A few pictures from my last trip to one of our FM transmitter sites. This is a mountaintop site, in as much as a medium-sized hill is a mountain around here. This site has a 2.3-mile road through the woods that is almost impassable 3-4 months out of the year.
Previous engineers have walked up the hill with a toolbox. I can say this with all honesty; not me. In the past, they have also rented a helicopter, and used a snowcat, snowmobile, or an ATV with snow tracks. I’d do those things provided they are safe and insured. As I get older (and wiser), I realize that the only person who going to look after my well-being is me.
Anyway, the trip starts here, at the gate:
Then it goes up the hill:
Some sections are worse than others:
Along the way there are some nice views:
Finally, the gate to the tower farm:
There are two digital TV stations, several cell phone carriers, some government two-way gear, some FM translators, Media Flow, and us at this site. There are also some Ham radio repeaters off to the side in another building. All in all, a pretty RF-intense site.
The view from the top:
The reason why we came:
That is a 24-year-old BE FM5B transmitter. The backup is a Gates FM5G, which aren’t we glad we have a solid reliable transmitter selection for such a remote site. Actually, we were supposed to put in a new Nautel V-10 here last year, but the money was spent on computers instead. Oh well, good thing there will be no computer crashes when we go off the air.
A standard maintenance trip consists of meter readings, comparing the reading to the last set of readings, changing the air filters, checking the remote control and calibrating it to the transmitter, checking the tower light sensor, etc.
Normally, the backup transmitter would run into the dummy load, but the backup transmitter no longer works. Parts are not available to fix it, so we operate without a net. One of the previous general managers asked if that keeps me awake at night, to which my answer was no, not at all.
Technically speaking, no. Here is how radio is defined in the dictionary:
[rey-dee-oh] -noun 1. wireless telegraphy or telephony: speeches broadcast by radio. 2. an apparatus for receiving or transmitting radio broadcasts. 3. a message transmitted by radio.
Therefore, the internet, something relying on wired connections for the transmission of data, for the most part, is not radio. A radio station that is streaming audio, is a different matter.
Aside from that technicality, there is something else that is important to note. Internet broadcasters (AKA webcasters) lack some other key components that make a radio station a radio station; A specific set of rules that govern their behavior. Things like profanity, copyright infringement, slander, payola, plugola, syndication rights, advertising rules (things like tobacco, alcohol) emergency information, public issues, and so on.
A radio station license is granted in the public interest. Time was that radio stations were required to do a certain amount of public service broadcasting, things like the news, religious programs, and community interest programs. Many stations still do this. An internet broadcaster is under so such constraints. Some would say that is better and it just might be. However, when Tim Westergren says “Don’t call it internet radio, just call it radio,” sir, you are wrong.
Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, all long-distance communication in the US was handled by one company, AT&T. There was no other company that could transmit data over medium to long distances. The breadth and scope of their communications network are not understood by most people these days. Most people know that AT&T handled long-distance telephone calls for the Bell Telephone System until the Bell breakup in 1984. However, AT&T did a lot more than long-distance phone.
For example, if you watched the network news or network TV show anytime before 1980, it was likely brought to you via AT&T microwave system, known as AT&T long lines. Listen to the news on the radio, same deal. Before the widespread use of communication satellites and fiber optics, the AT&T microwave relay network was the only way to get various types of electronic media signals from one place to another.
Beginning in the late 1980s, competing local and long-distance telephone companies began installing fiber optic cables between company offices. That coupled with the increased use of satellite systems for mass media video and audio delivery services made the huge AT&T microwave network obsolete. Some of the old microwave sites that are located in downtown areas have been reused by local phone companies and cell phone providers. Many of the rural sites now sit empty.
This is the former AT&T microwave relay site located near Kingston, NY. It is now owned by American Tower, Inc. There are two towers behind the building, only the tower on the right has a few active communications antennas on it. The taller tower is 190 feet tall and was built in 1957. The shorter tower is 120 feet tall and was built in 1961. Both towers and everything on them were made by Western Electric, the same company that manufactured the telephone sets. Chances are, Western Electric contracted the actual manufacture of equipment out to others, then billed AT&T, their parent company a markup. Something that would make all MBAs proud.
This tower was built in 1957. The structure and galvanizing are still in excellent condition.
The large antennas you see on the towers are microwave horn antennas. They are no longer in use. Several transmitters and receivers would have been connected to each one of these antennas by use of RF multiplexers. Each microwave transmitter/receiver would have had several data channels. Generally, this was C Band microwave equipment, so it was in the 4, 6, and 8 GHz frequency range.
All of this telephone traffic was transmitted on digital data channels unencrypted. Many have argued that this allowed the government (most notably the NSA or National Security Agency) to intercept and listen to most domestic long-distance telephone calls within the US. There is a book called Puzzle palaceby James Bamford if you are interested in NSA history. It was written more than 20 years ago, so it doesn’t really apply today, but it is an interesting look at what the government was up to.
The building itself is huge, the first floor is 16,000+ square feet and the second floor is 10,000+ square feet. Only about 1000 square feet of this space is actively being used.
I believe this building was built in the late 1940s or early 1950s, just as Kingston was growing into a major IBM manufacturing site. It has remnants of the ATT coaxial-based system that was used prior to microwaves. The IBM buildings are located a few miles to the southeast of this location, they are another cold war relic for discussion later. The IBM buildings were a major computer research and development site in the 1950s until it closed in 1992. It was assumed that the Soviets had several spy satellites trying to steal secrets from the area, and the IBM facility was a primary nuclear target.
The microwave relay site has 12-inch re-enforced concrete walls. The ventilation air intakes have blast baffles to prevent a pressure wave (from a nuclear explosion) from blowing the ventilation equipment off of its mounts.
All of the outside openings were able to be sealed with steal blast deflectors using a pneumatic control panel located in the control room. There was a five-minute timer, presumably to allow the HVAC units to be secured before the doors were closed. They were heavy gauge steel shutters designed to deflect the pressure wave of a nuclear explosion. Since this is an earlier building, it is likely that it is built to a 2 PSI pressure wave spec. Newer buildings were built to 20 or even 50 PSI. This microwave relay site would not have withstood a direct hit from a nuclear warhead, especially the higher-yield warheads that came later on.
There were three large water chillers to provide cooling to the HVAC units. Since this was the 1950’s all of the electronic equipment would have had tubes, which would have generated a lot of heat while operating. There were two loops in the HVAC system. The refrigerant loop, which ran between these units and the huge condensers on the second-floor roof, and the chilled water loop which ran between these units and the air handlers located in various parts of the building.
There is a bomb shelter in the basement. I found a couple of olive drab cans of civil defense water laying around. The lights were not working at the bottom of the stairs, so I chose not to go into the bomb shelter itself.
“Okay everybody, the missiles are on their way, so let’s head down these stairs and pray”
There were two diesel generators, one was 325 KW which could run the entire building. The other was a 200 KW which could run the critical building functions. The fuel storage consisted of two 10,000-gallon tanks buried in the ground outside. Each steel fuel tank had a cathodic protection circuit. Basically, a small negative electrical current was passed to the steel tank to keep it from rusting. Apparently, it worked because when the tanks were removed in 2000 after 45 years in the ground, the primer was still on the outside of the tank.
The building has its own power substation. The electricity from the utility company comes off the pole at 13,800 volts and goes to a large step-down transformer on a pad outside. From there 480 volts is fed to this switch panel, where it is routed to motors loads or other step-down transformers within the building.
On the main floor, there were rows and rows of wire terminal equipment, microwave transmitters, receivers, and data and RF multiplexers in racks. The room in the above picture is about 10,000 square feet, there is another 6,000 square feet beyond the plastic heat barrier. This microwave gear received and transmitted data from Albany and Germantown to the north; Poughkeepsie, Putnam Valley, Ellenville, and Spring Valley to the south. All of that equipment is gone now, replaced by empty space.
Now the whole place is a little creepy.
There are about 500 copper wire pairs of telephone cables that came into various parts of the building to carry the DS-1 and DS-3 circuits that interfaced with the TELCO office in Kingston.
All in all, this was a serious building, no expense was spared in the construction and equipment outfitting. The entire building is shielded with copper mesh screens embedded in the concrete walls. There were redundant systems on top of redundant systems, something that you do not see these days, even in government buildings such as emergency operation centers (EOCs) and 911 call centers.
Radio is not what it used to be. Sure, the roaring nineties and zero zeros (or whatever you call this decade) were great for the owners. They sold, bought, consolidated, laid off, installed automation, made redundant, and so on. Those that got out before the summer of 2008 made a lot of cash.
They also left the industry hurting. Our competition is keen on eroding whatever revenue is still left in radio, and that competition is large and multiple. New technologies like ipods, iphones, PCS phones, and whatever other wireless mobile device they thought up to 5 minutes ago, is trying to gain our listeners. Satellite radio, which is more like meh, who cares, is making small inroads. But worse than all of that, we have ourselves.
The rot is increasing and it is from the inside out. Everyone is looking to cut expenses. The easiest way to do that is automation. Those stations that have not already automated are likely to, which will further exacerbate the radio losing listeners problem. I mean really, how many more crappy bland “mix” formats, or satellite-syndicated talk radio formats do we need. We are already swimming in a sea of mediocrity. And who gets to take care of all these high-tech gizmos that keep the stations on the air? Usually the Engineering Department. So, we get more work, for the same, or less (by the time inflation is calculated in) money.
That trend has to stop.
It is not irreversible (yet). The station that stands out, can win, and win big. That is all for now, I look forward to writing about radio engineering.