ARS Technica: “200-foot AM radio tower disappears, halting Alabama station broadcast”

Many thanks to a number of SWLing Post contributors who’ve shared this story from a variety of sources. The following article comes from ARS Technica and was shared by Mark Hist:

200-foot AM radio tower disappears, halting Alabama station broadcast

A 200-foot AM radio tower has been missing for at least a week, leaving an Alabama radio station in a financial crisis and on a desperate hunt.

As first reported by Memphis’ Action News 5, Jasper, Alabama, radio station WJLX 101.5 FM/1240 AM, sent a bush hog crew to maintain the area around the tower on February 2. The tower is behind a poultry plant in a forested area, per The Guardian. Once there, a crew member called station manager Brett Elmore, informing him that the 200-foot structure that CNN says has been there since the ’50s had disappeared.

“He said, ‘The tower is gone. There’s wires [sic] everywhere, and it’s gone,’” Elmore told Action News 5.

The total value of all the equipment reported stolen is nearly $200,000, Alabama’s ABC 33/40 News said.

Now the radio station says it has to get a new tower, as well as a new transmitter and additional equipment for tasks like processing and engineering. Replacement costs are an estimated $60,000 or more, per WJLX.

Even if the tower were somehow recovered, the station would still be “in a jam,” Elmore told CNN, saying that the equipment would probably “be in pieces.”

“This has affected the operation of our AM, which needs a complete rebuild, and our FM, which is currently off the air,” the radio station said Thursday via its Facebook page.

The radio station manager has told outlets that he’s hopeful that community tips and surveillance footage from the poultry plant near the tower’s former location may eventually help police find the tower-taker(s).

“It is a federal crime, and it absolutely will not be worth it to them,” Elmore told Action 5 News. [Continue reading at ARS Technica…]

Readers have shared a lot of speculation about this particular theft. Perhaps more links and facts can be shared in the comments section.

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15 thoughts on “ARS Technica: “200-foot AM radio tower disappears, halting Alabama station broadcast”

  1. Dave Mason

    Nice to know some things never change. Back in the 50s I lived near a 4-tower array which had a home-built tower light flashing unit. The beacons were supposed to flash, the side lights were to be on permanently at night. Instead the whole tower(s) flashed. Sometimes the motor would fail-and the lights would flash slowly -if at all. There were lights out in the array for months at a time. While not as severe as a missing tower/transmitter – still, an operator having issues in following “the rules”. The advent of FM translators is helping AM operators, but this is a blatant slap in the face of the governmental ruling agency incapable of policing its own policies.

  2. Ed

    Some teenage sleuths visited the rural (former) AM antenna tower site, and all the video evidence seems to indicate there’s been no AM radio antenna tower or transmitter onsite for years, than that WJLX/WJBE has been operating only an FM translator (sans AM signal) illegally all this time.

    I hope the local District Attorney or FBI investigate and subpoenas the local electric power utility service records for the former tower site to determine when it really went off the air. At that point there may be enough evidence to criminally charge WJLX/WJBE station manager Brett Elmore for filing a false police report and setting up a fraudulent GoFundMe site.

    In any case, I have no doubt the FCC will ultimately delete this station.

  3. Ed

    After looking at the facts of this case, I now have what I think is a plausible theory for what might’ve actually happened.

    I suspect that WJLX-AM has been off the air for more than 12 months, and its operator had (or allowed) its AM antenna tower and transmitter to be covertly removed for scrap.

    When the brush hog crew ‘let the cat out of the bag’, the operator of WJLX-AM publicly feigned ignorance–and claimed the tower and transmitter vanished without a trace–to prevent the station’s license from being automatically terminated for violating Section 312(g) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, which states:

    “If a station fails to transmit broadcast signals for any consecutive 12-month period, its license expires at the end of that period”.

    The operator was operating an FM translator all this time and likely didn’t want to bother with the expense of continuing to operate the AM station as required, and he asked the FCC to allow it to continue operating its FM translator without the primary AM signal–which isn’t permitted per FCC regulations.

    I hope the Feds thoroughly investigate this case, which may turn out be fraud.

    1. Penny

      Hi Ed, Just curious, has there been any update in the news about this story as I could not find any information?

  4. Julian Stargardt

    I’m having a 2nd bite of this cherry:
    Two things just don’t add up on the disclosed “facts”:
    1. Nobody noticed the 1240hz signal went off air – what!?!
    Does that mean
    a) WJLX didn’t monitor their own signal?
    b) Nobody in Jasper Alabama listened to WJLX?
    c). No listener reported “Uh your AM signal’s disappeared. What’s happened? When will it be back?”
    2. How’d the 200’ tower disappear “without a trace”? Where are the crop circles? Or other calling cards of alleged visitations by alien space craft that could have whisked a 200’ tower off for examination?

    Any hard facts yet on this case?


  5. Dave Mason

    Yeah it gets fishier and fishier. A used AM transmitter-maybe 500-1000 bucks. Can’t find a 1k? Ask for a lower power rig for now-and you could continue to run both AM and FM. Small markets. Difficult for FCC to monitor anyway. Go Fund Me? Great way to raise $$ for an uninsured site. Why uninsured ? Small market. One thing – the station is worth more than Audacy stock.

  6. Julian STARGARDT

    WJLX’s website is
    FYI 101.5 – That’s WJLX’s FM frequency
    Their website says the FCC denied their request to continue their FM broadcasts and WJLX say they’ll re-build their AM tower and return to the airwaves.

    Along with many other media reports, the transmitter tower’s disappearance even made it into Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper:

    As others noted, the picture is murky to say the least. Last time I checked 2 + 2 didn’t equal 27 or 5 or 3.

    Anyone checked the local scrap yards?

    Be interesting to see how this tale unfolds.

  7. Ed

    As others have noted, some reports of this story don’t add up and don’t seem plausible. For more authoritative info I’d like to read any police reports and investigative reports from the Walker County, Alabama Office of District Attorney to see what their investigation has found.

    So I called that DA’s office and was told they don’t comment about ongoing investigations and won’t comment on whether or not there’s an ongoing investigation of this incident(!)

    WMC-TV Action 5 News interviewed WJLX/WJBE station manager Brett Elmore saying, “It is a federal crime, and it absolutely will not be worth it to them.”

    Elmore is correct. Section 18 U.S. Code § 1362 – “Communication lines, stations or systems” states,

    “Whoever willfully or maliciously injures or destroys any of the works, property, or material of any radio, telegraph, telephone or cable, line, station, or system, or other means of communication, operated or controlled by the United States, or used or intended to be used for military or civil defense functions of the United States, whether constructed or in process of construction, or willfully or maliciously interferes in any way with the working or use of any such line, or system, or willfully or maliciously obstructs, hinders, or delays the transmission of any communication over any such line, or system, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

    So the FBI or USSS–both of which can enforce this statute–should be investigating this serious federal felony. Did Elmore file a complaint with either of those federal law-enforcement agencies? In any case, I think more info on this case will come out eventually.

    Also, from a radio communications monitoring perspective, have any police scanner enthusiasts in Walker County, Alabama monitored any local, state, or federal law-enforcement radio communications about this case? Inquiring minds want to know!

  8. Dave Mason

    I can imagine that there are a few silent AM stations not being reported as their FM translators continue to operate. The FCC won’t allow it if asked (as is in the case of WJLX-who asked to keep the translator on, but was denied). Better to ask for forgiveness, maybe.

    Having said that I worked for an AM station whose ground strap to the tower once corroded -and put the entire 1000 watt signal into -basically nowhere. The 1kw Gates workhorse kept on chuggin’ along. Still this case is another of the “AM Revitalization Act” has turned into “The AM Evacuation Act”.

    1. Tom Servo

      Just within close listening range of where I live, I know of one AM that’s been off for months while the translator operates continuously, and no Silent STAs have been filed… And not that many years ago there was an FM translator relaying programming from an out of market signal, except the translator often broke away to cover local sporting events like basketball and football games, and even ran local commercials for the area it served. It was that way for probably 7-8 years before the FCC found out.

  9. Martin Kraft

    Something is definitely off here. To completely dismantle and remove a 200-ft tower would require a crane and numerous trucks. Doing that without attracting any attention is very unlikely.

  10. Tom Servo

    This story has really made the rounds all over the internet and all over the world, but there is likely more to it than what has been reported so far.

    A lot of commentary has centered around wondering why the operator didn’t notice when his station was taken off the air, but he didn’t notice because the AM was off the air at the time of the “theft”. In violation of FCC rules, the AM had been silent for who knows how long and the FM translator was continuing to operate. Normally if a station goes off for any length of time they need to file a silent STA with the FCC, citing the reason why the station’s off. And any translator that loses the “parent signal” has to shut down for the duration of the outage. Neither happened in this case.

    Whether this was a case of someone taking advantage of an unmonitored, dormant transmitter site or something more nefarious is up for debate, but it’s curious that they’re hosting a GoFundme for money and yet also refusing any help from other broadcasters in the area who are willing to get the AM back on through a temporary facility. If the AM’s on, the FM can come back on, so you’d think they’d jump at that, but instead they’d rather have cold hard cash. Curious.

  11. mangosman

    There are a few things that worry me about this story.
    1. Where are the audience complaints?
    2. Off air program fail alarm, was there one and when did it go off?
    3. If the feeder from the transmitter output to the tower, which is the antenna is cut, all of the transmitter power is reflected back into the transmitter. This will make it very hot and cause component failures. The standing wave ratio is usually monitored electronically and if excessive the transmitter will switch off automatically. This usually trips an alarm which should be observed in the studio.

    1. Tom Servo

      The audience is only listening to FM, apparently. And the AM has been off for weeks/months/years so there was nothing to monitor in the first place.


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