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Radio Free AAVSO

There is a large radio tower a few hundred feet southeast from the current AAVSO HQ. It is the transmitter for a local AM oldies radio station. Interestingly, it is in the middle of/on top of a self-storage facility. It is literally across the street from the previous AAVSO HQ on Birch St. The radio tower has been the source of both entertainment and frustration for staff over the years - sometimes both at the same time.

In the 1990's, the radio signal could be heard in the background of the AAVSO telephone system. We can't explain why, but it was there and everyone could hear it. It was inconsistent. Sometimes a member of staff would walk over and tape a note to the station's door asking them to "turn down the signal". Within days the inteference would go away, but eventually would return.

In the late 90's Janet Mattei was having trouble with the analog modem on her computer. She brought her PC into HQ for me to look at. I spent almost a day pulling my hair out because I could not get the modem to recognize a dial tone, yet everything seemed fine. Finally, taking apart the machine, I heard something in the background. I tracked it down and I could physically hear the radio station emitting from the modem! Finally with a clue, I took the machine down into our basement assuming the soil would provide some attenuation of the signal. Sure enough, it went away and the modem worked as it should and I was able to fix the problem. But that got me thinking. Our fax machine was new, yet the quality of faxes were horrible and an ongoing irritant. Knowing faxes use analog modems, I moved the machine to the basement and the quality increased immediately. Apparently the radio signal was playing havoc all along.

We haven't had any trouble with transmitter interference since moving to the new HQ. However, recently Massachusetts was in the path of a category 1-2 hurricane and there was a threat to the Boston area. We received a note on our door (right) warning us of the fall radius of the tower. Happily, it doesn't extend over our actual building - but the parking lot is in the fall zone. The point was moot anyway as the forecast was a major bust and we didn't even get much rain out of it.

The tower has some good moments too. On windy days I enjoy trying to watch it sway at the top. Also, in the spring hawks like to perch at the top. We think they are probably looking for prey over at Fresh Pond, which is maybe a block or two away, because they are always facing that direction. Also, once Dennis DiCicco of Sky & Telescope climbed the tower to take a picture showing the proximity of the AAVSO and the former Sky & Telescope buildings (which, of course, is now our  home).

The tower was almost removed a few years ago when condos were proposed for the site. Nothing happened and it's still there, transmitting away. But now it doesn't bother us and just acts as a nice landmark to use when giving directions.

*Elizabeth Waagen and Mike Saladyga contributed to this article.

AAVSO 49 Bay State Rd. Cambridge, MA 02138 617-354-0484