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.
Federal law says one who “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” can face up to 10 years of imprisonment and fines.
While the tower remains MIA, WJLX remains off the air. The radio station asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow it to keep broadcasting its FM station even though its AM station is off the air, but the FCC denied the request on Thursday, the station said, since the FCC doesn’t allow FM translators to run without the AM station also being on air. The FM station is now only available online.
In the meantime, some are concerned about how possible emergency communications could be disrupted by the tower disappearing.
“What if there were a crisis going on right now that that community needs to hear information from local sources [about] on a local radio station, and they can’t?” Sharon Tinsley, president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association, told ABC 33/40 News.
Tinsley told the news station that she has reached out to people to identify media outlets that might be willing to help WJLX get new equipment. There’s also a GoFundMe for the radio station.
It remains to be discovered how a radio tower heist was pulled off without causing a stir or leaving an obvious trail. As one could imagine, there aren’t a lot of past, similar incidences to try to draw clues from.
One recent case of a radio tower suddenly vanishing occurred in Nigeria last year. Nigerian newspaper publisher The Media Trust Group reported that it was supposed to get a decommissioned radio tower for its new radio station in Abuja from a Niger State village. Media Trust said it never received the tower delivery and was told by the company it contracted to decommission, transport, and set up the tower that it was “snatched away” by people they thought were from the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC). It was eventually revealed that two NSCDC officials “were approached by a scrap metal dealer to provide him security cover to transport the items,” per Media Trust-owned Daily Trust. The newspaper publisher was still trying to get its money back for the tower as of January.
If WJLX’s case is anything like the Nigerian heist, someone likely knows more than they’re letting on, and the financial burden to the media outlet could be hard to resolve quickly.
“Surely, someone saw something or heard something,” Elmore told The Guardian.