Look eastward away from the Schuylkill expressway and you can’t miss them:
Eight towers stand high above Philly, some of them taller than even the Comcast Tower in Center City. They need to be tall. These towers feature the antennas of almost every FM radio and TV station in Philadelphia. Three smaller towers just to the southwest are for AM radio, and a couple more are even farther southwest, perhaps a mile down the road.
In other cities, like New York, the antennas for radio and TV stations are attached to the tallest structures, like the Empire State Building. But not in Philly. They’re in Roxborough and they have been for decades.
The tallest one, the American Tower, stands about 1,250 feet tall. NBC10 is featured at its highest point, with Channel 48 and a few other primarily New Jersey stations featured lower. The tower also has radio stations like 94.1 WIP and 98.1 WOGL. Other towers range from about half to more than three-fourths its size.
Though Roxborough has one of Philadelphia’s highest elevations (about 320 feet), it’s not the highest. Chestnut Hill, for instance, is higher. Mark Humphrey, a broadcast engineer with his own company XY Mark and unofficial historian of the antenna farm, said the main reasons for the antenna farm’s presence in Roxborough have to do with its location as well as its relatively sparse population.
First, the location. Philly TV and radio stations want to broadcast out into Chester, Bucks and Montgomery counties, as well as South Jersey and Delaware. If you make a circle around that viewing/listening area, Roxborough — not downtown Philly — is almost directly in the center.
Back in the 60s and 70s when these towers were starting to be developed, the land was also available. Roxborough wasn’t as populous as it is today, and nobody put up a fight against having massive steel structures overlook their living area as many would probably today.
“They got them in before people complained,” Humphrey said.
Walter Annenberg, the former owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and TV Guide magazine, had the first tower built for 6ABC in the 1950s. IHeartRadio now broadcasts from that tower. Bill Gross had the Gross Tower built in 1979. Until the American Tower, it was the tallest in Philadelphia. The Gross Tower now features stations like 88.5 WXPN.
The tallest one, the American Tower, was built in the late 90s. It didn’t come without some controversy, though not from Roxborough residents.
Three smaller AM towers lie just north of the antenna farm. And Humphrey said a station leasing them got into a legal dispute with the American Tower Corporation about whether its size would disrupt its signal. So American Tower Corporation bought the land on which the AM towers stand. It threatened to evict the station if it didn’t drop the complaints.
For most of us, the towers are an interesting image to pass while driving by on the highway. For people who know how radio and TV work, the Roxborough antenna farm is a wonder. It’s one of a handful of sites around the country, including the Empire State Building in New York, Mount Soledad in San Diego and Mount Wilson in Los Angeles, where so many tall antennae are packed in together.
“This all worked out pretty well,” Humphrey said.