Amid dwindling viewer numbers, WCDC Channel 19 going dark Dec. 1.
The station, which relays the local news and ABC network programming of WTEN, Albany, N.Y., used to be viewed by thousands of Berkshire residents either unreached by cable TV and satellite providers or unwilling to pay monthly subscription fees.
But with viewership fading, Nexstar Media Group, the corporate owners of WTEN, decided to jettison the signal during the Federal Communications Commission's "Spectrum Incentive Auction" last April. Channel 19 was sold for $34.5 million to make its signal space available for wireless carriers and broadband services.
Several hundred UHF TV station owners put their channels up for the highest bidder; the federal government took in nearly $20 billion in revenue from 175 of them.
Besides leaving as many as 1,500 TV homes in remote towns such as Savoy, New Ashford and Washington without local over-the-air service, the future ownership of the WTEN tower adjacent to Bascom Lodge on the state's highest peak remains up in the air.
The structure remains home to antennas for WAMC Northeast Public Radio's super-power FM signal at 90.3, a low-powered relay "translator" for WNYT, Channel 13, in Albany, as well as the Massachusetts State Police radio communications system.
"This has been a long-standing location for us," said David Procopio, media communications director for the state police.
The tower is for sale at a reported price of more than $1 million. There's another complication — it sits on state-owned land within Mount Greylock State Reservation, but the lease for the property held by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) expired two years ago.
"We sure would love to have that tower," said WAMC's Alan Chartock. "It would mean WAMC's future was secure."
Ron Romines, the vice president and general manager of WTEN and sister station WXXA, "Fox 23," was unavailable for comment.
According to a DCR spokesman, "the department continues to work with WTEN, the current user of the Mount Greylock transmission tower, in an effort to update its lease agreement with the agency. Due to ongoing negotiations, the DCR cannot discuss terms of the agreement as they are still being reviewed at this time; however, the department remains committed to working with WTEN regarding the long-term future of the facility."
All but 3 percent of Berkshire County's estimated 50,000 TV households have either cable or satellite service, said Steve Baboulis, vice president and general manager of WNYT Channel 13 since 1996 and also of sister station WNYA, branded as "My 4."
But he told The Eagle that a sizable percentage of the county's "wired homes" have second, third or fourth TV sets that often rely on over-the-air signals.
Channel 13's lower-powered signal from the Mount Greylock tower serves some viewers east and northeast of the summit via Channel 38. The NBC affiliate also maintains a low-power "repeater' transmitter atop South Mountain in Pittsfield on Channel 28.
In a phone interview, Baboulis said his station continues to rent space on the WTEN tower on a month-to-month basis, as it has for two years.
"My understanding from the owners of WTEN is that when they go off the air Dec. 1 with WCDC, Channel 19, we, as a tenant, are not going to see any changes," he said. "We'll keep paying them as they keep operating the tower as a rental facility, unless or until they sell it to someone else. Then we'll have to enter into a negotiation with that entity, if indeed it is sold."
As for the demise of Channel 19, a North Berkshire electronics specialist asserted that the over-the-air signal will be a loss to viewers who still use rooftop antennas for their TV reception.
"I'm expecting a bunch of calls on Dec. 1," said Eric Masur, owner of Mountain Electronics, a North Adams TV repair facility. He cited a 94-year-old customer in Windsor who has viewed Channel 19 for decades, as well as a resident in the town of Washington who depends on it.
"People who don't want or can't get satellite or cable service have watched the Albany TV channels all their lives," Masur pointed out. The Savoy resident is also president of the Amateur Radio Club, which has its own sizable antenna on the mountaintop under a five-year lease with DCR.
"It took four years to get the lease," Masur said, "and it has one more year to go."
Another disappointed viewer of Channel 19 is Ed Grosso of New Ashford. "I've been using it for at least 40 years," he said. "It's an inconvenience to lose it."
Even though he now has satellite service, Grosso pointed out that the Direct TV signal is vulnerable to severe weather, so he depends on the Mount Greylock transmitter for storm information.
The summit has hosted a TV tower since television was in its infancy in the region.
On Feb 22, 1954, WMGT (Mount Greylock Television) signed on, originally on Channel 74, with filmed testimonials from Gov. Christian Herter and local politicians. It began broadcasting with evening hours only as an affiliate of the short-lived DuMont network, relaying the signal of Channel 5 from New York City.
The pioneering station was put on the air by Leon Podolsky, a former design engineer for RCA and technical adviser at Sprague Electric Co. in North Adams. He had bought Pittsfield's WBRK (AM 1340) in 1947, 11 years after it signed on under previous ownership as the county's first radio station.
By the end of 1954, WMGT transferred to Channel 19 and in 1957, it began relaying Albany's WTEN.
It was a time when most Berkshire viewers had a limited choice of one, two or three over-the-air channels from Albany, depending on their location. Community Antenna Television (CATV), the forerunner of cable TV, was just being introduced in some areas, but most homes in the county sported rooftop antennas, some of them quite elaborate, in order to pick up distant signals.
Severe weather on the mountain summit knocked the tower down twice — in 1956 and again in 1983. Since then, the rebuilt tower has not only relayed the Albany ABC and NBC affiliates, but continued to host WAMC as well as state police radio signals and, until several years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's weather radio service.
NOAA Weather Radio, as it's called, moved off the tower several years ago because of a rental rate increase and signed back on last spring from an antenna in the attic of Bascom Lodge, said Stephen DiRienzo, warning forecast meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albany.
Given the relatively low number of Berkshire viewers who still use Channel 19 for TV reception, the station's fade to black will have a limited effect.
But the tower, reinforced after 1983's ice storm to withstand the elements, remains a vital communications link. Its potential sale and the outcome of negotiations with the state for a new lease on the 3,491-foot mountain peak will have a significant impact on future Northeast Public Radio broadcasting, the Channel 13 relay signal and the state police's emergency communications resource.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.
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