniversary of FM radio a few years back. Our rigs also had the 3kW PA sections which had two finals in push-pull. I’ve long since forgotten the tube types, but we were forced to buy the Continental because of a pending power increase and tube failures in the GE which for which we couldn’t get Econco to rebuild the tubes anymore. The GE rig and its spares was given to a gentleman from the Syracuse area who collected vintage rigs and wanted to start a museum.

    Three, full 60-yard dumpsters of trash and junque were removed from the WFLY building, and I cleared the trees that had grown almost to the tower base. There was a full 1940’s working kitchen which had been mothballed when the station went remote control in the 60’s and the last operators left. This included a full set of china, cookware and flatware carefully wrapped in tissue. Unfortunately I had to toss much of the kitchen inventory because the building was quite run down and everything was covered in mouse poop. There was a section of the top floor which had been walled off for a bedroom, complete with cot, matress, and panoramic views to die for. Operators used to spend a week on shift and several days off. If only that matress could talk!

    It was my understanding that an FM license was sought by Frank York, the general manager of the Troy Record, believed he believed the future of newspapers was in OTA fax delivery via FM radio. He was not alone in that opinion, and was able to convince the board of the Record to fund what became WFLY. The FCC rules were different in those days and permitted the main channel to be used for non-program purposes prior to the advent of multiplexing, stereo and SCA’s.

    The letters and status reports written by Mr. Lord’s consultant Ernest Barbeau are very detailed, and are written in a descriptive prose that one would expect from a man of his generation. Unfortunately those early pioneers like him are all gone now, and I hope you get around to scanning his notes someday because they are part of early FM history. I also recall leaving behind a copy of the Troy Record newspaper which was published on the day that WFLY signed on for the first time. The station’s birth coincided with the death of Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing whose funeral was that same week.

    The real mystery on Mt. Pinnacle is whatever happened to W44A which was on the prewar FM band. It was OTA around 1940, but did not make the move to the new FM band post-WW2. Ernest Barbeau did not mention it in his letters, and I assume it went dark during the war. Speculation is that the station was located on or near the GE property directly behind WFLY. I remember the remains of an old road going up the mountain behind our property. I believe Bob Levy was one of the WFLY transmitter operators who manned the Helderberg site. He used to be a regular at Albany SBE meetings during the 80’s and he may have some details on the history of the various sites, including W44A. In the 80’s he was CE at WHRL-FM, perhaps now long retired.

    Too bad about the WPTR files. WPTR was another time capsule when I got there with not much having changed from the mid-60’s except for the Harris MW-50A coming online. Bob Henry, the WPTR engineer who witnessed the plane crash, was another regular at SBE meetings during the 80’s, but he was relunctant to talk about it anymore.

  • Jim Seaman

    Oops, it seems I didn’t proofread my own blather. I remember hearing some dispute as to whether W47A/WBCA ever made it onto the post-war FM band. The mystery is still where the transmitter building was located as GE had always been behind the WFLY site.

  • Criss Onan

    Great post and even more interesting comments. Thanks for the good reading!

    I once engineered at an FM site that had living quarters because it pre-dated (Rust) remote control authorization. It was the former WRLX in Auburn, NY. While only one story and not as large as WFLY’s, it was still pretty nice including a garage. It was originally built by the owners of radio, newspaper and cable TV in town before forced divestiture. The class B signal was in mono so covered the Finger Lakes and much of Central NYS.

  • Paul Thurst

    Jim, Barbeau sheds some light on the location of the WBCA transmitter site. In his April 21, 1947 letter, he is describing the La Grange property (which is were the WFLY transmitter building is now located) “…it is at first blush even more desirable that (sic) WBCA’s site and is directly across the road (Camp Pinnacle Road) and to the south of WBCA.” In the same letter, it is also noted as being slightly higher than WBCA and has a better sight line into Albany and Troy than WBCA. From this, I surmise the WBCA transmitter was located where the former WHMT transmitter building now stands. WBCA disappears from the Broadcasting Yearbook after 1954, WMHT-TV went on the air in 1962.

  • Jim Seaman

    Two more tidbits, and then I promise to pipe down. The WFLY transmitter site was a relay station for the old QXR network and once supported an elaborate antenna farm for receiving and relaying the signal from WQXR-AM in New York City. I remember finding detailed logs with remarks about the difficulty of receiving a usable signal from QXR. Then there was an RRN connection. WFLY was never a part of the old NY Rural Radio Network, but there are some similarities that the former RRN stations share with WFLY in their original equipment packages. I remember finding an old RRN mic flag in the WFLY transmitter building and I heard that RRN would sometimes take programming from the QXR network relays. It’s possible that some RRN programming may have entered the network from WFLY.

  • Jim Seaman

    Paul, it’s been so long, but I recall reading that WMHT received a donation of property that it moved its transmitter to. So it’s possible that they got the site. But there was also a more extensive road network through the camp in previous decades.

  • Wonderful article! Thank you — the history of so many of these early FMs is fading rapidly.

  • OK, I’ll ask the dumb guy question – what’s the deal with the tall skinny window?

  • Paul Thurst

    Jim, looking at the satellite imagery, I could be wrong about the WHMT site. It could actually be across the Beaver Dam Road. There is a house there now, but it looks like there are some building and road remnants in the woods. The only way to know for sure is to spend a day at the Albany County court house going over land records.
    Spine, no such thing as a dumb question, the tall skinny window was for the staircase to the second floor. I am not sure about the proper architectural name, but the stairs go half way up to a landing, then turn 180 degrees the other direction the other half. It takes up a lot less space. On the second floor, the little skinny window to the right of the ladder is the bathroom, the other one is the kitchen.

  • Jim Seaman

    The elusive W47A building would have looked like this: http://www.ggninfo.com/pix/w47a.jpg

    A pretty nice transmitter shack itself.

  • Al Quaglieri

    Most broadcasters had no sense of or interest in their history. I worked briefly at WOKO and they had absolutely nothing on file or anywhere else that was more than 4 years old.

  • Maureen Berry

    Wonderful read ! Hey Al Quaglieri! Worked with you for a very short time at WOKO!

  • Geddie

    I found your description really interesting. I would be really interested in the items on the well drilling and a general map of the location of this site. I spent a lot of years before becoming a ham involved with well drilling and groundwater and would like to put something together about the site.

    Thanks Geddie, VE3CJX, St. Catharines Ontario, Canada

  • John Schmidt

    I was unaware that circular polarization was permitted at that early date. It took either twice as many antenna bays, with problems of shadowing for mountaintop sites, or twice the transmitter power, very expensive in the early days. It became much more important when people started listening to FM on car radios. Very interesting.

  • Jim Seaman

    I also find the reference to a CP antenna interesting because I remember finding plans for an H-pol antenna in the transmitter building when I worked at WFLY in the mid-80’s. I presumed it was the original antenna which had been replaced at least twice before I got there. I believe that WFLY is still running on what may be its third or fourth antenna, a three-bay ERI rototiller which went up under my watch to replace an earlier rototiller that was leaking and damaged.

    Two side notes…the original GE FM transmitter driver was a 250-watt cabinet, not 500-watts as I wrote earlier. Also, I found a New York State death record for a Francis York, aged 69, dated 1957. Frank York disappears from the Broadcasting Yearbook as GM of WFLY around 1960, but then the Yearbook was always a little behind the times.

  • Jim Seaman

    Thought I’d also mention I’ve been trying to track down more information about the location of W47A/WBCA. That station was an early pioneer on the pre-war FM band and I find it amazing that so little is known or remembered about the station, even its transmitter location in the Helderberg tower farm. Almost all trace of it has been lost to history except for a couple of photos and print ads, and a chronology of Yearbook references. The early days of FM radio are quickly passing into ancient history and this is underscored by my experience this week. After a bit of surfing I came up with a connection between WBCA-FM and a gentleman who worked there in the early 50’s. A little bit more digging and I came up with a phone number. On a whim I called the number and it was answered by a voice who explained that he passed away three years ago. So it’s best to document that early radio history before it’s lost forever. Time runs through our fingers like sand, and before we know it we’ll all become statistics.

  • Paul Thurst

    John/Jim, you raise an interesting question. In several of his letters, Barbeau describes the antenna as a “4 bay circular type antenna, 42 feet long.” Only once, in an October 30th letter to John Barron (DC Consulting Engineer) does he describe the antenna as “circularly polarized.” I did confirm the original antenna as a GE BY-4-C. Several of the older FM antennas did have circular elements, but were horizontally polarized, which may be the case here. If anyone has any old GE FM antenna literature, a quick look at a picture of the antenna would determine whether horizontal or circular polarization was used.

    Update: I found the old GE antenna. It is either the original main antenna or a spare/backup antenna which is stored in the overhead above the generator. It is indeed only horizontally polarized. I’ll update the article and put up some pictures when I have a chance.

  • Paul, no need to apologize for updating your lovely site. History was never my strong suit in school but I appreciate more and more the process of looking back at how things got to be where they are, or how they used to be. And I used to live in New York, and went to school in the Capital Region though it’s been many years since I’ve been back. Thank you for continuing your work on this site!

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