AM radio stations are rough customers. They frequently operate on the margins, both in terms of ratings and revenue. Their transmitter plants are complex and very often have been on a reduced maintenance schedule for years, sometimes decades. Those of us that understand the operation of AM transmitter plants and all their quirky behaviours are getting older. I myself, feel less inclined to drop everything and run off to the AM transmitter site when things go awry. Seldom are such efforts rewarded, much less acknowledged. Station owners are also finding that their previous demands are unrealistic. For example, time was that any work that takes the station off the air had to be done after midnight. These days, I can tell you, I will not be working at your radio station after midnight. You can find somebody else to do that work.
Thus, today, we took this particular AM station off the air from Noon until 3 pm to diagnose and repair a problem with the four tower daytime array. Once again, this involved a shift in common point impedance and a drastic change in one tower’s current ratios.
Antenna Tuning Unit, mice have made a mess
In all fairness to the current owner, this ATU reflects years of neglect. At some point, mice made a home in here and created a mess. The ATU smells of mouse shit, piss and mothballs. It is full of mouse droppings, grass seeds and fur. All of the ATUs in this array are in similar condition.
Paper wasp, inside ATU
It was warm enough that the wasps were active, if not a little bit lethargic.
Broken stand off insulators in ATU
This coil is being held up by the tubing that connects it to other components. When the ATU was built, no nylon or cork bushings were used between the insulators and the wall of the ATU they were mounted on. Heat cycling eventually did all of the insulators in.
Catwalk to the other towers
Catwalks to the other towers. At least the swamp grass has been cut this year, it is only four feet tall instead of ten.
The tower bases are all elevated above the theoretical maximum water level. The ATUs are also up on stands with platforms build for maintenance access.
ATU Work “platform”
I cannot even blame the current owner, who has spend considerable money to make repairs and upgrades to this site. It is very difficult and very expensive to catch up with deferred maintenance. Sadly, most AM stations we encounter have similar or worse problems.
I think it is too late to save many of these AM stations. The technical issues, lack of revenue, perceived poor quality, lack of good programming are all taking their toll. At this point, the hole is so deep there is no hope of ever getting out. The FCC’s faux interest in “revitalization” followed by two years of stony indifference seems to be a final, cruel joke.
Working on another AM directional station (WGDJ) which was damaged by lightning recently. In this case, the antenna array controller ceased working and one of the towers in the daytime pattern was out tolerance. Before we stared working, I told the owner to have all the vegetation cut down around the towers. This is what we ended up with:
WGDJ catwalk, East Greenbush, NY
I can’t really fault them for this, but it does make work more difficult. That strip of tall green grass; that is the catwalk. The grass itself is called Phragmites, which is tall, tough, reedy stuff that can scratch and cut person unaware. The array is in a low swampy area next to the Hudson River in East Greenbush, NY. Stepping off of the catwalk, one can sometimes find solid ground, or find ones feet six inches under water.
WGDJ tower one ATU clean out
This is Mike cleaning out the mice and bees nests out of the tower #1 ATU. Notice the can of bee spray in his back pocket. This was after he was stung in the forehead.
Mouse nest, WGDJ tower #5 daytime ATU coil
This mouse nest, at the attendant dead body in it, was responsible for a -10 degree phase shift in the daytime pattern for that tower. I hate cleaning this stuff out, it is a dirty, nasty job but necessary nonetheless. While doing this work, I wore gloves and a dust mask. The entrance hole where the AC power and control cables come into the bottom of the ATU was plugged up with some steel wool. There is still a bad capacitor in this ATU for the daytime array, that damage was likely caused by lightning.
At the end of the day, we repaired the antenna array/phasor controller; bad AC transformer and rectifier bridge and several bad logic steering diodes for tower 4 and 5, cleaned out all the vermin nests and isolated the remaining problem with the daytime antenna system. Parts should be in next week to finalize repairs.
This is another one of those, ahem, AM success stories. WKNY is on 1490 KHz, 1,000 Watts day and night from a transmitter site that is located very close to it’s target audience of Kingston. It signed on on December 16, 1939 broadcasting 100 watts on 1500 KHZ according to the Broadcasting Yearbook 1940 edition.
WKNY transmitter site location
The transmitter location is the key to this station’s good signal over Kingston. Even though it is a class C AM station, when driving around the Kingston city limits there is no electrical interference or night time co-channel interference. The reason for this is because most of the city limits are within 2.5 to 3 miles (4 to 4.8 km) from the tower.
WKNY transmitter building and tower
This is the original transmitter building and tower. Like many old AM transmitter sites, this one is located in a low, swampy area. The tower is electrically tall for 1490 KHz, at 92 meters (305 feet) it is 163 electrical degrees. Something else that may contribute to the station’s performance.
WKNY tower base
WKNY tower, typical design of a uniform cross section guyed tower from the late 1930’s to late 1950’s.
WKNY transmitter. Another Nautel ND-1 series transmitter. Nothing every breaks or goes wrong.
Air studio, WKNY Kingston, NY
The air studio has an AudioArts R-60 console. For an inexpensive audio console, these things sure seem to last for a long time. I think this one was put in in 1997.
Talk Studio, WKNY KIngston, NY
A small talk studio is used to originate local programming of interest. This morning, I was listening to “Speak Out With Jody McTague,” a local interest program which was discussing the impacts being felt in the Kingston area due to the “Affordable Health Care Act.”
WKNY production studio
The production studio has a rather old Harris rotary pot console from the 1980’s.
Of course, all of this equipment makes radio transmission possible, but what makes radio itself is the local people working at the station and bringing relevant information to the area. I know a lot of very smart people are working on the “solution” to the AM problem. It really has to do with the programming.
Last week I did some repair work at WDDY in Albany NY. It seems the sample line on one of the towers was melted in half by a lightning strike. This station uses sample loops up on the tower for their directional antenna monitoring system.
WDDY antena array, Albany, NY
As it happened, the sample line in question was on the reference tower, which makes everything else meaningless. Before the meltdown, there were several years worth of maintenance logs which showed the previous values for current ratio and phase relationship.
With the transmitter turned off and locked out, I removed the damaged section of line from the base of the tower to the RF choke coil in the tuning house. Where the sample line came off of the base of the tower, there was a UHF type connector which had been improperly applied. Using spare parts, I fixed that connector, then spliced the line into place. Upon power up, the transmitter and antenna readings returned to there previous values, which were slightly out of tolerance.
Thus, some phasor tuning was needed. There are not too many people left that can properly tune an AM phasor. All of the control interact with each other; moving the power or phase to one tower will likely effect all of the other towers and possibly the reflected power on the transmitter. This phasor was made in the 1970’s by Multronics with what looks like all RCA parts. Multronics, I think, was John Mullaney who is more known for the folded unipole antenna. In anycase, after a good few hours of careful hand cranking and a run out to the reference tower to move a coil tap, here are the results:
Oh yeah, that’s right, they were used to attach the RF feed to an AM tower. About ten years ago.
Vise grip tower clamp
From this view, it looks like whatever tower crew installed this tower could not manage to solder or braze the copper RF connection to the steel tower. The area was then painted, but it looks like there is some corrosion going on between metals.
Vise grips clamping RF feed to tower
AM broadcast tower
This is a relatively new tower. Sadly, it is very likely that this station will be going off the air soon. If the station is still on the air come springtime, I will drag the brazing outfit across the field/swamp and fix this. If the station goes dark, then I won’t worry about it.
Emergency! The (AM) Transmitter keeps popping off the air and we can’t figure out why! YOU MUST HELP US!!1!!!
Some problems are easy to spot, difficult to fix
Well, with the ATU mounted about 1/4 inch away from the 90 degree, series excited tower, I wonder why. It seemed to be especially problematic during rain, snow and ice storms. When I asked how long this had been going on, I was told “About two years, ever since we put up the new tower!”
You don’t say.
We finally took care of this by moving the ATU back inside the shed after moving the transmitter to a different building. The funny thing is, this was installed by a guy who had a BSEE. I guess he must have been out sick the day they covered this in class.
My first job as Chief Engineer was at WPTR and WFLY in 1991. I was young and it was a learning experience. The WPTR transmitter was a Harris MW50A, which reliably went off the air every six months. The transmission lines going out to the towers had fallen off of their wooden support posts, trees were growing up in the antenna field, sample lines were going bad. In short, it was a mess. Even so, the station was well known and well liked in the community. One could still see echos of greatness that once was.
When Crawford Broadcasting purchased the station in 1996, they put much money and effort into renovating the facility. Replacing the Harris transmitter with a solid state Nautel, replacing the phasor and transmission lines, cutting the trees from the field, painting the towers, renovating the old transmitter building into a new studio facility and finally removing the old Butler building that formerly housed the “Gold Studios.”
Then the depression of 2008-20?? hit. Once again, the place has fallen on hard times. WDCD-AM has been silent since last April. The cost of running the 50 KW AM transmitter being too much to bear in the current economy. Formatically, the station drifted around for several years. According to the the STA to go silent:
WDCD WILL SUSPEND OPERATIONS FOR A PERIOD DURING WHICH IT WILL DEVELOP AND PREPARE TO DEPLOY A NEW PROGRAM FORMAT AND REPOSITION ITS VOICE AND IDENTITY IN THE COMMUNITY.
They may need to do something slightly non-religious to survive.
While we were waiting for the utility company to turn the electric back on after yesterday’s fire, I took a short walk around the WDCD-AM site and took some pictures. Transmitter disconnect thrown, fuses are pulled, it is kind of sad to see the Nautel XL-60 dark:
Nautel XL-60 AM transmitter. WDCD Albany, NY
I apologize greatly for the blurry picture, it was taken with my cellphone camera, my good camera being back at home on my desk. Radio stations, when they are on the air, seem like they are alive. Machinery hums, fans move air, meters move, and there is a sense of purpose. Silent radio stations give me a sense of foreboding, like something is terribly wrong.
WDCD three tower array, Albany, NY
View of the towers without Butler Building. The towers are 340 feet tall, which is 206 electrical degrees on 1540 KHz. The site was constructed like this to suppress skywave signals toward ZNS, Nassau, Bahamas. ZNS is the only clear channel station allotted to the Bahamas by NARBA. The other station WDCD is protecting is KXEL, Waterloo, IA. During the 90’s, I received many QSL requests from Norway/Finland and even a few from South Africa. I know that the station had a large following in most of New England.
WDCD tower base, tower one (furthest from building)
Tower one tower base. This IDECO tower had to have the top 60 feet replaced after it was hit by an airplane in 1953. The tower base also had to be replaced in the late 1980’s as it was crumbling and falling apart. To do this, Northeast Towers used railroad jacks and jacked the entire tower up off of the base insulator. They re-formed and poured a new base, carefully letting the tower back down on a new base insulator about a week later.
WDCD towers looking back toward the transmitter building
Antenna field looking back at the transmitter building. If you work at radio transmitter sites, I encourage you to take pictures of all these things, as someday, they will all be gone.
WDCD bomb shelter
The “bomb shelter” and 220 KW backup generator, constructed by FEMA in 1968 as part of the BSEPP. This used to have an emergency studio and enough diesel fuel for fourteen days operation. Now, the bomb shelter has a kitchen and bathrooms. The underground storage tank no longer meets EPA standards and has been pumped out.
WDCD Onan generator
The Onan generator is conservatively rated at 220 KW, surge rating 275 KW. These things were way over constructed, so it is likely it would easily run 225 KW all day. It has an in line six cylinder engine with a massive fly wheel. When the engine is stopped, it takes about twenty seconds for the generator to stop turning.
Three phase service
National Grid, 3 pot, 480 volt, 3 phase service, original to the 1947 building.
Or NECRAT for those who have been around the internet for a while. Many, if not most of you will know Mike Fitzpatrick’s NECRAT website which features many pictures of radio transmitter sites around the country (not just the Northeast).
Even before I began blogging, I checked NECRAT often for interesting pictures of many different transmitter sites.
There are two kinds of tower companies, those that have been around for a long time and do things right, and those that hire subcontractors who are minimally trained and take shortcuts. The reasons for this are the same and we hear them over and over again in all aspects of this business; budgetary constraints, time constraints and what, who me?
We were notified that the WFAS-AM tower lights were out, thus, it was time to investigate. This problem was easy to find. Upon removing the water proof cover on the tower light flasher box, I found this:
melted SSAC B-KON tower light flasher, damaged by lightning
As soon as loosened the screws on the cover, I smelled the unmistakeable odor of burned electronics and plastic. I disconnected the flasher and covered the photocell, which turned the side markers on. Of course, the top flashing beacon was dark, therefore, it was time to report the outage to the FAA. The nation wide number to report tower light outages is (877) 487-6867. That number is for an automated system, however, eventually it leads to a live person. Since the new reporting system was established, the only required information is the tower ASRN. From that information, the operator will access a data base and have all the required information to issue a NOTAM. In the past, many questions were usually asked; what is the nearest airport, how far away is the airport, how tall is the obstruction, what is the position, etc. Therefore, things have become slightly easier than before.
Once the outage is reported and a NOTAM is issued, the tower owner generally has fifteen days to correct the problem.
A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An optimist sees the glass as half full. The engineer sees the glass as twice the size it needs to be.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
~1st amendment to the United States Constitution
Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
~Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, Article 19
...radio was discovered, and not invented, and that these frequencies and principles were always in existence long before man was aware of them. Therefore, no one owns them. They are there as free as sunlight, which is a higher frequency form of the same energy.