Trunk Line

On Infrastructure as a MEGO

September 24th, 2022 · No Comments

MEGO in journalism stands for My Eyes (or Ears) Glaze Over. According to William Safire , a MEGO os “a subject of great importance which resists reader interest.”

Infrastructure is a one-word MEGO.

So I haven’t written much about infrastructure, including here: on a blog created by Christain Sandvig when we were both fellows at the Berkman Klein Center. It was meant as a place where learned folk who care about infrastructure could hold forth. A variety of those was recruited to participate, and approximately none did, including me. I’ve kept it alive in recent years by posting here occasionally, mostly with stuff that I think fits better here than anywhere else I tend to write.

In the meantime, I have kept an active site on the topic going: a Flickr account with the name Infrastructure.  My chief interest there is in showing the plasticity of infrastructure over time: how it changes or gets replaced. I am especially interested in forms of infrastructure that are out of sight, mind, or booth, but on which we depend completely. These include water, gas, electricity, waste treatment… all the usual.

Plus broadcasting. Because that’s the form of infrastructure I know best, care about most, and see disappearing. Nobody else seems to be on this beat, so I’m stepping up.

“Compulsions are easy to come by and hard to explain,” John McPhee explains in a New Yorker essay that visits his compulsion to collect stray golf balls. I am likewise compelled to take pictures of transmitter sites. I came by my interest in transmitters when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, observing the Manhattan Skyline from across swamps populated by dozens of transmitting towers for New York’s AM  radio stations. I loved radio and was so curious about the sources of signals that I would ride my bike down Route 17 (dangerous and dumb, but I survived) to WABC in Lodi, WINS in Lyndhurst, and WADO, WBNX, and WHN on Patterson Plank Road in Rutherford and Carlstadt. There I would gawk at the towers and sometimes knock on doors of the buildings feeding signals to the towers, so I could talk shop with the engineers who answered. The compulsion stayed with me. So, after I could drive, I visited countless other facilities, including mountaintop FM and TV stations.

But I didn’t begin shooting lots of photos of broadcast transmitters until digital photography became easy, along with publishing details about them. (One of the most active groups on Facebook is titled, no kidding, “I take pictures of transmitter sites.” It has over fifteen thousand members, most of which, I gather, are active or retired engineers like the ones I would visit as a kid.)

In the last few years, I’ve also come to realize that I’m documenting a medium in decline. Radio is being eaten on the music side by streaming (Apple, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora) and on the talk side by podcasting. Broadcast TV moved almost entirely from antennas to cable decades ago, and now cable itself is being replaced by the Internet. TV stations maintain transmitters mostly to satisfy “must carry” rules for cable. (Your station can’t be on cable if it’s not on the air.)

So now my transmitter site photography has a documentary purpose: keeping up with what’s going down.

The example at the top tells the story of one transmitting three of Santa Barbara’s AM stations. Here’s what the tower looked like for most of its life, when it was 198 feet tall and proclaiming itself a landmark with bright red and white paint. And here’s what it looks like since December of last year, at just 128 feet tall, painted dark green to camouflage it among surrounding palm and eucalyptus trees.

This tower was lucky. AM stations across the country have been going dark or operating from diminished facilities because listening is declining while land under many transmitter sites is worth more than the stations using them. In this case, the tower stands in the city equipment yard, taking up almost no room on the ground, and the shorter tower works almost as well as it did at full height. But it’s an example of a ratcheting down of importance.

Had this been 20 or more years ago, the tower, which was slightly bent, would have been replaced or straightened. The new configuration is also interesting for engineering reasons. Twelve-foot-long “whiskers” attached to the top of the sawed-off tower increase its height electrically without doing so physically. Listeners, I am sure, can tell no difference. Nor did they notice when WBBM/780, Chicago’s alpha news station, dropped from 50,000 watts to 35,000 watts in the daytime and 44,000 watts at night, from the tower of sister station WSCR/670. The station’s owner made that move so it could sell the land under WBBM’s old tower.

Among the deceased:

Those are harbingers toward a time when AM is gone completely, as it already is in much of Europe. FM and TV are not far behind. But streams will remain, as the most popular radio already is the smartphone.

And I want to document as much of the change as I can.

By the way, I am also firing up this blog because it is also starting to show up in some RSS feeds. Greetings, feedsters!

Important: RSS is hugely important infrastructure. Dig:

Nothing with that many results can’t matter.

Tags: Future · History · Industry · Media · Radio · Television

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