Our latest Bubbler Talk report involves the large metal tower at the entrance to Estabrook Park, near the border of Milwaukee and Shorewood. The listener asked: "What is the giant ugly metal tower used for?"
He might be surprised to learn that the tower houses WUWM's antenna, along with that of WITI Channel 6, and a couple other radio stations.
As WUWM Studio Engineer Jason Rieve explains, although the radio station is located in downtown Milwaukee, WUWM uses the huge tower in Estabrook Park to broadcast the station's signal throughout the community.
"Being that our offices and station are located down at Chase Tower, basically everything is produced in Chase Tower. We have a system that it goes up to the roof, blasts it over to the tower here," Jason said, standing in the small parking lot next to the tower.
Jason says machines housed inside the small transmitter building that's connected to the big tower finish the job. He says the broadcast equipment gets "the signal back up out of the antenna. So basically, it's taking the signal -- the small signal that we have -- and making it much larger, so we can send out and broadcast it to people in Hartford, Sheboygan, and even as far south as northern Chicago."
So that's what the tower is used for. But just why is it in that exact location, at the entrance to a Milwaukee County Park?
Former WUWM chief engineer Tom May answered that question. He worked for WUWM from 2000 to 2013, and developed an extensive knowledge of the tower's history, as well as an appreciation of the structure. Tom says the tower is owned by WITI, and is one of a number of huge towers in the vicinity of Estabrook Park.
"Estabrook Park is known to broadcasters as 'Milwaukee's Tower Farm.' Basically, there's a lot of towers in one consolidated area. There's a couple reasons for this, and a lot of cities do the same sort of layout. Number one, if you have a lot of your really tall towers in one place, it makes it easier for aviation to sort of avoid the 'air menace.' And secondly, if you had all your TV stations in one place -- back when everybody had the antennas on the rooftop -- you could point your antenna in roughly the same direction and not have to be swinging it around back and forth, trying to get the picture for whatever station you were trying to watch," Tom says.
Tom says the FCC gives precise instructions to tower builders, and when WITI built the tower in 1962, the FCC determined the site. "The location that they had to go in was right there, in the corner of Estabrook Park on Capitol Drive."
Tom says that exact spot was chosen, so WITI's TV signal wouldn't interfere with a different Channel 6, elsewhere. "Having your tower located in one spot versus two miles down the road or a half a mile down the road, can be the difference between being able to put to a 100,000 watt signal and a 25,000 watt signal."
Our Bubbler Talk questioner referred to the tower as "ugly." But Tom sees things differently, and he's not alone. There are web pages and articles devoted to the tower, because of its design.
"For a while, it was the tallest freestanding object in the world at 1,088 feet. And what that means to be a freestanding object is that it does not have any guy wires supporting it. It is a completely self-supported structure. There aren't very many that are this height that do not have guy wires. There were three of them built like it in the world at the time. The other two -- one was in Baltimore. That one is still standing. And the other in Miami -- that was taken out by a hurricane years ago."
Tom says there was no room for guy wires, because of the relatively small footprint the FCC approved for tower construction.
WITI considered the tower special, too. It celebrated it, by working a drawing of the tower into a Channel 6 logo. For years, WITI had a huge number 6 hanging on the structure. And WITI decorated the tower with lights, making it visible for miles.
Former WUWM chief Engineer Tom May shares that part of the structure's history:
"The tower was once known as 'Milwaukee's Tower of Light.' In fact, they used to do boat races on Lake Michigan at night, using this tower as a landmark. The lights were taken off in the mid to late 1970s, partly because of the energy crisis. But really, there was a more pressing reason why they were taken off. In the springtime, we would get a lot of freezing rain and that would cause ice to basically fall off the tower, and this would smash a lot of the lightbulbs as it came down. There were over 2,000 lights on the legs of the tower, and actually to this day, if you look in some of the wooded areas around Estabrook Park, you will still find pieces of broken glass from these lights."
So -- is the tower something to celebrate, as an engineering marvel and a part of local broadcast history? Or is it a structure that mars the appearance of one of the area's green spaces? The two sides may never agree. But if they like turning on the radio and listening to WUWM, they have something in common. The tower is broadcasting the signal that they listen to, as it has for decades.
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