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WTC Tragedy Rewrites Broadcast History

In a frightening instant -- punctuated with an eerie funnel of black smoke on a clear September morning -- New York City's skyline changed forever and with it did the history of broadcasting.

Along with thousands of human inhabitants, decades of engineering planning and millions of dollars worth of broadcast transmission equipment imploded within seconds as the twin skyscrapers of the World Trade Center crumbled into a cloud of thick dust.

In the days that followed, engineers in the nation's largest broadcast market began the ironic task of installing new transmitters and antennas at the very sites where broadcasting began in the United States more than 60 years ago.

It was a tragedy so horrendous that the carefully-conceived backup plans of most broadcasters were left to look like hollow exercises in miscalculation. Transmitter and antenna manufacturers rushed to deliver gear to off-the-air stations.

Harris Corporation completed, tested and shipped four television transmitters as well as three FM radio transmitters from its Quincy, Illinois factory in less than 24 hours. Dielectric shipped eight standby arrays and one permanent antenna from Palmyra, Missouri. "We’re working 24 hours a day until everybody is back up. It’s not going to be a full-power system, but we will get them back up on the air," said Jay Martin, Dielectric's director of marketing.

At the time of this writing, six broadcast engineers were among the more than 5,000 missing as a result of the tragedy at the trade center. A NABET official noted that in an earlier era, when all transmitters were manned around the clock, the death toll would probably have been much higher.

The cost to the television industry will be staggering. Though no official figures were available, early estimates of television equipment damages for New York City stations exceeded $60 million. Some analysts estimated national broadcasters and cable channels combined lost in excess of $100 million a day in advertising revenue the first week after the disaster. Even as advertising gradually resumed, the longterm financial impact on the industry was still unmeasured.


However, on a more positive side, the events of September 11 erased completely a decade of hype suggesting that the medium of television had somehow been left irrelevant by a new competitor, the Internet. Just as they had after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, a significant majority of Americans turned to television as a national campfire in a time of tragedy.

In the hours after the disaster, four-fifths of U.S. viewers relied on television, eleven percent used radio and only three percent turned to the Internet as a primary source for news coverage, according to research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. If for no other reason, Internet use was so low because most major news sites were overloaded and inaccessible at the time of greatest need.

Television, on the other hand, delivered. The difference this time was the way television programming reached its audience. An estimated 70 percent of New Yorkers -- subscribers of cable and direct satellite services -- got seamless television reception because most New York stations deliver their feeds directly via fiber or microwave to the headends. Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, which serve the city, functioned throughout the crisis in all non-disaster areas.

The remaining 30 percent of television viewers, dependent on off-air reception, weren't so lucky. Of the 10 stations that lost their transmission facilities on the north tower of the trade center, only WCBS-TV, Ch. 2, stayed on the air from a full power back-up antenna on the Empire State Building. On UHF, WXTV, Ch. 41, a Univision affiliate, also continued broadcasting.


With the loss of the World Trade Center, only two viable sites remained for television transmission antennas in New York City. Both are historic landmarks with important roles in the history of American broadcasting.

The Empire State Building, the 102-story skyscraper completed in 1931, hosted nearly all of New York City's television stations until completion of the 110-story World Trade Center in the early 1970s. Though its 1,250-ft-high peak was originally designed as a mooring mast for dirigibles, early on "Empire" became an important part of broadcast history.

In July, 1931, NBC leased part of the 85th floor for an experimental TV station from which the network said "television images would 'jump' into space." Regular broadcasts began from the building in 1938. Its tower is still crammed with transmission equipment, including new DTV facilities.

A second landmark, Alpine Tower, is a 425-foot, three-armed radio antenna tower built in 1937 by Edwin Howard Armstrong, the inventor of FM radio, on the Palisades Interstate Parkway in Alpine, New Jersey. It was the home of America's first FM radio station.

At press time, WNBC, Ch. 4; WABC, Ch.7, WPIX, Ch. 11 and WNET, Ch. 13 were among the stations installing makeshift antennas and analog transmitters at the Alpine tower. WNYW-TV, Ch. 5 and WWOR-TV, Ch. 9, were establishing new transmission sites on the Empire State Building.

Two engineering executives involved in work at the Alpine tower said the stations are installing low power analog transmission equipment with the initial goal of simply getting back on the air. The engineers, who asked not to be identified, said it remains to be seen whether the Alpine site becomes a permanent location for the station's analog facilities.

WNET, Ch. 13, the leading public broadcasting facility in New York City, was hit especially hard, losing a new $10 million DTV transmission facility along with its analog facilities.

"We had two analog transmitters (at the World Trade Center). One was a backup. In planning for backup facilities, none of us ever thought of anything this horrid happening. Even if we had, we couldn't have justified the economics of putting transmitters at two locations," said William F. Baker, president and CEO of WNET.


One of the great ironies of the World Trade Center explosion was how it forced New York's on-air broadcasters to return to their historic roots.

Radio pioneer Edwin Howard Armstrong built the tower at Alpine to bring FM radio to New Yorkers only after his rival, RCA chief David Sarnoff, had ordered Armstrong in 1935 to remove his experimental FM equipment from the Empire State Building.

Subsequent years led to a lengthy patent battle between Armstrong and Sarnoff's RCA and NBC. In 1954, Armstrong, financially devastated from his long legal fight, jumped to his death from his New York City apartment. Legal proceedings continued by Armstrong's widow brought vindication, establishing Armstrong -- not RCA -- as the legitimate inventor of FM radio.

"WNBC's move to the Alpine tower completes a full circle in broadcast history," said Tom Lewis, author of Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. "It's a great irony that this magnificent tower that Armstrong built in 1937 is now saving the bacon of NBC and other New York broadcasters in 2001. What a validation of the genius of Edwin Armstrong!"

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.