Providing news and views from a broadcast engineers perspective since September 1986
It’s been just about a year since I included these pictures in this column of the antenna fire on West Tiger Mountain. Antenna fires are pretty unusual, but they do happen as we all found out that day in November of 2018. I recall talking with the Fire Department that day and doing my best to field their questions as to what they could do once they got to the site. A lot has taken place in the past year…more of that in a moment –
This picture showed how the smoke plume was being driven by the wind for a considerable distance.
This view, a bit closer to the site, clearly shows that the fire was in the upper portion of Master FM Antenna which was mounted on the East Tower or one on the left in this view. The TV Stations on the other tower were not impacted. The fire caused the 6 FM stations using the system to switch to auxiliary facilities in order to stay on the air…a mode that lasted, for many, seemingly a very long time.
Just over a year later, on November 19th, at about 2:45 p.m., engineers at WCAX-TV in Burlington, Vermont knew something was very wrong at the transmitter site, when the transmitter shut down and telemetry indicated an antenna problem. I know what was going on in the mind of the engineer as he was on the way to the site to determine exactly what happened. I’ve been in that boat many times over the years. Your mind is racing, thinking about all the things that could be wrong. Before he reached the transmitter building, it was obvious that this was not a simple problem. They had a serious issue to contend with. (See the next picture) Getting there was another issue, as this location was dealing with snow and ice. The road to the site was completely snowed in. The method of transportation was a snowmobile. The engineer reached the site about 4 p.m.
Like the installation at West Tiger, the WCAX-TV transmitter is located on a mountain some distance away. In this case – at the 4200-foot level of Mt. Mansfield, 1400 feet higher than the site on West Tiger. Like West Tiger, this site is the home of multiple stations and more than one tower. Impacted by this was another user of the tower, WPTZ-TV who were both forced off the air, with the latter reportedly suffering some damage as well. There are a couple of FM’s at the site too. Apparently, they were able to keep operating.
Like the fire at West Tiger, there was no way to put the fire out. It just had to burn out. This suggests that the radome (a cover around the antenna designed to protect it from the weather) was burning.
In addition to the weather conditions, it was determined that the station’s Auxiliary Antenna was damaged and not usable either.
Thankfully, like most TV Stations, many of their viewers were still being served by various cable and satellite providers.
The station bills itself at WCAX-3. Apparently channel 3 being their original channel. They are now on UHF Channel 20. One has to wonder how long ago they made the change and how old the, now burned, antenna was.
Thankfully, when the West Tiger antenna burned, the weather was much better. Alex Brewster quickly flew his drone around the ‘crispy-critter’, providing all with close up pictures of the damage. Not sure of they could have used a drone in this case. It all depends on weather and wind.
This picture shows the burned antenna more clearly, thanks to a break in the weather.
A few days later the station was granted approvals to begin work on the mountain. However, 50 mph wind gusts limited the work to those things that could be done on the ground. The good news is, the mountain’s nearby ski resort had the heavy equipment to get equipment to the site, including an emergency replacement antenna.
I found it interesting that the station was providing extensive news coverage of the restoration efforts.
Likely, by the time you read this, these stations will be back on the air via an auxiliary antenna to be mounted on the adjacent tower, albeit likely at lower power etc.
Only when the antenna has been taken down and closely examined will they be able to learn the cause of the fire. The West Tiger antenna that burned consisted of many separate parts (called elements). In the case of WCAX, the antenna is likely a one-piece item.
Certainly, the weather will be a factor in getting this work done. That elevation, in that part of the country, cannot be directly compared to the relatively mild weather we have at West Tiger at this time of year.
Here is a picture that shows the burned antenna, next to the other tower at the site.
Another difference here, WCAX put on-line a Q&A regarding what happened. Perhaps at West Tiger, had the outage forced a major TV station off the air, the same thing would have happened. Whereas the Radio Stations here all had alternative location broadcast facilities, many of their listeners did not know the difference.
Comparing West Tiger to Mt. Mansfield is not really fair –
- Mansfield is the highest point in Vermont @ 4395 feet. (We have Mt. Rainier @ 14,411)
- You can drive to the top of Mansfield, with a toll road, on pavement (West Tiger is restricted to service vehicles and the road is NOT paved!)
- You can also take a Gondola ride to the top – (No such thing here.)
- Mansfield has a major ski resort (Perhaps West Tiger would if it were that high?)
Here’s a picture of the transmitter site, during much better weather
For some more wonderful pictures of the area, take a look here –
If you look closely, in some of the pictures you can see the broadcast towers that are used by the impacted stations. They are located on an adjacent peak, not at the summit where the tourists go.
Now back to the situation at West Tiger –
In the event you missed it, after the fire, the FM Master Antenna was removed from the tower and a temporary 8-bay, side mounted antenna was installed on the West side of the tower section that supported the burned antenna (it was not damaged).
The temporary antenna is not capable of handling the power of the 6 stations at the site, so one of them (KBKS/106.1) opted to continue to operate their auxiliary facility at the legacy West Tiger #1 site. The other five have been operating with the temporary antenna since.
On the 21st of November, the site owner, American Tower, told a gathering of the impacted station engineers as well as representatives of Seacomm Erectors of their plans –
- The tower section that the burned antenna was mounted on, as well as the former KUNS Antenna Pole above it, will be removed and replaced with a new tower section on to which a new 16 bay antenna will be side mounted.
- This work, projected to take 3-4 weeks, will not be started until spring, thus avoiding the winter weather that would likely stretch the construction period. The new tower sections and antenna will be warehoused in Indiana in the mean-time.
- During the construction, all of the FM’s will need to operate their auxiliary facilities.
This news was well received as no-one thought it was a good idea to try and do this work during the winter as originally announced.
When the project is completed there will be a couple of changes compared to the way it was before the fire.
- The new antenna will not be omni-directional. Side mounting an antenna on a tower always produces some nulls or areas where there is less signal than in the other directions.
- The new antenna will have more gain. This means that the stations will not have to generate as much power with their transmitters.
Along the way, American Tower had proposed to install the present temporary antenna on the adjacent tower as an auxiliary. However, that idea was rejected by the stations, feeling that they would be better off spending the money that this would cost, on upgrading their auxiliary facilities. Certainly, one lesson has been learned from this event and that is the value of having auxiliary transmitting facilities where there is – nothing – in common…underscoring the meaning of redundancy. Thus far, only Hubbard has spent serious money on its Auxiliary equipment with a substantial upgrade at Cougar Mountain.
Over the years, many operators of certain classes of stations have asked for and been granted changes in the rules that limit their power and/ or coverage. An example was when many of the AM’s on what was then called Class IV frequencies (1240,1340,1400, 1450, 1490) were operating with 250 watts, day and night, requested a daytime power increase to 1,000 watts. The FCC said yes, even though, in some cases, overlaps were created. Not satisfied, many of those same owners requested an increase to 1,000 watts at night. Unfortunately for all, the FCC approved. Now, you can dial around and hear the mishmash of signals on those frequencies stand out and wonder how anyone gained.
FM is no exception – Many have requested permission for Class A stations to increase power (at this writing, there has been no FCC rule changes).
Responding to the calls for Local FM’s, the FCC created the LPFM category, now totaling about 2100 stations. Now many of those stations are asking the FCC for rule changes, or what they call Technical Upgrades, citing that the service is now ‘mature’. Simply put, they want more coverage. (Something that most all broadcasters wish for)
The FCC is listening and is considering an NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rule Making) in response. One improvement being asked for, is the ability to use an engineered directional antenna as well as boosters.
As you can imagine, not everyone is on board with this idea, as many feel the FM band is over-filled with signals now.
There has been a lot of commotion over the roll-out of 5G communications. Much of it over fears of what the radiation from these higher frequencies will harm. Now a new concern has surfaced. Interference to Weather Radar.
Have you been following the idea of allowing AM Radio stations to switch from AM (Amplitude Modulation) to All Digital? At the outset, we’d have to stop using the term AM and switch to MW or ‘Medium Wave’. Thinking about it – those FM broadcasters running HD Radio have dropped the term FM in many cases for the same reason. Radio receivers in the future would have to have new designations – AM, MW, FM, HD etc.
Anyway, I digress –
There have been some very promising tests by some stations that have turned off their AM and operate with Digital only. Perhaps it should be noted that those that created our present day AM and FM band versions of HD Radio took this into account, way back when.
This should not be confused with those AM stations that have implemented HD Radio that means operating their AM facility, in addition to running Digital. Unfortunately this has not worked as well as it does on FM for a variety of reasons.
The idea of turning off AM and running Digital only has, only recently, been given some serious thought. There are several reasons for this –
- Many AM’s now have an FM Translator.
- This is a real plus for those AM’s with limited coverage or reduced power at night…especially if the new FM translator has good coverage.
- Many of these stations have seen their audience shift to their new FM.
- Many of these, smaller AM’s have seen their audience share, and with it, profits diminish in recent years, with an increasing number of them electing to turn in their license and stop ‘burning cash’.
- It’s likely that multi-station clusters that include AM’s would, if they could, turn off or sell their AM. Likely many of these clusters of commonly owned stations subsidize the operation of their AM’s with income from their FM’s.
- Many AM’s that are no longer able to support themselves have been sold, at bargain-basement prices to those that now can afford to purchase them for broadcasting program content that, just a few years ago, would be unthinkable.
The idea of going all digital has some appeal for those whose operation is now supported by a co-owned FM (more multiple FM’s).
- What do they have to lose, aside from the capital investment to go all digital?
- Granted there are all those receivers that would be unable to receive them, but what if no one is listening anyway?
- The day of the Home or Kitchen Radio has gone, to be replaced with Alexa that is not a radio receiver. Likely that same AM station is streaming away and reaching these Internet-connected devices.
- What about all those car radios? The good news is that cars wear out and are replaced with millions of new ones every year that come with digital radios.
There are those that feel that this idea is foolish. I recently ran across a number of them on an on-line forum. Here are some of the arguments I responded to –
- This should not be confused with those AM’s that implemented HD, thereby creating something that occupies a lot of bandwidth.
- Unlike the present Hybrid mode, listeners would not be subjected to the constant switching back and forth between AM and HD mode that annoys the listener with alternating high and low fidelity audio. All digital would provide the listener with a constant, high quality product.
- The ever increasing noise level on the AM band (for which the FCC has little or no interest in combatting) would not be a factor. In all digital mode, there is nothing in the receiver to demodulate those noises that AM radios are happy to serve up to their listeners.
- Coverage of a station would not be determined by how much noise there is in the desired receiving location, but rather would be determined by the amount of signal available.
- The listener ‘confusion factor’ would go away. Listeners rarely understand HD Radio anyway. They just ‘fiddle’ with their radio until the get what they want to listen to. With all digital, chances are good that many that have abandoned the AM Band may come back, when they discover that here too they can hear things with fidelity and lack of noise.
I had to respond to those that pined away about the existing AM Radios with a couple of thoughts –
- The demise of analog TV certainly did not kill television in the process of creating mountains of old unsalable TV sets.
- Whereas all the new vehicle radios are capable of – both – modulation modes (AM and Digital) there may well be both modes operating for some time. If you are a station with significant existing AM coverage, why change? If not, all digital may be a viable answer.
The bottom line is that this could well be an additional solution to the AM problem that the FCC has been seeking. Lets face it – you can’t give every AM a wide area coverage FM translator – but you could permit him to go all digital – IF THEY WANT TO.
Apparently this is exactly what the FCC has in mind with this idea. The Commish has recently voted to advance the process to the next state and has put out a proposal for comments. The NPRM (Docket Nos. 19-311, 13-249)
The process asks some questions –
- What about the impact to listeners from the loss of analog AM?
- What about power limits for day and night operations?
- What about interference from these digital stations to other users of the band?
The FCC Chairman put it this way –
“We need to bring AM radio into the 21st century,” he said. “This is the latest step in our ongoing efforts to revitalize AM service and I’m eager to see how this could lead to the next generation of AM broadcasting.”
So what’s next?
Let’s see what responses the FCC gets to their proposal, and the reactions of many that have not weighed in. One group already has indicated their support – the NAB. This is going to be an exciting thing to watch. Who would have thought that the AM Band may have a life after all?
On the other side of the argument, there are those AM Stations that are, apparently, doing well. Some of them are here in our town. Some owners are actually investing in their AM station, obviously with the future in mind. Here’s an example sent to me by Vashon transmitter engineer Steven Allen, a picture of the new KTTH Nautel NX50 transmitter. If you look very closely, you will see Steven’s reflection. Just last year, Bonneville, the station’s owners purchased a new NX50 for their other AM, KIRO/710. Interestingly this is the 2nd NX50 in the same building. The other, and first on the Island, is at 1090. 770 and 1090 share the same antenna system/ towers.
While we are on the topic of AM Radio, an old friend in Montana sent me this one: Wonder if there is something similar for the left coast?
For many a night some 70 years ago, I gladly lost a lot of sleep staying awake until the wee hours searching the AM radio dial for distant (DX) radio stations. The link below, courtesy of a fellow ham operator and the ARRL, shows that the AM Broadcast band still holds some surprises. In the New England area, a listener with a simple outside wire antenna can still dial across the AM BC band and hear and identify stations on every available channel. The information in the next paragraph is taken from the link below.
“On the 100th anniversary of broadcast radio, it’s still possible to hear an AM radio station on all 118 AM North American Medium Wave channels from 530 kHz to 1700 kHz. Listen to stations on all frequencies as recorded off the air with a simple wire antenna in Eastern Massachusetts and see information on every station heard.”
One more item about AM Radio –
For some time Amateur Radio Operators, aka Hams, have been picking up old 1,000 watt AM Transmitters and converting them for use on the Ham-Bands. Most popular are the 160 Meter band (1.8 to 2.0 MHz) because it’s adjacent to the AM Broadcast Band. Others have converted them for use on the 80 Meter band (3.5 to 4.0 MHz).
Popular brands include those made by Bauer, RCA, Gates, Raytheon and Collins that were produced in the 50’s and 60’s.
Recently my friend, and former co-worker, Dwight Small picked up a well used Collins model 20V2 that he plans on putting on 80 meters.
I have a special place for that model as it was the first transmitter that I was responsible for keeping on the air when I went to work for KFHA back in 1961. It was installed new in 1958.
Dwight sent this picture of his new winter project, adding that he has 1.5 transmitters worth of parts. Unfortunately, the tubes that these ran on are hard to find and increasingly expensive. But when it’s turned on…and all those big tubes are glowing…..Well, there is nothing like it.
In the previous issue of this column, I wrote about the great TV channel shuffle called ‘Repacking’ and included some comments from Lowell Kiesow. Here are a couple of responses to last month’s column on this topic –
Just read your latest column. Just dropping a note that here at my Mom and I’s place here in Bremerton, after the re-pack, we are now able to receive KTBW virtual Ch. 20. (Was never able to pick that up before, since we have a hill directly behind us, even though we don’t watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network). And now KFFV on virtual Ch. 44 now comes in with a full signal. We still also get 2 copies of KCPQ here (other than the 3rd SD copy on KZJO 22.2). Even though we have DirecTV, we still have a multi-purpose antenna up in the attic for backup TV service, and also for FM radio, and even for my scanner.
Regarding your recent “Clay’s Corner”, KWDK RF 42/56.1 is very much on the air as of yesterday afternoon. It remained on through the repack and had not shut down or moved to their new RF frequency of RF 34.
Perhaps there is a crew working on moving them to their new frequency but they are still on the air on RF 42.
Val Vashon firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking at the big picture, U.S. wide, at the Re-Pack project – not everyone is giving the process an ‘A’ grade. Most everyone knew, at the outset, that this big shuffle was going to be difficult to pull off within the time frame projected by the FCC. The number of sites, tower crews, equipment vendors etc. made this one of the biggest projects in TV history. As we near the final laps – there are a lot of things to do and little time to get it done. Then there are a lot of temporary facilities that are going to have to be re-done going forward. Some are saying it could be a couple of years before the dust all settles.
The headline read: -Fox to Buy Local TV Stations. At long last, the rumors are true – Fox Corporation is purchasing KCPQ and KZGO in Seattle.
One of the major reasons cited for Fox picking up Channel 13 is they align with the station’s sports rights, specifically, the Seattle Seahawks. This and other purchases will move FOX up in terms of the number of stations they have in major markets, meaning they will own stations in 14 of the top 15 markets.
A recent survey has shown that the majority of citizens in California’s recent bout with wildfires in California chose TV and Radio as their go-to news sources for information. 79% chose TV and 47% chose Radio. Other sources include – Social Media 39% and Newspapers 33%.
Did your station get their EAS equipment updated? In what many felt was a terrible case of timing, the makers of the most popular EAS equipment were given a very short period of time to update their equipment. The FCC must have been feeling the heat on this one and, at the 11th hour, a later than expected release of a technical update to Emergency Alert System (EAS) hardware used by broadcasters has led the Federal Communications Commission to give stations more time to get the job done. Now the due date is January 7th.
If you have not heard, there is already a ‘Patch’ for the recently released Rev 95
for the Sage Endec –
Once again, the FCC has an unlicensed/ pirate station to deal with in NYC. In this case, a webcaster decided to add an ‘over the air’ transmitter on 92.9. In this instance, the pirate is the Brooklyn based Choice Gospel Network. I guess I have a hard time with organizations that are supposedly doing the ‘work of God’ violating the laws of the land in the process. I wonder if they will do as many have before and plead that they have no money to pay the fines and the Feds will let them off the hook?
Another place the FCC is trying to gain some spectrum for wireless companies is the area known as C-Band…a band of frequencies that are used, extensively, by Radio and TV broadcasters. As I predicted a few months back, it looks like the concept of ‘Repacking’ used to squeeze TV stations together to free up spectrum, will once again be the method of choice. There are a lot of questions that I’ve not seen answered yet –
- Will the wireless industry have to pony-up money to play here?
- Will those funds be used to pay the expenses for those that have to do the ‘frequency-shuffle’?
We will see –
Once again, it’s picture time. Here are a few from my travels this past month:
This one taken off the road to Striped Peak, west of Port Angeles. I had plans on driving to the top of the mountain to install equipment there. Perhaps because I did not bring my chainsaw, a fallen tree was blocking the road just beyond the gate. So I gathered up what I needed and hiked up the hill (twice). A least it was not raining or snowing.
On the same trip – I encountered this along the shores of Lake Crescent..
Things are, apparently, good in the tower business with American Tower reporting an increase of 9.4% to $1.95 billion according to the company’s third quarter results. Total property revenue increased 9.7% to $1.92 billion. The company owns more than 40,000 towers and leases tower space to more than 700 radio stations in the United States.
Another firm reporting good results was SiriusXM that reported revenue was way up, thanks to their purchase of Pandora. I recall when XM was launched that many thought they would fail. This was not to be. The company merged with competitor Sirius to form SiriusXM which added over 200,000 customers in the 3rd quarter and now enjoys some 34+ million subscribers.
How about this look back – It was October of 1954 that Regency introduced the TR-1…the first transistor radio.
The initial TR-1 retail price was $49.95 (roughly $443 in year-2016 dollars) and it sold about 150,000 units. For more, look here – http://www.regencytr1.com/
For those of you more recently on the planet – before the transistor radio, portable radios used vacuum tubes, albeit small ones. Vacuum tubes required two different voltages to operate. One to light the filaments of the tubes. These were called ‘A-batteries’ and were often ‘D-Cells’ commonly used in flashlights. The other voltage was higher, and used for the rest of the electronic circuitry. These were called ‘B-batteries. A common voltage used with 67½ volts.
It just so happened that Steven Allen put one of these in my hands recently while working on Vashon. Note the date someone had written on the side – 12-9-76. That’s only 43 years ago. I did not check the voltage on this one, chances are it’s gone. Notice the ‘snap’ connections on the top. These are still used with today’s more popular 9 volt batteries. We have come a long way!!
Back in 2014, Belden, a long time maker of wire and cable, announced they were purchasing the video equipment maker Grass Valley. Many wondered at the time that it seems like a funny marriage. Well I guess the time is up, as Belden just announced they are selling Grass Valley to a venture capital group.
A friend of mine now living in Colorado recently sent me this picture taken from near Colorado Springs of a fantastic Sunset behind Pikes Peak.
He added – The cloud top is being sun lit, but the whole area is in the shadow of Pikes Peak and the sun has gone down. This looks like a nuke has gone off.
Another picture from my travels this past month – This one of the Antenna Farm on what’s known as Baldi – near Grass Mountain, east of Enumclaw with Mt Rainier in the background. If you look close you can read the license plate on the front of my red truck.
This was shot thru the windshield of my truck as I was leaving West Tiger on the 26th
And finally, this view from West Tiger looking eastward toward the Cascade Range. Down there, somewhere, is North Bend.
That’s about it for this month, my friends –
Here’s wishing you a wonderful Holiday Season.
Lord willing, I will be back, next year, to most of the same locations next month at this time.
Until then –
Clay, K7CR, CPBE
SBE Member for over 50 years, #714