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Losing a local landmark: WCHV radio towers fall

Tamera Hammond remembers the cluster of radio towers across from Ashwood Boulevard because of what happened shortly after she moved into Forest Lakes, a northern Albemarle County neighborhood, at the end of 1995. Six days into the new year, snow began falling during what became a record-smashing storm.

"It snowed, I think, 36 inches," Hammond, who is now the on-site manager for the Forest Lakes Community Association, told The Daily Progress. "It was just white, white, white; and the only signs of life were those towers."

Since they were constructed in the mid-1980s for a long-running AM radio station, these five towers and their pulsing glows of red light have been something of a Charlottesville landmark. And now four of them are gone, felled several weeks ago after they were deemed obsolete.

"We decommissioned the extra towers as they are no longer needed to comply with our licensed coverage," owner George Reed told The Daily Progress in an email.

The five radio towers plus a cellular telephone tower sat on a 10.3-acre site owned by Monticello Media LLC, which bought the parcel from Clear Channel for $1.6 million in 2007. It’s surrounded by properties owned by Wendell Wood, a prominent local landowner.

Three of the four toppled towers stood 257 feet tall and the other 196 feet. Painted red and white and guyed by cables, they provided the AM signals for WCHV, a news-talk-sports station owned by Reed’s firm, Monticello Media.

Unlike FM, whose range is largely a function of the height and power of its transmitter, AM signals can bounce off the earth’s ionosphere and crowd out faraway stations, particularly at night. So this cluster was designed to rein in WCHV’s nightly transmissions with the multiple towers tweaking the signal to keep it in the proper direction.

"WCHV is being relicensed by the FCC from a directional nighttime signal pattern (requiring multiple towers) to non-directional (one tower)," Reed wrote in an email.

According to its new license, which was granted by the Federal Communications Commission on Nov. 21, WCHV’s AM signal, 1260 KHz on the dial, is daytime only. The FCC records the other towers as "dismantled" on Sept. 19.

A passerby can see some of the crumpled steel remains, and at least one tower that dropped into a stand of trees is easily visible from the entrance to Forest Lakes South. Reed asserted that the plan is to remove the steel.

An unusual aspect of the cluster was the hexagonal structures that topped most of the towers. Former WCHV owner Brad Eure calls them "tophats" and said they were signal-bolstering devices to deal with the Federal Aviation Administration’s height restrictions due to the cluster’s proximity, about a mile, from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport.

The station was chartered in 1929, went on the air in 1933, and the tower cluster was built around 1985 to replace a three-tower array near the station’s former headquarters on Rose Hill Drive, according to former owner Eure. When he purchased two other local stations in the late 1990s, he had a front row seat to how AM was seen as a more thriving business than it is today.

"The Justice Department got involved," Eure told the Daily Progress. "They made us sell WCHV and WKAV because they thought we had some sort of monopoly. You just have to laugh at that now."

Today, competition from satellite and online streaming services and the better audio quality of FM radio have led to a widespread retreat from AM radio among listeners. Today, many motor vehicles no longer include AM radios.

"Make AM great again," is the red-white-and-blue call to action atop the X account of Joe Thomas, the 5-to-9 a.m. talk show host at WCHV.

Thomas, a voice of free enterprise, noted that the Albemarle Board of Supervisors has built a reputation for attempting to limit the numbers of towers that dot the landscape. And yet they did not play a role here.

"I’m sure the supervisors would be happy," he joked, "if the last one comes down."


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