The Story of the Alford Antenna on the Empire State Building

Alford Antenna Installation by technician Kevin on the Empire State Building


In 1965, my stepdad, Neil Smith, was a project manager overseeing the installation of an array of 32 antennas, 16 above and 16 below ringing the 102nd Floor Observatory of the Empire State Building.  All 16 New York City FM stations operated out of this antenna array, known as The Alford Antenna (named after the design engineer), and making it the largest combined FM station system in the world. Neil said it was an amazing sight to see these antennas being hoisted and installed (especially given the fact that he was terrified of heights and probably stood inside the glassed observatory while the work was being done on the building’s exterior). He also said that there were lots of fights between the electricians and the construction crew, both of which believed that their unions had jurisdiction over the work.

Many years later the NYC FM stations constructed a new multi-user antenna system on the broadcast tower that extends above the 104th Floor of the building, but they continued to use the Alford Antenna as a backup system whenever the main antenna needed to be shut down for repair or maintenance.

In 1981, I joined the broadcast engineering firm that my mom and Neil started in 1971. I made partner in 1995 and the name of the firm was changed to Smith and Fisher.  During my time with the firm, I have come to love the Empire State Building. I have read countless books on the construction of the building and know lots of nerdy facts about the most iconic building in the world. I also have made countless trips to the Building and have been involved in the coolest projects. The Alford Antenna system is a part of my history.

In 2015, the Empire State Building honored the 50th anniversary of the Alford Antenna with a spectacular light show. Many of the NYC FM stations that utilized this antenna synced the playing of Steely Dan’s song “FM” to the light show, so that everyone in NYC could enjoy the show. One of the honorees that night was supposed to be my stepdad Neil. Sadly, he passed away days before the ceremony. I went with my wife and Neil’s eldest son Neil Smith, Jr.  and we were all touched by the ceremony.

A few months ago, the Director of Broadcasting for the Empire State Building called me and said that they had recently de-commissioned the Alford Antenna array and had removed all of the antennas from around the 102nd Floor Observatory. They were going to get rid of them and he asked if I wanted one. I said, “Not only yes, but hell yes!” He replied that I had to come up THAT DAY and get it, otherwise it would be gone. I jumped in my SUV and drove the 4-1/2 hours to Manhattan, pulled into the building’s freight entrance, helped them load one of the antennas into the back of my car and drove back home.

Last week, I had the antenna mounted to a stone in the side yard of our house (which, coincidentally was my mom’s and Neil’s house before they passed). It’s a tribute to my stepdad and to the Empire State Building.

Attached are some pictures of the Alford Antenna on the Empire State Building and on my lawn. And, for those that are interested, a link to the ESB light show the night they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the antenna. I am so lucky to be associated with that wonderful building. Thanks, Neil!

Love, Kevin

ESB Light Show

Alford tower antenna
Empire state building RF antenna
RF Antenna