The WSM Radio Tower on Concord Road has been an icon of Brentwood for decades, but after an April lightning strike left the tower dark, many residents asked what happened to the lights on the tower.
And like many things in life, the answer is more complicated than just the flip of a switch.
The powerful lightning strike literally blew up the equipment housed in a small red brick building at the base of the tower, known as the Tuning House. The force of the strike blew out the three-eigth’s inch thick glass from the windows, destroying an underground water pipe and gasifying some of the metal components in use, meaning that the energy turned the metal from a solid to a gas in an instant.
The red and white diamond shaped tower is one of the oldest operating broadcast towers in the United States and was the tallest when it was built in 1932.
It stands at 808 feet tall after it was reduced in size from 878 feet tall in 1939.
Soon after the tower was federally designated as one of 14 national Clear Channels in 1931, it sent it out a signal across much of the nation and helped spread both news and the music of one of the most popular and impactful radio programs in history — The Grand Ole Opry.
The tower stands in a field on Concord Road between the library and the interstate, surrounded by a chain-linked fence. A large white building with a rotating red light pointed to the sky is fixed to the roof and sits at the front of the property formally known as the WSM Radio Transmission Complex.
This building houses the majority of the equipment with a variety of components from several decades.
Transmission Systems Specialist Watt Hairston described a lightning strike as a one in 100 year event that proved a unique challenge and opportunity to help breath new life into a piece of history.
“This was a very unusual positive lightning strike that just blows your mind. It gives you more respect for and makes you more fearful of what lightning can do,” Hairston said. “It just damaged a lot of pieces down there that we completely had to remove from the circuit.”
In addition to the damaged inflicted on windows and pipes, the one-of-a-kind equipment — think of them as the vital organs to the tower quite literally of a different era — each had to be redesigned, manufactured and installed.
“There’s five firms on the planet that make these things, only two of which were capable of making this particular component assembly,” Broadcast Engineer Jason Cooper said.
Hairston, who has worked at the WSM tower for 15 years of his long career, detailed the massive undertaking to restore the tower, likening the individuality of components and construction of the tower system to the uniqueness of a snowflake.
“There are standard components that you can use but the exact configuration of everyone of them is different because everyone of them has a whole different way that it interacts with it’s self, the size of the tower, the ground system, the soil conductivity, so there’s no place that you go and get one of these systems and it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere,” Hairston said.
The level of detail and expertise needed on the project from Cooper, Hairston and others is evident as they detail the specifics of how each component functions, but it's the passion for the importance of the history of the tower that comes across most when they talk about the project in the still-functioning World War 2 era machine shop that occupies the main building's basement.
“The hard part is getting that radio frequency energy transformed into that impedance which couples it into the atmosphere,” Hairston said. “So it’s a real delicate process, you know. You come up with real finite numbers.”
Hairston said that the last time that equipment was change was around 1998, having previously had equipment replacements done in the 1980's and 1960's.
The cleanup and repairs throughout the Summer and Fall with the new, custom-built equipment were installed around Thanksgiving.
While the total cost of the repairs has not been disclosed, the repairs could not have been done without the jack-of-all-trades expertise and tireless work that has been done by Cooper, Hairston and others.
And while their job was to get the tower back to fully operational order, they in turn restored an icon of Brentwood skyline that glows red in the night and reminds residents who see it from their houses and cars that they are home.