by Art Donahue
In 1953 that was Leon Podolsky's dream, and he couldn't have been more qualified for the challenge. A former design engineer for RCA, he was one of the top electrical engineers in the world, earning 134 U.S. patents including UHF tuners.
The story of this "forgotten pioneer" begins in 1947. Living in the shadow of Massachusetts' highest mountain, 3,491-foot Mount Greylock, Leon Podolsky was technical advisor to the president of Sprague Electric in North Adams. In 1947 Podolsky bought Pittsfield MA's WBRK/1340, copyrighted the slogan "The Voice of the Berkshires" and formed Greylock Broadcasting Company. The goal of the company was in the name: To broadcast TV from the mountaintop. Back then only one weak and ghosting television signal could be received in the Berkshire valleys of Massachusetts, General Electric's pioneer station WRGB-TV/4 Schenectady NY some 50 miles away, near Albany. Above the valley Mt. Greylock looked west directly down into the Hudson River Valley of Albany, New York's Capitol District and southeast to the Springfield MA and Hartford CT markets. That same year Podolsky applied for VHF channel 3 assigned to Pittsfield. If only it had been that simple ... that allocation was deleted during the television "freeze" that began in 1948. He did not give up.
On February 18, 1953 the FCC granted him a construction permit for channel 74, a 1,000 watt UHF TV station on the 2,000-foot Western Summit of the Mohawk Trail overlooking North Adams MA. No one else had expressed an interest in the tiny TV market of just 22,000 people and it's untested high frequency allocation*. Podolsky quickly applied for (and was granted, on June 4) authorization to move the transmitter to Mt. Greylock and increase the power to a record breaking 300,000 watts ... from that height and power the signal would include the much larger Albany NY market. Mt. Greylock was a state reservation and use of the summit for commercial purposes was controversial, but with the promise of bringing local community TV news, weather and programming to the Berkshires, the commissioners granted a lease of land 100 feet by 150 feet just off the summit on September 8. It would only cost WMGT $100 a year for the first two years and $3,000 per year after that. Podolsky relinquished his controlling interest in Greylock Broadcasting to sell additional stock to fund the project.
(*-WMGT was only the seventh of 12 construction permits for full-power stations issued in the 1950s for channels 70 or higher; of the other 11, seven were never built. The rest did make it to air, but three were later relinquished when the permittees purchased stations on lower channel numbers and moved there and one station which went dark to change to a lower channel never returned to the air. See the Channels section for details.)
Podolsky had designed the transmitter building and planned everything during the "freeze" years and was immediately ready to build. They had to work quickly before winter on Mt. Greylock cut off access for construction vehicles. Generators were hauled up to power the summit's Bascom Lodge and state police radio facilities for six weeks as two miles of power lines were replaced with a high capacity 2,300-volt line. Meanwhile, on October 14 Hudson Valley Broadcasting (WROW/590) signed on WROW-TV/41, the first UHF station in the Albany market. Now, along with WRGB-TV, there were two stations operating in the Capital City area. The WMGT transmitter building was finished in just seven weeks and the $142,000 three-ton 12-kilowatt GE UHF transmitter arrived November 17. A Tucker Sno-Cat snow vehicle (pictured at left) was purchased for $6,000 to bring engineers and equipment up the 10-mile unplowed road for the long winter months.
There was a kitchen and four bunk beds to house the two engineers who would be on duty at the transmitter. A television studio was built at the WBRK offices on Bank Row in Pittsfield with a line-of-sight microwave link on the roof to Mt. Greylock. Podolsky staffed WMGT with his radio station personnel, Chief Engineer Len Lavendol, General Manager John Parsons, Sales Manager Bill Geary and News Director Larry Vaber among them.
The studio had only one RCA TK-11 $14,000 camera and tests proved the microwave link to be temperamental. The link was so unreliable that it was decided to put the station's only 16mm and slide film chain up at the transmitter to make sure there would be some programming to put on the air. That also meant all the films and commercials that were prepped and edited in Pittsfield would have to be driven to the summit daily for the evening's programming. Local newsfilm shot with the station's new Auricon optical 16mm sound film camera would have a lengthy delay getting on the air. That would become a major problem in the winter months when the only summit access was in the Sno-Cat. But that wasn't the only problem: In December the custom built high-gain channel 74 antenna failed testing at the RCA factory.
There would be no planned Christmas 1953 debut of WMGT as a temporary antenna would have to be mounted on the 200-foot tower. (It was the highest television transmitter in the eastern United States.) Meanwhile, another UHF pioneer, WWOR-TV/14 Worcester MA, signed on the air December 4 from a transmitter site 65 miles east of Greylock on Asnebumskit Hill in Paxton. Winter closed in.
By the time the antenna arrived on January 12, 1954 severe snow and wind prevented the one-ton antenna from being mounted for ten days. By now $600,000 had been spent and the station was still not on the air. A second Albany UHF, WTRI-TV/35, beat them to the air on February 17 from a transmitter on Bald Mountain in Brunswick NY. Now there were three competitors and WPTR-TV/23 had also just received its construction permit. The next day TV dealers told the local newspaper only 10% of the region's television set owners had purchased UHF tuners.
WMGT finally signed on at 6:00pm on Monday, February 22, 1954 with opening 16mm sound film of Massachusetts Governor Christian Herter, station management and local politicians. (Many of the photos accompanying this article were taken from that inaugural film.) At 8:30 the video inverted and channel 74 broadcast negative images for 20 minutes. The signal was received as far away as Boston -- 110 miles -- on high-rise rooftop antennas, but other reports confirmed what Podolsky had feared: Transmitting on such an extremely high frequency in the 800MHz band, WMGT could not be received on the far side of the hills below the mountain. The signal was unable to reflect or bounce off the hillsides. The high-gain antenna would have to be the solution.
WMGT promised to be on the air from 6:00 to 11:00pm seven days a week. In 1954 there was no videotape and all programming was either on 16mm film from the transmitter building or live from the lone camera in Pittsfield. Other stations paid AT&T for microwave relays of ABC, NBC, CBS or DuMont network programming from New York City but there was no such arrangement for WMGT. Podolsky bypassed AT&T by making a deal with the DuMont Network to pick up its programming directly off the air from the network's flagship station WABD-TV/5 in New York City with a high-gain VHF receiving antenna on Mt. Greylock and pay DuMont to retransmit. He made a similar deal with the New York Daily News' independent station WPIX-TV/11
Unfortunately, the reception of channels 5 and 11 was no sure thing, given that Mt. Greylock was (and still is) 135 miles away from New York City; further complicating matters, the receiving antennas were pointed south along the eastern seaboard of the United States, a frequent corridor for VHF tropospheric "ducting" in the summer and fall. This caused signals from other channel 5 and 11 TV stations from cities all down the east coast to be received and mix with the WABD and WPIX signals. The totally unpredictable phenomenon frequently made the pictures and audio from New York unusable.
Channel 74 limped along with its temporary antenna at low power until the custom-designed high-gain was finally installed on the tower June 20 after six days of work. When fed the full 12 kilowatts of power from the transmitter, the gain created 300 kilowatts of effective radiated power, the long hoped for solution to reception problems. Then came a major setback: While trying to increase the power to the new antenna on July 6 the insulating rings inside the antenna burned out, knocking WMGT off the air for two days while RCA engineers from Camden NJ rushed to Greylock to figure out what went wrong. What they discovered was that the short wavelength of channel 74 at 830-836 MHz, which required short antenna elements, meant there was not enough internal space to adequately place insulators. The antenna would therefore never be able to handle full power at that frequency ... it just wasn't going to work within the limits of 1954 technology. The insulators were replaced and the station returned to the air on reduced power, but the only long-term solution was to appeal to the FCC to broadcast on a lower frequency.
Podolsky first petitioned the FCC in September to exchange the channel 74 allocation for channel 15, which was denied in the space of a mere two weeks. Undaunted, one week later he came to an agreement with Richard Balch, holder of the construction permit for unbuilt WFRB-TV/19 in Utica NY, paying Balch $11,000 for his time and effort and then devising an ingenious series of frequency swaps between unused UHF TV allocations in Utica (54 replacing 19), Portsmouth NH (15 for 19), and Bennington VT (74 to replace 33) that would allow WMGT to operate on channel 19 from Mt. Greylock.
The petition for same was submitted less than a week after the previous denial and the FCC approved the allocation table changes literally one month later, on October 20. Greylock Broadcasting then spent $30,000 for a new 45-foot tall channel 19 antenna and went dark for two weeks for the conversion, returning to the air December 22 under the STA, having filed for permanent use of channel 19 during the dark period. As expected, the new signal provided greatly improved reception.
At the same time in the valley below, WROW-TV was on the verge of bankruptcy and the owners of Hudson Valley Broadcasting sold the controlling interest to broadcasting legend Lowell Thomas for less than $500,000.
1955 emerged as the best year for WMGT. General Manager John Parsons had made public statements that the station had to gross $225,000 in order to break even and apparently that happened. In April the DuMont Television Network went out of business, but by June WMGT was able to obtain an ABC affiliation (again by rebroadcasting programming from the network flagship WABC-TV/7, picked up off the air from New York City).
WWOR-TV lost its WPIX programming relay from WMGT in the process, and shut down on September 5, citing a lack of cash, programming, advertisers and an audience ... a story which was beginning to be heard from UHF stations all across the country. Three months later, WROW-TV assumed the CBS affiliation in Albany as WTRI went off the air (channel 35 had originally received the affiliation only because sister radio station WTRY/980 had been affiliated with CBS since the early 1940s).
By comparison to the previous year, 1956 was the worst year for WMGT. The 200-foot tower was rated to handle heavy icing or heavy wind ... but not both at the same time. That's what happened the night of February 27. "I'd never heard it (the wind) screech the way it did," said transmitter engineer Frank Boisvert, who hid with a fellow engineer beneath their bunk beds that night. Hurricane force winds snapped the tower in two and the antenna collapsed just missing the building. It was a devastating $75,000 loss and further, there was no way to rebuild until spring. The late winter continued to be brutal on the summit and there was still three feet of snow at the transmitter in April. A massive tower base would need to be designed and constructed for a much heavier-duty tower. WMGT remained off the air for the rest of the year.
In April, WROW-TV changed its call sign to WCDA ("Capitol District Station A") and put WCDB-TV/29 ("Capitol District Station B") on the air in Hagaman NY to add coverage north of Albany. Hudson Valley had also petitioned in 1955 for VHF channel 10 be added to the allocations table in Albany and that they be reassigned that channel. Both WTRI and WMGT filed comments with the FCC that they would both be unable to resume operations and remain viable if a second VHF channel was allowed to operate along with NBC affiliate WRGB-TV/6; WMGT's attorney was quoted in Broadcasting as saying the WROW-TV proposal created an ironic "squeeze play" because "on the one hand it forces [us] to fight the channel 10 drop-in and on the other forces [us] to apply for that frequency." The U.S. Court of Appeals had issued a stay in December against the allocation, which WROW-TV predictably requested the dismissal of but had to settle for a delay in the effective date instead.
The FCC subsequently proposed to delete the channel 10 allocation as part of the deintermixture process, which WCDA responded to by formally applying for that channel in July. Meanwhile, with WMGT being dark while designing and constructing a new heavy-duty tower on Mt. Greylock, WTRI made a bid for WMGT's ABC affiliation (the radio station having swapped affiliations with WROW the previous year in the course of the CBS agreement with channel 41) and returned to the air at the beginning of August with that network's programming.
It was the final coffin nail for WMGT: At that point Greylock Broadcasting Company had lost one million dollars and with all three networks now affiliated, if and when channel 19 returned to the air it would have to survive as an independent UHF TV station and find programming, sponsors and an audience where it could, a difficult if not impossible task in 1956. The vast majority of new televisions being sold still didn't have UHF tuners, but by May 8,000 Berkshire residents had signed a petition to encourage WMGT to return to the air.
On December 3, 1956 Greylock Broadcasting Co. announced it was selling WMGT to Lowell Thomas, to become a full time repeater of WCDA. The move formally ended local Western Massachusetts programming coming from Massachusetts' highest mountain. The station sold for $379,206, the studio equipment was returned to RCA for a partial refund, and no one would ever again attempt to put a full power UHF station on channel 74 or any higher frequency anywhere in the United States; ultimately the FCC reallocated channels 70 through 83 to low-power translator use, then later converted the spectrum used for those channels to cellular telephone licenses.
On February 22, 1957, three years to the day that channel 74 first went on the air, the original WMGT transmitter signed back on as WCDC ("Capitol District Station C"); its new parent station eventually won the battle to operate on channel 10 and moved there December 1, 1957 as WTEN. WCDB went dark concurrently, but WCDA continued operating on channel 41 as a WTEN satellite for nearly four more years, ending only when the channel 10 license was made permanent November 15, 1961. (WTRI moved to channel 13 on January 1, 1959 as WAST; WPTR-TV never did go on the air, and its construction permit was finally surrendered March 26, 1960 ... close to seven years after its issuance.)
On March 9, 1983 the channel 19 replacement tower and antenna -- by then over 25 years old -- were destroyed in another severe wind and ice storm. Returning to the air afterwards, WCDC continued to rebroadcast WTEN programming from Albany for more than another 30 years until it was sold in the FCC spectrum auction in 2017 for $34.5 million; unlike most full-power stations that participated in the auction, WCDC planned to go dark rather than move its programming to another station's transmitting facilities (channel sharing). It was required to cease operation no later than 90 days after receiving the proceeds, and was scheduled to do so on November 30, 2017 but damage to the transmission line forced it off the air early, on November 19 (in reporting to the FCC, the station said the time restraint and lack of available tower crews prevented it from making repairs before the scheduled cessation date). The original WMGT summit transmitter building and the most recent tower were subsequently sold to renter Northeast Public Radio (WAMC-FM/90.3) for slightly over one million dollars.
Hudson Valley Broadcasting changed its corporate name to Capital Cities Television Corporation at the beginning of 1958 after merging with the owners of WTVD/11 Durham NC and subsequently acquired stations in additional markets nationwide, culminating in their acquisition of ABC in 1985; WTEN and WCDC were sold to Young Broadcasting in 1971.
Leon Podolsky sold Greylock Broadcasting Co. and WBRK in 1958, saying it was necessary to reduce his many business activities. He retired from Sprague Electric in 1966 due to health issues. He continued to invent throughout the 1960s and 70s, travelled extensively and was often seen fishing from his amphibious car on Pontoosuc Lake in Pittsfield. He died in 1983 at the age of 72.
(Art Donahue retired from WCVB/5 in Boston in 2014 after 27 years with that station as a news photographer, capping a total of 43 years in New England television. His additional research on that region's broadcast history can be found at his QRZ page. This article is dedicated to the memory of Norm Gagnon, who was the first to take an interest in preserving New England television history, and based in part on his archived original pages about WMGT which had been previously linked from this site.)
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