It was 1973 when an ad-hoc group of ABC engineers in New York decided to form an employee ham radio club they called the Broadcast Engineers Amateur Radio Society.
The BEARS’ first repeater, a rack-mounted 40-watt Motorola MOTRAC mobile transceiver, was built by the Club’s first trustee, Jack Powers/W2JIA. Assisted by Larry Mussman, Bill Blumel/W2QKY, Harold Robbins/K2VKG and Phil Levens/W2EIO, Powers installed the machine in the studio-transmitter link facility of WABC-AM Radio. A military-surplus RF amplifier, known affectionately as The Boat Anchor, boosted the rig’s rated power to several hundred watts. Station management enthusiastically supported the project – donating space, utilities… even an old tape cartridge machine which played repeater IDs voiced by ABC celebrities.
From high atop ABC Headquarters at 1330 Avenue of the Americas, repeater WR2AHX served hams throughout the Company and the tri-state area on 146.01/.61 MHz. That is, until the BEARS found out a Paterson, NJ ham club was also operating on the same frequency pair.
In desperate need of a new channel, the Club once more turned to Powers. An active RTTY operator, he connected the BEARS with an inactive RTTY repeater in Hempstead, LI, and using a commercial-grade selective calling unit known as a “selcal,” Powers devised a way for both RTTY and voice operations to share the same repeater pair.
As RTTY was a precursor to packet, the selcal was the precursor to the tone-activated PL logic systems used in our repeater today. A series of RTTY signals from the Hempstead machine would tell our voice repeater to shut down when teletype traffic had to be passed.
Before long, the trustee of the RTTY machine left the country – leaving the 147.27/.87 frequencies all to the BEARS. We’ve made our radio home on this pair ever since.
Our first controller? A three- or four-function contraption, activated by three-digit codes processed through a touch-tone decoder. The relay was designed and built by Larry Mussman – and for all its complex circuitry, it fit inside a seven-inch cardboard audiotape box.
A donated Phelps-Dodge six-cavity duplexer allowed the BEARS to replace separate transmit and receive antennas with a single array.
The times they were a-changin’ – and the BEARS were changing right along with them. By 1975, hams from all over the Company had joined the Club, and the BEARS changed their name to reflect their more diverse membership. The Club formally incorporated as the Broadcast Employees Amateur Radio Society, a not-for-profit organization. The FCC did away with “WR” club calls; Jack Powers handed the trustee reigns over to Bill Nicosia. And Bill lent the BEARS repeater his callsign, WB2ZKX, the call it used until the FCC instituted vanity club callsigns in 1995 (and a hearty group of BEARS pioneers drove all the way across Pennsylvania to make sure were were first in line at the FCC’s dropbox to register W2ABC).
Riding high, the BEARS soon found it could be lonely – er, noisy – at the top. Plagued by interference from the New York Telephone Ham Club repeater (on 147.07/.67 MHz), and from a high-power contest coordination machine run by the Frankford Radio Club in Abingdon, PA, the BEARS once again were looking for a quiet place to hibernate.
It was Harold Robbins to the rescue. With a twist of a well-placed arm (attached to a dean at Bronx Community College), the BEARS acquired a satellite VHF receive site linked by a line-of-sight UHF relay to the main site at 1330.
New sophistication eventually required a new controller, and the BEARS procured a nifty Spectrum in the late ‘70s. As for the machine, well, it, too, was moving up in the world – literally. We lost the Bronx receive site, but friendly ABC managers let WB2ZKX/RPT room with her big sisters at the WABC-TV (later the WPLJ-FM) transmitter facility atop the Empire State Building.
Talk about connections. Motorola’s ABC rep just happened to be a member of the BEARS, and arranged for the Club to obtain – at cost – a previously-owned 90-watt MICOR remote base transceiver, complete with parts. Under the direction of the BEARS’ technical wizard, Jerry Cudmore/K2JRC, the commercial rig was converted to ham radio operation. An ACC RC-85 controller was installed to run the whole shebang, and relatively recently, with the help of WQHT-FM’s then-chief engineer, Jim McGivern, BEARS installed an low-power antenna outside a south-facing window of the Empire transmitter plant to enhance our repeater coverage south of the Empire State Building, while still protecting the signal contours of our fellow hams in Abingdon.
After the destruction of the World Trade Center, virtually all of the commercial broadcasters in New York City returned to the Empire State Building. The enormous increase in high-power RF rendered the site all but useless for amateur radio.
BEARS relocated the newly-rechristened W2ABC to the roof of the 553-foot Millennium Tower, across from the ABC campus just north of Lincoln Center. Our new, state-of-the-art repeater and controller drives a four-bay exposed dipole that will add 6dB gain to our signal, and boosting our effective radiated power to about 240 watts.
Today, the BEARS repeater system — and that of our sister club, DEARS at Walt Disney World in Orlando — are the flagship repeaters of DARI, the Disney Amateur Radio Interconnect. The IP-based network connects some two-dozen repeaters full time across greater NY/NJ/LI/CT; greater Boston, greater Washington, DC; greater Orlando; and soon, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
In the year or so ahead, the Club is planning exciting new expansion that will bring new digital technology to our repeater system, expand our already-impressive coverage area, and provide even more critical and reliable communications service to emergency response organizations throughout the tri-state area.
Emergency service is a proud tradition at BEARS. On September 11th, 2001 – and for many days thereafter – the BEARS repeater served as the primary tactical communications channel for SATERN, the Salvation Army Tactical Emergency Radio Network, which helped coordinate relief activities in New York following the attack on the World Trade Center. Our Club was subsequently honored by the Salvation Army for its dedication to public service.
Beyond providing reliable, wide-area 2-meter, 220 and 440 MHz repeater service to our members (refer to this link for details on our repeaters), BEARS, from its inception, has been committed to serving the public interest, convenience and necessity, in keeping with the federal mandate issued to all amateur radio licensees.
The Club administers ham radio training and licensing programs, in cooperation with the American Radio Relay League. The W2ABC repeater system is the primary tactical repeater system for the New York City Amateur Radio Service (ARES), assists other disaster response organizations, including the American Red Cross, SATERN and NYC Emergency Management. Our facilities have been used to help coordinate communications for the New York City Marathon, and are placed at the disposal of the National Weather Service’s SKYWARN program in New York City.
Our repeaters host the weekly NYC ARES net Monday nights at 8pm ET; the monthly Tuesday night DEARS net sponsored by our DARI partners at Walt Disney World at 7pm ET; and the American Red Cross in Greater NY net on the third Wednesday of each month at 7pm ET;
BEARS is a constitution-driven, dues-supported organization administered by an executive board elected annually, and comprising the Club president, vice-president, treasurer and secretary. The executive board is advised, and Club operations are overseen, by a board of directors which includes the Club’s repeater trustee, its immediate past-president and three members elected at large each year by the Club’s rank-and-file membership.