Tower Siting Problems Keep Some AMs Off Air

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A fair number of AM stations owners are still struggling financially despite the FCC’s efforts to help the senior band. That includes broadcasters who run into tower issues.

An examination of FCC records by Inside Towers indicates nearly 70 AMs have been off the air for at least two consecutive months as of mid-August. Often, that’s because the owner loses the tower site, or the tower is damaged by a lighting strike or some other act of nature, and the station may not have the funds to get back on-air right away.

According to the last station totals issued June 30, the agency counts 4,676 licensed commercial AMs out of 15,489 total radio stations. That compares to 4,680 AMs as of March 31 and 4,698 a year ago. There were 4,721 licensed AMs as of June 30, 2014 and 4,778 for the same period in 2008.

Some AM owners with long-time facilities in urban areas are finding it financially advantageous to sell the land their tower sits on and find another site. That’s what Cumulus Media is doing with WMAL(AM), Washington, for example, where the broadcaster expects to reap more than $75 million for 75 acres from Toll Brothers, which plans to build luxury homes on the former tower site just outside the metropolitan Washington, DC beltway in suburban Maryland. 

However Pentecostal Temple Development Corporation is not in that situation, telling the FCC in an application to extend its engineering Special Temporary Authority for WGBN, Pittsburgh “financial difficulties” are keeping it from returning to air. WGBN has been off the air since December 2015, according to agency paperwork that was approved at the end of August.

Gary Ward Broadcasting, licensee of WLRV(AM) in Lebanon, Virginia, told the Commission in June he needed to take the station off the air. After owning the station for 15 years, “due to the economy,” he determined he could “no longer financially operate the station” and planned to sell it.

And then there’s Birach Broadcasting, licensee of WVAB(AM), Virginia Beach, Virginia, which submitted its 22nd (since 2008) engineering STA application in April because of a “nightmare” zoning issue. The station was trying to operate from a temporary site while “struggling and regrettably continues to struggle with local zoning to obtain approval” for a short tower so it can diplex WVAB and co-owned WBVA(AM). Birach has asked its engineer to scout existing sites which may work as a temporary tower location.

Birach’s problems began in 2008 when someone cut the guy wires and the tower collapsed, forcing the broadcaster to find another site. The tower owner was “unwilling to allow the tower to be reconstructed,” Birach told the agency at the time. In order to maintain its license, it erected a temporary tower at an alternative site.

In 2009, the station was operating from a temporary tower site at reduced power when its landlord at the site was forced to vacate. That meant WVAB had to go off the air while Birach looked for a new, temporary tower site. By 2013, it appeared Birach had found a site. However it’s been fighting with local zoning authorities since then to site the structure. 

Birach tells the commission in its latest engineering STA application it “recognizes that there have been several silent STAs issued for this station and WVAB over the past few years. The licensee has not been sitting on his hands in this matter but rather has spent tens of thousands of dollars on engineering and legal fees to obtain a permanent home for WBVA and WVAB, but these continued zoning problems have been a complete nightmare.”

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