Fixing another AM station’s antenna system

I have done several of these posts in the past, but it always seems to be of some interest, so it bears repeating.  AM antenna systems are not black magic.  They are actually pretty easy to understand if the fundamental knowledge is in place.  Medium Wave frequency wavelengths are fairly large compared to other broadcast frequencies.  Thus, the components are larger.

The three basic components of an AM antenna system are the tower, the ATU (antenna tuning unit) and the transmission line (AKA Coax).  The tower is the radiating element and they come in a variety of flavors; uniform cross section guyed, self supporting, series excited, shunt excited, etc.   A series excited tower has a base insulator and is fed directly from the ATU.  A shunt excited tower has a grounded base and uses a skirt or folded monopole design to transfer the RF to the main radiating element.  This design has an advantage as the tower can be used for other wireless and broadcast services.

The antenna work in question for this project is WINE, 940 KHz, Brookfield, CT.  The skirted tower is used for WRKI.  It also has two way and cellular clients.  The issue is instability of the WINE antenna system, which is likely due to improperly attached shorting wires between the skirt at the tower.  Over the years, the impedance of the skirt has gone way up.  The tower itself is 152.1 meters (499 feet) tall, or 170.3 electrical degrees.  The skirt length is about 82 electrical degrees and it is shorted at about 72 degrees.  There have been several papers written about folded monopoles for Medium Frequency (AKA AM or Standard) broadcast service.  The recommendations state that for best performance, the short to the tower should be between 62 and 90 electrical degrees.  Since the existing system falls in that range, there must be other problems with the antenna skirt and or shorting wire to the tower.

WINE skirted tower diagram
WINE skirted tower diagram

If one looks at this diagram, that configuration should look something like a gamma match, often used on dipole and yagi type antennas.  A gamma match can be thought of as a stub of transmission line which is bonded to the radiating element at some favorable wave length corresponding to the desired radiation resistance.  This is one of several configurations for folded monopole antennas and this type is most often seen on towers that support other wireless service antennas such as cellular and two way systems which are installed above the skirt.

There are a few interesting data points when looking at these type of antennas.  First is the ratio of the diameter of the skirt over the height of the tower, or D/H.  The larger this ratio is, the better the bandwidth characteristics of the antenna system are.  This makes sense, when you think about it. In this instance, the tower is 151 meters (495.4 feet) tall and the skirt is 3.3 meters (10.83 feet) wide, thus the ratio is 0.0218.

The licensed base impedance if 234 ohms with a good amount of inductive reactance. When Sprint and T-mobile changed their configuration on the tower, that impedance shifted dramatically.  The existing skirt is in fairly rough condition.  The bottom ring that connects to the ATU is made out of copper tubing.  It is attached to the skirt wires with steel saddle clamps, all are rusted and all of which are lose and can slide around.  At some point, the tubing filled up with water, then froze causing the tubing to split open.  At the top of the skirt, the jumper wire looks suspicious and the top ring does not go all the way around. The shorting stub to the tower looks like it is made out of battery jumper cable.  I purchased new cross wire clamps and found some spare copper weld skirt wire at another site.  Both the bottom ring and top ring were replaced as well as the shorting stub to the tower.

After the repair work was done, I had the tower crew reattach the short slightly below the last skirt to tower bonding point.  In that position, I found the impedance went way up.  Thus, going lower was going towards a resonance point.  I had them move the short up to the former shorting point and remeasured and found the impedance was 235 ohms, only 1 ohm off from the previously licensed values.

Initially, I thought it would be nice to find a better position for the shorting stub and get a lower base impedance.  This would make the whole antenna system work better (improve bandwidth, stability, etc).  However, there was a set of guy wires above the bonding point.  The tower crew would have had to disassemble the top ring to move above the guy wires.  We were running out of daylight and weather so I had them lock everything down where it was.  On a station running an all sports format that has no listeners and does not make any money, it does not make a lot of sense to spend gobs of money and time to rebuild the ATU for a new base impedance.  When I got the impedance back to within 0.11% of the licensed values, it was time to declare victory and go home.

Engineering Radio; the satellite reaiming tour 2017!

As previously discussed, the migration from AMC-8 to AMC-18 is in full swing. There is less than two weeks left to complete the re-aiming process.  All totalled, we have 24 of these things to re-point and all but two of them  are done.  Toward that end, I have this down to an art:

  • Go inside and make a note of the signal strength on the satellite receivers on AMC-8
  • Look up the elevation angle on dish align app for AMC-8 then compare that to what the inclinometer reads, note the difference between the calculated and actual readings
  • Look up the elevation angle on the dish align app for AMC-18, apply the difference noted above to the final value
  • Connect the XR-3 satellite aiming tool to the LNB, make sure LNB power is on and the unit is set to AMC-18, C-band
  • Elevate the dish to the AMC-18 final elevation angle calculated above
  • Note the azimuth on the dish align app, look at the satellite picture and pick out a land mark.  Swing the dish towards the land mark
  • As you start to see signal from various satellites, swing more slowly.  If the elevation angle is set correctly, when the dish passes AMC-18 at 105 degrees W, the XR-3 will lock on
  • Peak the signal (azimuth and elevation)
  • Rotate the LNB feed horn for maximum signal to noise ratio
  • Go inside, check satellite receivers, reprogram carrier frequencies as necessary

It is pretty easy. I can do the whole thing in about thirty minutes if there are no rusted bolts, etc. I wonder how many small station owners will wake up on July 1st with no satellite programming?

Comtech Satellite dishes, WABC transmitter site, Lodi, NJ

The Applied Instruments XR-3 (XR-S2ACM-01) VSAT-ACM  satellite signal meter with AMC-18 locked.  This hand held tool is great and makes aiming any dish a snap.  As the sky around AMC-18 is a wee bit crowded, it is easy to mistakenly find the wrong satellite.  With the Identify function, the satellite the dish is aimed to will be displayed, then the dish can be adjusted accordingly to the correct bird.

Applied Instruments XR-3 satellite signal meter

There are many different flavors of dishes; Comtech, Patriot, Prodelin, etc.

Prodelin 3.7 Meter satellite dish

These are all about the same to work with, the only difference is the degree of rust and deterioration on the mounting hardware, the age of the LNB and number of bees nests that need to be removed.

Studio Buildout, Part III

I have been so busy that I forgot to post the pictures of the completed studio build out.  Overall, I would say that I am pretty pleased with the end result.  Of course, this is not Manhattan but rather an unrated market in central New York, and the budget reflected that.  Overall, the radio stations are in much better technical condition than before.  They are now located in the center of their community within walking distance of the town hall, other civic locations and activities.

There are five radio stations broadcasting from this new studio space.  Two stations are simulcast using the Westwood One Classic hits format from the satellite.  The only AM station is a Fox Sports Radio affiliate from the satellite with a local morning show.  Another one is a “we play anything” computer juke box and final station has a country format with quite a bit of local content.  Any station can go on the air from either studio.  In addition, all stations can simulcast the mother ship from Oneonta, which comes down via a Barix Exstreamer 1000.

Walton TOC

The Technical Operation Center consists of four racks containing the Ethernet routers, switches, a patch panel, automation systems, audio routing switchers, air monitor receivers, audio distribution amps, Barix units, Wheatstone Blade IP 88A STL, etc.  The equipment racks came from a disused site in New Jersey.

The satellite dish and receivers are located at the transmitter site, audio and closures come back via the Wheatstone Blade IP 88A.

Everything in this room is backed up by a STACO 2.5 KVA UPS.

TOC wire terminations

The wire termination from the studio are mounted to Krone LSA-PLUS blocks.  Studio trunk wiring consists of connectorized 25 pair CAT 5 cable.  There are also six runs of shielded CAT 5e cable for Ethernet and extended KVM from the TOC.

There is a manual transfer switch with a NEMA L14-30 input receptacle on the bottom.  A twenty for 10/4 SOJ cable will reach the ground from the window in the left hand side of the picture.  This is the standard NEMA plug/receptacle set for a moderate sized portable generator.  That feeds a 100 Amp sub panel which in turn feeds the racks and studio equipment.  Thus the entire facility can be run on a 5000 watt (good quality) portable generator in the event of a prolonged power outage.

The ground buss bar is connected to the main building ground at the service entrance.  All racks and studio consoles are grounded to this main ground point.

The air monitor receivers feed both studios.  There is also a provision to connect audio silence sensors up to each air monitor DA to notify the station staff in the event of an off air situation.  Believe it or not, this type of system has never been installed for these stations.

Studio A is the main studio.  The AudioArts Air4 console is a good fit for this type of operation.  These consoles have USB outputs, so the console can act as a sound card for the digital editing computer.  Each studio is equipped with an air monitor switch that can select any station to feed the external monitor input on the Air 4 console.  This allows the guy on duty to keep an eye on all the signals coming from the facility.

Studio A

The counter tops were custom made at a local kitchen place on trade. The microphone are Heil PR-22 with shock mounts, which are better than the Realistic mics in the old studio.  This is the first time that the main studio has had more than one microphone. The morning show guy has already pressed those guest mics into service with a few on air interviews.

The monitor speakers are JBL LSR305 mounted on home made speaker stands consisting of 18 inch black iron pipe and floor flanges.

Studio A

The small equipment rack is on casters and can roll out from under the studio furniture to get at the back of the equipment.  A used Gentner DH3 TELCO hybrid is used to get phone callers on the air.  Adobe Audition is used for editing and production on the left hand computer monitor.  That CPU is in the bottom of the roll around rack.

Studio A

The office chair and other furniture was also acquired on trade.

Studio A

What the operator sees. STORQ computer on the left for music, Scotts SS32 on the right for automation. Both are extended from the TOC. Unless the morning show guy is live on the air, the console is bypassed and the audio stays in the TOC.

It all works pretty well.

Studio B

Studio B is the same as Studio A except fewer microphones.

Studio B

Studio B operator view.  This studio can be used for one of the other stations or production.

Again, this is not a Fancy Nancy installation, but it does get the job done.

VOA Site B, Greenville, NC

I took a brief vacation last week along the coast of North Carolina. It was relaxing and fun to be sure. I was also aware of and slightly curious about the Voice Of America shortwave site, a slight distance inland in Grimesland, NC.  Thus, I made arrangements visit the facility on my way home.  Chief Engineer, Macon Dail, was gracious enough to give us the guided tour.  The facility is an engineering marvel.  The scale and complexity is enormous.  The entire facility is scrupulously maintained.  Many of the transmitters and other equipment have been upgraded to make them more functional.   I tried to take meaningful pictures, but in many cases, they simply do not to justice.

Edward R Murrow Transmitting Facility, (VOA Greenville Site B) Grimesland, North Carolina

Officially known as the Edward R Murrow Transmitting Station of the International Broadcasting Bureau, VOA Site B was constructed in 1961.  Six of the eight shortwave transmitters are original to the construction of the building.  The other two (BBC SK55 and AEG S4005) were added in 1986.  All of the dipole curtain arrays, rhombics, transmission line and the antenna switching matrix are also original.  A few brief statistics about this site:

  • Land area is 2,715 acres (1099 hectare).
  • Over twenty six miles (forty two kilometers) of 300 ohm open transmission line rated at 500 KW.
  • Sixteen dipole curtain arrays, average antenna gain 17 dBi.
  • Twenty rhombic antennas, antenna gain 15 dBi.
  • Two of the dipole curtain arrays can slew azimuth and take off angle.
  • Three Continental Electronics 420A 500 KW Doherty modulated transmitters.
  • Three General Electric 4BT250A1 250 KW high level plate modulated transmitters.
  • One Brown Boveri Company (BBC) SK55C3 500 KW PSM transmitter.
  • One AEG Telefunken S4005 500 KW PDM transmitter.
  • Antenna switch matrix connects any of the eight transmitters to any of the thirty six antennas

While we were there, both of the newer transmitters were on the air, running at 250 KW.  The GE transmitters are used as needed and the Continentals are rarely used due to age, difficulty to tune, change frequencies and gross power inefficiency.

The station staff has, out of necessity, fabricated some very cool upgrades to the transmitters and facility.  The first of which is the alarm annunciator, which is based on a Star Trek (Original Series) sound scheme.  Once or twice I heard the bridge general alarm go off, followed by a female voice stating the problem: “GB8, OFF AIR.”

Chief Engineer’s office.  NCC-1701; no bloody A, no bloody B, no bloody C, and no bloody D

The GE 250 KW transmitters have been retrofitted with a computer controlled auto tune system for frequency changes.  The antenna switch matrix controller has been replaced by a PLC based system.  As the transmitters are so old, many of the transmitter specific parts need to be machined or fabricated locally.  The rest of the transmitter parts are stocked in a large parts storage room, all of which is meticulously labeled and tracked.  The floors are waxed and spotless, there is no dust on the horizontal surfaces, the work shop is clean, tools are put away, grass and weeds are cut, etc.  All of these little details did not go unnoticed and indicate great pride by the staff in the facility itself.

The heart of the facility is the control room which consists of four rows of equipment racks and a central operating position elevated above floor level.  Arranged around that are the eight shortwave transmitters in two long transmitter galleries.

VOA Site B control room

From this point, the operator can view all of the transmitters in the two transmitter galleries.

Operating position

Around the control operator are arranged a series of computer monitors showing various station function status.

Transmitter modulation and status indicators
Antenna Matrix status and control
VOA transmitter control and status (center)
Audio monitoring router

The equipment is installed into the equipment racks by type; one rack contains the frequency generators for each transmitter, the next contains first stage power amplifiers, the next contains audio processors and modulation monitors, etc.

Equipment racks and Shift Supervisor’s  office
Transmitter frequency generators
Audio processors, modulation monitors and patch panels
Backup audio feeds

The audio comes from the VOA studios in Washington DC via satellite. There are Comrex Access links as a backup and the Gentner EFT-1000s are used as a backup to the backup.  Prior to 1995, an eight hop microwave system covering the 300 mile (483 KM) distance was used.

GE 4BT250A transmitter with computer controlled tuning system installed

The station staff has created a computer controlled tuning system for the GE transmitters. Each transmitter can change frequency several times a day, during each frequency change, all of the transmitter stages need to be retuned. When done by hand, this can take several minutes to accomplish. The computer system uses follow pots and micro controllers to set the tuning elements to specific values. They can be touched up by hand if needed. A frequency change can usually be done in less than one minute.

GE 4BT250A transmitter
Your humble author and CE Macon Dail discussing the auto tune system
GE 4BT250A auto tune modification
GE 4BT250A IPA tube and input tuning.

The 2nd IPA and PA input tuning work the same way. The copper sleeve slides up and down over the coil to change resonant frequency. The vapor cooled tube sits inside the tub at the top, anode facing down. These tuning sections are a mechanical nightmare according to Macon. One of the reasons why VOA site A was closed down was due to the frequent frequency changes at that site causing excessive wear and tear on the old GE transmitters. This particular transmitter was being repaired; the staff was rebuilding a tuning network bypass capacitor assembly

GE 4BT250A transformer vault

The GE transmitter transformers still contain PCB’s. The plate transformers are in the back, basically pole transformers, one for each phase. Primary voltages is 4,180 volts, secondary rectified voltages are 12 KVDC (PA plate supply)  and 15 KVDC (modulator plate supply).

Hallway and maintenance access to back of GE transmitters
AEG Telefunken S4005 500 KW transmitter on the air

While we were there, the newer transmitters were in operation transmitting Spanish language programming to the Cuba on 13,605 KHz and 11,930 KHz.  Currently, the Greenville site is broadcasting mostly Spanish language programming with some English, French and Bambara language programming for Africa.

A fact that does not escape the notice of the staff.

VOA transmitter gallery, showing transmitters GB8 through GB4
Continental Electronics 420A 500 KW Shortwave transmitter control and metering panel

The three Continental 420A transmitters (GB-1, GB-2 and GB-3) are essentially a pair of 250 KW amplifiers combined. As these are Doherty power amplifiers, frequency changes are very difficult to effect. These transmitters spend most of their time in backup service.

Electrical distribution panel

The antenna matrix building is very impressive. Routing eight 250 or 500 KW transmitters to 36 different antennas takes a bit of doing. Mechanizing that set up is no mean feat. The pictures I took of the antenna matrix building do not show the size and complexity of the system.

Transmission line between transmitter building and antenna matrix building

For that, we need a satellite photo:

VOA Site B antenna matrix building

Basically, the transmitter building is in the lower left hand side of the picture. The transmission line go over to the antenna matrix building (looks like rectangular duct work), then run all the way to the back of the building. Each antenna transmission line come into the building and runs to the other side. Pneumatic arms then couple the transmitter line to the antenna line. This is all controlled by a custom made PLC and controlled by the operator from the main operating desk.

Custom made antenna matrix control system
300 ohm open transmission lines
300 ohm open transmission lines

Some of these lines are very long but have low loss due to the air dielectric. The most used antennas are the dipole curtain arrays.

Dipole curtain arrays

These consist of a series of broadband dipole antennas arranged side by side and stacked three or four high. behind those antennas is a reflector screen. There are two curtain arrays that are slewable. The dipole antennas phase relationship to each other can be changed to adjust the take off angle and azimuth, thus giving optimum coverage to the targeted area.

Close up curtain array

In this picture, the dipole antennas are to the right. Behind them is the reflector screen, behind that is the antenna feed system. Each antenna feed goes through the reflector screen to the center of the dipole antenna.

Each array requires four towers to support it.

Curtain dipole array supporting towers
Curtain dipole array supporting towers
Remote Antenna Switch.  Allows two antennas to use one transmission line.

The entire antenna field is viewable from an observation platform on the main building

Observation room
Entrance gate and slewable curtains in background
Curtain arrays

The entire facility is very impressive. The truth is, I could have spent several more hours there, but I know that people have jobs to do and I felt that I had taken up enough time. We often forget in this country that not everyone in the world has access to the internet. Shortwave broadcasting has a long reach and is not subject to government controlled firewalls or other forms of electronic censorship. Currently, the Greenville site is broadcasting mostly Spanish language programming with some English language programming for Africa. There are many areas in the world that are in political tension right now, some startlingly close to home. Places like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela have been in the news lately. I do not see a time when these long reach broadcasting services will not be needed. Becoming a welcome source of good information for those affected people is good for brand USA. It would be money well spent to invest in a couple of new Continental 419H (still made in the USA) DRM capable transmitters for this facility. While the old GE and Continental units are great, the time may come when they are really needed but unavailable due to being down for repair.

Special thanks to Macon Dail for his time, knowledge and patience.