by Peter Q. George
W69AQ was originally put on the air in November 1977 to re-broadcast the sports programming of WSBK-TV/38 in Boston MA, via WRLP/32 in Greenfield MA which was under common ownership with WWLP/22 in Springfield MA. W69AQ, while being licensed to Margaret S. Downey of Agawam, MA (a friend of former WWLP and Springfield Television Corporation CEO Bill Putnam), was actually being supported by WWLP in order to try to stave off the cable "monster" in Springfield, a city not yet wired for cable at the time. Virtually every other community around the Pioneer Valley had been wired for cable for years.
Originally, W69AQ was to pick-up the off-air signal of channel 32. However, WRLP went dark April 9, 1978 when Springfield Television took it off the air due to continued operating losses. (In the official announcement quoted in Broadcasting Putnam cited "limited viewer and advertiser support and continued heavy operating losses with no prospect for improvement" as the reason for the decision and also that "competition from distant television stations on cable systems" contributed to audience "fractionalization" that kept viewing to a low level; ironically, in November the FCC had ordered five New England cable systems serving 38 communities that did not carry WWLP to carry WRLP by year's end ... an order which came too late to save channel 32.) Thus, W69AQ was stuck in a limbo as its primary station ceased to exist. Without WRLP's off-air signal to feed it, how could the translator continue to rebroadcast the Red Sox and Bruins games to Springfield? At that time, the FCC did not allow retransmission of distant signals via microwave links on translators. Low Power TV (in the way we know it exists today) was still many years into the future. Apparently, WWLP sought and received a special FCC waiver of this rule and got special permission to rebroadcast WSBK-TV only during sports programming. This had never been done before.
However, even the question of W69AQ receiving its sports programming via WRLP-TV during those few months in 1977 and 1978 may have been a fiction created for the FCC: WWLP staffer Mike Fitzpatrick posted on a couple of industry message boards in 2001 that the translator received its signal from WSBK-TV, using a microwave hop from an off-air receiver at Coy's Hill in Warren MA to Provin Mountain in Agawam. WRLP did receive its feed directly off-the-air from WSBK-TV, due to the height of the receive antenna at the Gun Hill transmitter site in Winchester NH. (The microwave setup was officially in place to receive Boston television stations for sports programming and news footage for WRLP.)
W69AQ was simply turned on and off by a switch at the master control console. Many times the evening Master Control Director would forget to tell the overnight MCD that the channel 69 transmitter was still on, meaning that the WSBK programming would be seen long after the Red Sox or Bruins games where over. Fitzpatrick said that one of the evening master control operators was a big fan of Hogan's Heroes, which aired in late nights on WSBK, and would leave W69AQ turned on when he went home for the night so he could watch it.
Fitzpatrick gave fuller details of the microwave installation in a 2012 post at Radio Discussions:
On the top of Coy's Hill in Warren, we had a receiver with a big UHF yagi antenna aimed at WSBK-TV over the air. From Coy's Hill it was sent back via 6GHz microwave, where it then could be routed into W69AQ. Long after W69AQ signed off the air, we maintained a microwave link from Coy's Hill, which was used to receive Boston TV. In the early 90's, the barn which housed all the equipment burned to the ground, destroying the microwave gear. After that, new gear was installed in another newer building, and we had a setup with two cable boxes and a cable feed. We could use this remote control system to switch a Adrianne video switcher with A/B outputs, between the cable box output and a small security camera aimed at the channel number on the box. The same system would then allow you to switch which channel it was on, then switch the video circuit back to the box's output. It was our way of getting cable service (at the time, there was no cable service run up Provin Mountain, where WWLP's transmitter sits. The power line access to the mountain was a three-mile run down the spine of the mountain, only accessible via 4-wheeler ATV or foot. No cable service could be run).
In essence, W69AQ was the first LPTV per se in existence; while technically still falling within the definition of a translator (rebroadcasting WSBK-TV) it operated outside of the rules prohibiting the microwave feeding of a translator. Even without that technicality, though, as the cost of programming the games from channel 38 went up -- and WSBK-TV itself became available on cable in Springfield -- W69AQ was taken dark in 1982 and subsequently sold in 1985 to WHLL/27 in Worcester. They only operated it the bare minimum one hour a week required by the FCC to maintain the license, and before the decade had ended, the final output tube of the small General Electric transmitter died and the station never saw the light of day again; the construction permit to build W46CS as a digital TV displacement expired in 2001 and has since been deleted from the FCC database.
Bill Putnam retired from broadcasting in 1984 and died December 20, 2014 at age 90.
This article originally appeared in the author's "UHF Morgue" at his former RadioDXer site and is republished here with his permission. Reformatting by K.M. Richards.
© World Radio History. Original site concept by Clarke Ingram. Site design and management by K.M. Richards.