A Trip Down Memory Lane, Pt. 4: The Roxborough Tower Farm
By John C. Alsedek:
If you've ever been unfortunate enough to drive on Philadelphia's Schuykill Freeway (known regionally as the "Sure-Kill" in my younger days because it was constantly backed-up because of accidents), you drove right past them: a baker's dozen of enormous broadcast towers, most stretching 1,000 feet or more into the skies. That's the Roxborough Tower Farm, and we'll be diving into its history this week.
First, a bit of explanation. A "tower farm" is nothing more than a collection of radio and television broadcast towers. Their location is almost always decided by geography: the highest practical point available in a given service area. If you're in Southern California, the summit of Mount Wilson overlooking Pasadena is a famous example that also shares space with a world-famous observatory. Other examples include South Mountain near Phoenix, Arizona; Mount Soledad in San Diego, California; and Cedar Hill near Dallas, Texas. That's how Roxborough ended up as one of the United States' biggest tower farms—it's one of the higher points in Philadelphia proper while also having sufficient available space to accommodate multiple towers and their transmitter buildings.
Even today, Roxborough has a different feel than much of metro Philly—less populous, more rural. With major parks immediately to the northeast and southeast and a large cemetery immediately across the Schuykill River from it, Roxborough has more of a small-town feel. There are substantial tracts of undeveloped land—some of it former farmland—and it's for this very reason that Roxborough ended up becoming home for so many broadcast towers, starting in 1947.
WFIL-TV Channel 6 was the first resident of the Roxborough Tower Farm, broadcasting from a 600-foot, four-sided guyed tower. It was followed in 1949 by WFLN 95.7; WFIL's FM sister station, 102.1 FM, would begin broadcasting from the WFIL-TV tower later that year. A third station, KYW-TV, would begin sharing the WFIL tower in the early 1950's, but the Roxborough Tower Farm was on the verge of its first expansion.
In 1957, WFIL-TV and WRCV-TV (which had previously used a site a few miles north in Wyndmoor) pooled their resources on a 1,116-foot "stick" that dwarfed the original WFIL tower. WFIL 102.1 FM stayed on the original, while KYW disappeared from the Philly market entirely for almost ten years in an odd business deal between NBC and Westinghouse that was eventually reversed. That same year, WCAU-TV Channel 10 moved from its inadequate location atop Center City's PSFS Building to a brand-new 1,200-foot tower that it shared with its radio sister station, WCAU-FM 98.1.
The next expansion would begin in 1965. First, Kaiser Broadcasting put up an 1,108-foot stick for its new UHF station, WKBS Channel 48. It was soon followed by its two rival independent stations; WPHL Channel 17 moved from the old Wyndmoor site to the 1,095-foot "Banks Tower" in the fall of '65, while WTAF Channel 29 set up shop at the 1,184-foot "Fox Tower" around the same time. It was in the mid-sixties that the first AM station arrived in Roxborough as well. WJMJ 1540 had previously been broadcasting from New Jersey, but moved to the Tower Farm with a three-tower 50,000 watt array.
After that, the additions to the Tower Farm came more gradually. The 1,158-foot "Gross Tower" went up in 1979 to broadcast WWSG-TV Channel 57, which eventually became UPN affiliate WPSG; it attracted multiple FM radio tenants as well, including WWDB 96.5 and WMGK 102.9. Then Roxborough actually lost one, when WKBS went dark and its tower and transmitter were sold to a station in Altoona, PA; the tower was dismantled and moved in pieces halfway across the state.
Growth resumed in 1998, when WPVI-TV and KYW-TV joined forces to build a 1,276-foot tower to broadcast their respective digital TV (DTV) signals. And then, in 2002, the most recent addition to the Roxborough Tower Farm was erected: the "American Tower." I'm not certain whether or not it's the tallest stick at Roxborough; I've seen both the American Tower and the WPVI-DT Tower referred to as such, while the American is listed at 1,256 feet vs. several different numbers between 1,230 and 1,276 feet for WPVI-DT. But the American Tower is definitely the most heavily used. It sports a candelabra-style array at its peak, which helps to allow the American Tower to broadcast nine different television signals plus a collection of FM stations such as 94.1 WIP and 98.1 WOGL.
In total, there are thirteen towers at the Roxborough Tower Farm, covering the needs of 10 full-power analog TV stations, 11 DTV stations, and 16 full-power FM stations. Add in the AM sites of KYW 1060, WFIL 560, and WZZD 990 a couple miles to the northwest, and that is one heck of a lot of broadcast signals emanating from a small area. Therefore, it's little wonder that residents of Domino Lane and other nearby streets occasionally report being able to listen to programming sans radio/TV, courtesy of fences, rain gutters, pipes, and other imperfectly grounded metal objects. In fact, we even worked that bit of trivia into an episode of SUSPENSE! You can listen to our shoutout to KYW and the tower farm here:
And speaking of KYW . . . if you know anything about the history of radio, you'll recognize that the three-letter designation and the fact that it starts with a "K" means it is one of the U.S.'s very first broadcasters. We'll be looking at the storied—and occasionally convoluted—history of KYW next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.