Forgotten Greenpoint: WNYC Transmitter on the East River
Who listens to radio these days? I enjoy some WNYC action from time to time (when they are not doing a pledge-drive, of course), and my neighbor across the airshaft seems to enjoy sports radio at elevated volume levels around 7 a.m., so there are at least two of us. But after some research I discovered that, much to my surprise, my neighbor and I are not the only radio listening New Yorkers. There are millions of us!
I also learned that WNYC, my favorite radio station (see above), transmitted from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for over 50 years, sited in what is now the aptly named WNYC Transmitter Park. The park—located where Greenpoint Avenue hits the East River—was opened in 2012 after a two-year, $12 million redevelopment project. The final product is lovely, with natural wetland landscaping, a pedestrian bridge and pier, killer views of Manhattan, and a nautically-themed children’s play area that reflects the site’s waterfront context.
And happily, the redevelopment plans preserved a small, non-descript 1930s building, the one remaining physical clue that the site broadcasted the “voice of New York City” across the five boroughs and beyond. Read on to discover how Greenpoint and the history of radio are intertwined.
WNYC was founded in 1924 and the first broadcasts were sent out to listeners through a transmitter located on the 25th floor of the Municipal Building in downtown Manhattan. Unfortunately those new-fangled skyscrapers shooting up in the 1920s and ‘30s began to create interference for the transmission signal, causing “dead spots” in broadcasts. These dead spots were so notorious at the time that by 1934 WNYC was described as “practically a useless shamble.” In order to improve reception around the city, the radio station went in search of a site to construct a new transmitter, discovering an ideal spot in a dilapidated Greenpoint ferry slip.
As Greenpoint was becoming a bustling neighborhood in the 1850s, ferry service from Greenpoint Avenue began to shuttle passengers across the East River to 10th, 14th, and 23rd Streets. (Step it up, East River Ferry!). With the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, and subsequent bridges and tunnels crossing the East River, ferry use began to decline. By the 1930s the unused Greenpoint ferry slip was ideal for WNYC’s purposes as it was located on the East River and surrounded by low-scale buildings that would not create transmission interference. Although little remains of the site’s previous use, for those in search of “ancient” New York history, the pedestrian bridge in the current park crosses over an excavated ferry slip.
With underwriting from the federal Works Progress Administration, ground was broken in November 1935, and in less than two years the station had a new transmitter. The building, with simple Art Deco detailing, featured two four-legged galvanized steel structures that rose 304 feet in the air (Greenpoint’s very own Eiffel Towers!), large illuminated WNYC call letters, and a north symbol on the roof so that planes flying overhead could get their bearings. The image to the left, painted by architect Allan Gordon Lorimer—and now hanging in the WNYC green room where guests wait before going on air—shows an aerial view of the transmitter site with five airplanes, each flying to a different New York City airport: Mitchel Air Force Base (decommissioned in 1961), Roosevelt Field (the takeoff point for Lindbergh’s 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight, closed in 1951 and now the site of a mall), North Beach Airport (now La Guardia Airport), Miller Field, and Floyd Bennet Field (both now part of the Gateway National Recreational Area).
In his opening ceremony speech, Mayor La Guardia anointed WNYC “New York’s own station” and described the new equipment as “right up to the last minute,” with spherical microphones, speech amplifiers, frequency monitors, and a micro-ray system that was the only one in use outside of the Vatican. The transmitter in Greenpoint was used until 1990, when the station began broadcasting from the Meadowlands in New Jersey. The two towers were torn down several years later but the small one story building remains. Although the building has been altered and is somewhat unimpressive without its transmitting towers, there is still a stone plaque that reads “Transmitter House of Radio Station WNYC, Constructed 1936.” And according to Andy Lanset, director of the archives of New York Public Radio, there are plans to incorporate the site’s history into the building when it reopens.
WNYC Transmitter Park’s deep connection to the history of radio and Greenpoint endures. It is remarkable to think of all the transmissions that originated from a site in our very own neighborhood, including the first radio announcement of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. WNYC Radio is now the most listened-to public radio station in the United States, with more than 11.5 million people accessing their programming each month. It has become one of the most significant voices of New York, and broadcasting from Greenpoint enabled WNYC to become a part of the fabric of our neighborhood and our city.
To learn more about the history of radio in New York City, and for a guided trip to the historic radio site at Transmitter Park, join WORD Bookstore and Preservation Greenpoint for a special event on June 9th. Historian Alec Cumming will discuss Brooklyn’s contribution to the city’s radio history, from the many Yiddish stations of the ’30s and ’40s to Radio Soleil’s work in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, followed by a guided walk over to WNYC Transmitter Park. RSVP on Facebook (encouraged but not required).
To learn more about the WNYC Transmitter site in Greenpoint and the artwork shown above, check out the following articles and blog posts from WNYC: WNYC’s New AM Transmitter, 1937; A Look Back: WNYC Transmitter Park in Photos; WNYC Transmitter Park; and Artist and Architect A. G. Lorimer Captures WNYC’s Old Transmitter Site from Two Perspectives.