WPKN fires up new radio transmitter

December 12, 2017 GMT

BRIDGEPORT — If you had your clock radio set to WPKN Tuesday morning, there’s a good chance you overslept. The alternative, free-form FM radio station was off the air so it’s creaky, exhausted old transmitter could be replaced with a new one.

Since February, the station at 89.9 FM had been begging its listeners and anyone else with money to spare for $75,000 to pay for the new transmitter and a few other odds and ends — such as a new control board.

“We didn’t get enough for the control board, but we did get the money we needed for the transmitter — about $65,000,” said WPKN General Manager Stephen J. di Costanzo. “And even though it’s all solid state, it’ll have a nice warm sound like the old one.”

The station’s old transmitter dates back to the mid-1980s, and it needed periodic replacement of its transmitter tubes — surprisingly small vacuum tubes about the size of a small jar of jam.

The problem for the station was that these tubes are no longer manufactured, forcing di Costanzo to scrounge far and wide for whatever ones he could find. Like most rare antiques, they were expensive, costing $1,200 apiece. And there there was no telling how long they would last — it wasn’t unknown for one to fail the moment it was powered up.

Changing technology

In the last decade or so, transmitter technology advanced to the point where they could be entirely solid state, without needing vacuum tubes — something that was considered to be a pipe dream 50 years ago, because of the high currents involved.

The station depends heavily on donations from listeners, although there is some help from small companies that underwrite certain shows. WPKN is not a member of National Public Radio.

WPKN went on the air in 1963 but the 450-foot transmitting tower that sprouts from back of its transmitter shack was erected a decade earlier for a little-known, now-defunct television station — WICC-TV.

WPKN’s transmitter shack and broadcasting tower are shared by Star 99.9 (WEZN); WSHU, 91.1 FM; and CPTV’s Channel 49 (WEDW).

The station has one of the largest collection of vinyl LPs and CDs anywhere. There are more than 55,000 vinyl LPs on its shelves in its studios on the campus of the University of Bridgeport, about the same number of compact discs and untold thousands of 45s.

WPKN went on the air for the first time in 1963, with a tiny 100-watt transmitter on a frequency of 88.1 megahertz, now the frequency of WMNR in Monroe. Now at 89.5 on the dial with 10,000 watts of power, the community-supported station reaches listeners from Greenwich to New Haven and Danbury to Long Island.

As for the new WPKN transmitter, the station went back on the air at about 3:15 p.m. Tuesday.

“People are telling us already that we’re sounding better than ever,” di Costanzo said late Tuesday afternoon.