We chronicled WRAL’s worst nightmare in the December edition of CapCom, when the broadcast tower, located in Auburn, crumbled to the ground on December 10, 1989. The cause was uneven thawing of heavy ice on the tower. WPTF’s tower, owned by Durham Life Broadcasting Company, met the same fate thirty minutes earlier.
Instead of hand-wringing, WRAL management was thankful for no injuries, assessed the situation, and then rolled up their sleeves to get the Big 5 and WRAL-FM back on the air. WRAL-TV was up and running within four hours on a temporary alternate tower. WRAL-FM resumed broadcasting on a make-shift structure the next day. On December 11, an arrangement was made to temporarily use a tower in Apex.
The initial battle had been won, but a new tower and transmitter building would take months to build. Managers spent many hours in a “war room” near Jim Goodmon’s office, burning the midnight oil, as they strategized a plan for a bigger, better, tower. WRAL Chief Engineer Wilbur Brann was tasked to be the “General” to marshal all the technical troops for this operation.
Within a month, Capitol Broadcasting Company and Durham Life Broadcasting Company agreed to band together to build a new 2,000 foot transmitter tower on CBC owned property near the location of the old towers. They selected Kline Towers, Inc. – based in Columbia, South Carolina to build the new structure. Kline built both of the previous towers.
The new tower would be heavier and sturdier. Each side of the triangular structure would have a 12-foot face as opposed to a ten-foot face that was on the old tower. The two stations would operate their transmitters out of different rooms in the same building. The plan was coming together. The target date for completion was set for September 11, 1990.
Before new construction could begin, tons of twisted metal pieces and tangled support cables had to be sorted, loaded, and hauled away. Meanwhile, high-grade steel was being rolled for the new 12 foot face tower, not in the United States, but in France. Oddly, no U.S. steel mill was capable of rolling steel tower legs of the size called for in the new specifications. After completion, the steel would be shipped to Kline Tower where it would be fabricated in 30 foot sections that weighed in at 17 tons each. It would take 64 sections to complete the 2,000 foot “stick.”
By February, Wilbur Brann had placed an order for a Dielectric Communications TCM-6A5 circularly-polarized antenna. Each half of the antenna was capable of being operated independently for broadcast redundancy. The WRAL engineering team shopped around for new transmitters; one for WRAL-TV and one for WRAL-FM. The new transmitters would go into a building being designed by Bartholomew Associates of Raleigh.
At this point in the project, Brann was pleased with how they were hitting their marks: “If it’s possible to be happy under the circumstances, then we certainly are. Every phase of the project, and believe me, it’s a big one, is on schedule. We still have a long way to go before September 11, but based on everything we’ve accomplished so far, and the terrific way our staff has performed under the most difficult conditions imaginable, we’re confident that we can maintain the project schedule right through to the completion date.”
Thankfully, the remainder of the winter months was not brutal. The weather continued to cooperate during spring as well. By July, construction of the transmitter building was moving along at a fast clip. The concrete footing for the base of the tower had been laid to hold the full weight of the 2,000 foot structure. The base is 20 feet square and goes down into the ground an astonishing 40 feet. Workmen from Tower King based in Atlanta were busy building the 30’ 17 ton tower sections. As the “A Team” would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
On August 20, Wilbur Brann received the keys to the new transmitter building. By late August, construction of the tower reached the 1,000 foot level. Tower King set a record by installing seven 30-foot units totaling 210 feet in one working day. A few weeks later, in early September, the tower stood at the 1,436 level. They would miss the September 11 deadline, but not by too much.
The final guy wires were attached on October 8, 1990, marking the completion of the new 2,000 foot tower, the heaviest broadcast tower ever erected at that time. Installation of the antennas was next. WPTF-TV’s antenna was hoisted up the tower on October 9. A day later, WRAL-TV’s antenna was placed at the top of the tower. The installation of the transmission lines was the last thing on the list. The target date to start broadcasting from the tower was set for October 16, the day CBS-TV was scheduled to air the 1990 World Series.
We asked Wilbur Brann if he remembered the exact day the new tall tower went “live.” He remembers, “We were on the air for the November Book!! Whatever that day was we just made it. I don’t remember the exact date. Here is what happened, just before, to take my comfort level away. The bottom antenna was mounted incorrectly and we had to turn the stack two bolt holes. Meaning we had the 120 foot stack up and had to take all the bolts out and turn it. Thank goodness we were able to accomplish that.” Good catch WRAL ENGINEERING TEAM!
Fast forward one more time. The 1990 tower received a new sibling tower in the year 2000, forming a CBC version of Twin Towers. The 1990 tower is referred to as the ATP Tower. ATP stands for Auburn Tower Partners. It is still on duty with antennas for WRAL-FM, WQDR, WRTP, WCMC, and WRDC-TV channel 28. For those who remember back in the day, WPTF-TV (NBC) was channel 28. The old analog channel 5 antenna is “dark” but proudly sits at the top of the tower holding the light beacon. The tower built in year 2000 is referred to as the DTV tower; D=digital. It has a unique three prong set of antennas positioned in a “candelabra” fashion at top. The DTV tower broadcasts signals for WRAL-TV, WRAZ-TV, WNCN (17), WLFL (22), WRDU radio and a host of other clients.
Engineering is a behind the scenes kind of operation, but serves at the tip of the spear. No signal = no news, no commercials, no programming, no nothing. Our engineers have been and continue to be recognized leaders in the broadcasting industry that started in the analog years and then ushered in the high definition era. There are many “firsts” that have been accomplished right here on Western Boulevard. Don’t be surprised if someday, someone jokingly says “beam me up” and one of our engineers says, “I can do that!”
Thanks to Corp’s Pam Allen for this capcom story & these photos. Pam Parris Allen is a former WRAL newscast producer/director who now works as a researcher and producer on the CBC History Project.