The first radio station licensed to Albany, NY

Although not the first station in the area, that honor goes to WGY. In fact, RPI licensed WHAZ in 1923, which makes it the second regional station.  Starting on 1430 Khz as WOKO in New York City in 1923, the station made a few stops along the way.  One of those was on Mt. Beacon from 1928 until 1930.  The original transmitter building is still there, although the tower was taken down in 2005 to make way for the DTV stations that moved in.    I always wondered why an FM tower on the top of a mountain had a base insulator.

WDDY towers
WDDY towers, Bethlehem, NY

In 1930, WOKO was sold and moved to Albany, NY, becoming the first station licensed to that city.  The transmitter site is located off of Kenwood Avenue in the town of Bethlehem, about 4 miles south of down town Albany.  It first signed on with 1 KW, increasing to 5 KW in 1947.   This is the original transmitter site, but the towers were redone in the mid 1970’s.  The towers themselves are 130 electrical degrees (235 feet) tall.  Like all AM stations, for years it serviced the community until it was gradually reduced to a satellite repeater, now owned by Disney.

WDDY transmitter site
WDDY transmitter site

The original transmitter building is in the back, the front was added in the 1970’s when the studios and offices colocated with the transmitter.  Prior to that, they were in downtown Albany.

Nautel XR6 Medium wave broadcast transmitter
Nautel XR6 medium wave broadcast transmitter

The Harris BC5H transmitter was replaced with a Nautel in 2006.  The Harris AM H series transmitter has a pair of transistors on the audio driver board which were unique to that transmitter and no longer manufactured.  There are no equivalent replacement part.  Once those transistors fail, the transmitter is done.

I really think that AM could make a comeback, but the following conditions need to be met:

  1. Kill AM HD radio.  Kill it dead.
  2. Cut away the dead wood.  Those stations that are not making money, have not made money and have no hope of ever turning a profit again.  Most of these are owned by large consolidator that cannot yet afford to write off the bad investment.  More and more will be spun off and given to MMTC and others.  If they can make a go of it, good.  If not, then the stations will go dark and eventually surrender their licenses.  We have one like that around here that basically turns it’s transmitter on one day a year to avoid license forfeiture.  That should stop, either they use it or loose it.
  3. FM radio will continue to be the investment bank darling, in spite of lower and lower listeners and revenue.  This will lead to more and more translators, HD radio, LPFM and other things being shoe horned into an already crowed band, creating AM like conditions on the FM band.
  4. Those that can take on the challenge of an AM station should immediately begin looking at reducing maintenance costs.  Directional antennas are money holes, if at all possible, get rid of the DA in favor of single tower closer to town.  Diplexing with another AM is a great way to save money and the costs of building a new tower.  Using a taller tower, up to 190 electrical degrees, will daytime signal and reduce the radiation angle (vertical) of the tower, thus permitting better PSSA, PSRA and or night time operation.
  5. Local programming.  Local sports, local politicians, local bands, local church services, local events, etc.  Local.

But anyway…

Where will they put a radio station this time

In the time that I have been working as a broadcast engineer, I have seen some pretty unique transmitter sites. The aforementioned power plant, with the antenna mounted on a smoke stack. The more traditional AM station, located in a swamp. Other stations both AM and FM combined into one antenna, etc.

WGDJ AM transmitter site
WGDJ AM transmitter site

This is WGDJ, 1300 KHz, Albany, NY.  It is located in what might be a swamp, if we were not experiencing marginal drought conditions this summer.  The transmitter is located along route 9J.  It is a four tower directional daytime, 10 KW and a six tower directional night time, 5 KW.  Nothing spectacular, 90 degree towers, spaced 90 degrees apart.  Since they are below 200 feet, they don’t need to be lit or painted, which is nice.

WGDJ directional antenna towers
WGDJ directional antenna towers

The building and all the towers are on 20 foot high steel stilts.  The area is right next to the Hudson River and often floods in the spring time.

Back of WGDJ transmitter building
Back of WGDJ transmitter building

The transmitter site sort of reminds me of something I once saw at coastal radio stations WCC and KPH.  They were located along salt water bays.

Phasor with Nautel XR12 transmitter
Phaors with Nautel XR12 transmitter

The station signed on the air in 1963. Initially, it was a 5 KW daytimer only.  They added night operation sometime in the seventies. Around 2006 or so, they went to 10 KW day, 5 KW night.  The phasor is gigantic for a 5 KW station, or even a 10 KW station.  I’ve seen smaller phasors on 50 KW directionals.  It has a “Quakertown, PA” name plate on it, which may be the forerunner of Phasetek.  There is a rare art form to creating a functional, yet space economical phasor.  Harris could sometimes pull it off, RCA did well, Kintronics seems to be the one of the top phasor makers today.

The main transmitter is a Nautel XR12, which as a very similar look as the V series FM transmitters.  The backup transmitter is a MW5A, which, quite frankly scares me.  The site was just recently air conditioned, which means the MW5A transmitter was sucking swamp air through it for 25 years.  I do not want to turn that thing on under any circumstances.

Nautel XR12 medium wave transmitter
Nautel XR12 medium wave transmitter

All in all, the station has a pretty good signal into the capital city of New York.  It nulls to the west, somewhat.  Being on 1300, it doesn’t carry as far as some of the other class B AM station like WROW 590 Khz, but it does alright.

After years of neglect, the station is making a bit of a come back in the Albany market.  They do a lot of local talk radio, which, when the other station is carrying almost all satellite syndicated talk, is making an impression.  Being the state capital, there is a lot of fodder.

Copper theft and how to avoid it

One of the unfortunate signs of the times is increased theft of valuable materials. Copper, while not as expensive as it once was, still fetches a fair amount at the scrap dealer. One local telephone company has been having a difficult time keeping their aerial cables intact in certain areas. For radio stations, the situation is compounded by remote transmitter sites with lots of copper transmission lines and buried ground radials around AM towers.  Reduced staffing levels also means that the weekly trip to the transmitter site is now every two weeks or perhaps once a month or even less.

Site that are not visited or monitored very often are prime targets for copper theft.  Forget asking the local constabulary to patrol more often, the few times I tried that I was met with a blank stare.

A few common sense type things that I have learned over the years may keep your site intact:

  1. Keep  up appearances.  A neglected transmitter site is more likely to attract the wrong type of attention from the wrong type of people.  Clean up any rubbish, dead equipment, keep the weeds and trees cut down, etc.  If a site looks well tended and often visited, a thief may think twice about lifting valuable metals.
  2. Along with #1, keep things buttoned up.  Secure all transmission lines to ice bridges, remove any dead lines, etc.  If there are ground radials poking out bury them, same with ground screens, copper strap, etc.  Out of sight, out of mind, leaving this stuff exposed is asking for somebody to come along and give a tug.
  3. Fences and locks.  Towers are required to be fenced and locked to prevent electric shock hazard.  It is also a good idea to fence the building, generator and fuel tank if possible.
  4. Post all sorts of warning signs, RF warning, high voltage, no trespassing, under video surveillance, pretty much anything to deter trespassing and vandalism.
  5. Add video cameras with a video recording device since most theft occurs during non-working hours.  Last year, the company I used to work for traded a video surveillance system for the studio location.
  6. Compensate a neighbor to keep an eye on the place and call you if they see any suspicious activity.  It doesn’t even have to be money, I once worked out a deal with a neighbor for some T-shirts and CD’s.   That was the best alarm system we ever had.

In the long run, keeping all the copper parts where they belong is a great way to avoid those annoying “the station is off the air” phone calls not to mention the expense of replacing damaged transmission and ground systems.

History of the WGY broadcasting tower

To any who live in the capital region, the WGY tower near the intersection of I-90 and I-88 in the town of Rotterdam is a familiar site.  It is big, tall, and conspicuously marked with a huge “81 WGY” on the southwest face of the tower.   At night the call letters used to be lit up by a spot light but that may have been turned off in recent years.

In my time as chief engineer there, I found several file folders of memos and other materials about the building of the tower, which started in 1936.  Prior to that, WGY used a T top wire antenna, first from the General Electric plant in Schenectady (1922-25) then from the current tower site in Rotterdam.  Located with WGY were GE’s experimental shortwave stations W2XAF and W2XAD.

When the station increased power to 50,000 watts in 1925, may reports of fading were received from locations 20-50 miles away.  WGY engineers studied the situation by doing a full proof on the antenna.  They found an elliptical shaped pattern with nulls to the north and south.  This coincided approximately with the T arms of the T top antenna, likely due to the self resonating effect of the support towers for the ends of the T.

NBC, then owners of WJZ (now WABC) in NYC had studied this problem for years and came up with a new antenna design for Standard Broadcast, the uniform cross section guyed tower.  Starting in 1935, WGY began to investigate installing such a tower in South Schenectady, as the transmitter site was then known.  One report showed an efficiency gain of 430% over the T top antenna that was in use.  The General Electric construction and engineering department raised several objects to the standard triangular tower then and now commonly used for AM radiators.

WGY transmitting tower, Schenectady, NY
WGY transmitting tower, Schenectady, NY

Much mechanical planning and effort went into the design of the tower, which is a square tower, 9 foot face, 625 feet tall.   During the planning phase, KDKA was installing a simuliar tower, which collapsed when it was being erected in 1936.  An analyisis of the failure showed that one of the guy anchor cable sockets pulled out of the concrete (which was improperly poured).  This may also be the reason why the KDKA tower collapsed in 2003, although I never read the engineering report on that failure.   Nevertheless,  GE engineering felt that forging the members of a triangular tower weakens them and was too risky, thus, a square tower was the solution.

Further, every component of the tower was tested individually.  Often, two of a type where build, with one being tested to destruction.  Two base insulators were made for this specific tower.  The first was tested to destruction at the National Standards and Institutes laboratory in Washington DC.  It was found that the insulator withstood slightly more than 1,200,000 pounds of pressure.  The working load (tower dead weight) of the base insulator is calculated to be about 430,000 pounds, thus almost a 3:1 safety margin.

The wire rope used for the guy wires was also tested to destruction.  The working load on the upper guy is about 24,000 pounds, the wire rope broke at nearly 120,000 pounds.  The concrete, guy anchor sockets, T bars, and all other parts were likewise tested.

Base insulator, WGY 625 foot square faced transmitting tower
Base insulator, WGY 625 foot square faced transmitting tower

Electrically, the tower is 186 degrees (it was 180 degrees on 790 kHz, the former WGY frequency).  It had a 40 X 40 foot ground mat with 120 buried ground radials.  The ground radials were #4 hard drawn stranded copper.  When we investigated the system in 1999, it was complete and unbroken.  The radials, ground screen, strap and all other metal component showed no signs of deterioration.  It helps that the soil surrounding the tower is a sandy loam and well drained.

WGY open transmission line between transmitter building and tower base
WGY open transmission line between transmitter building and tower base

The tower was fed with 600 ohm open transmission line, 180 degrees long.  Initially, the system had been designed for high power operation up to 500 KW.  However, when the transmitter was replaced in 1980, a new Harris ATU was installed, which can only handle 50 KW.  I recall the base resistance to be 192 ohms with -j85 reactance.

A concrete wall surrounds the base insulator.  This was installed in early 1942 to prevent the base insulator from being shot out by sabbators during WWII.

Harris MW-50B, WGY Schenectady, NY
Harris MW-50B, WGY Schenectady, NY

When I worked there, the station had a Harris MW-50B transmitter.  This unit was in slightly better shape than its counterpart at WPTR across town.  I did find some of the same quirky things with it, however.  Our consulting engineer had a good line, “Harris, where no economy is spared…”

WGY transmitter site backup generator
WGY transmitter site backup generator

The site had a FEMA owned backup generator installed in the 60’s.  This was an Onan 225 KW diesel powered unit.  225KW is likely a conservative estimate as those units were way overbuilt.  The original fuel tank was buried out behind the building.  FEMA contracted for it’s removal in 1995 because of concerns of leaks and soil contamination.  When they dug it up, the primer was still on the tank.  After getting the tank out of the ground, the contractor cut a large hole in it and lowered a person into the tank to clean it out.  Something that should be profiled on the Dirties Jobs TV show.

Backup generator fuel tank
5000 gallon backup generator fuel tank

The new tank was installed in the old outdoor transformer vault.  It is a 5000 gallon double walled above ground tank with monitoring system.

It has been several years since I have been to this site.  I know they installed a Harris DX-50 sometime in 2001 or so.  They also may have replaced the open transmission line.  WGY now transmits in HD radio, which they are able to do because the tower was well designed and installed.