Even after decades of working in radio, the call Brett Elmore received last week was more shocking than any he had fielded on the air.
His landscaper had noticed a problem at one of his station’s properties – a 200-foot-tall one, to be exact.
“The tower is gone,” he recalled the landscaper saying.
Elmore, the general manager of WJLX in Jasper, Alabama, was certain he had misheard. The structure in question was a steel radio tower the station had used to broadcast programs for decades.
“It’s not like it sprouted legs,” he told the Washington Post. “I said, ‘Are you sure you’re at the right spot?’ ”
The landscaper was – and Elmore had heard correctly. On Feb. 2, only an empty concrete slab and cut wire remained where the tower once stood. Since then, the radio station has been off the air.
Elmore reported the tower’s disappearance to police that day, detailing what the landscaper had seen and showing investigators photos of the site.
“They were as bumfuzzled as I was,” he said. “I’m still in shock.”
The Jasper Police Department, which is investigating the matter, said the exact time and date of the theft were unclear.
WJLX, branded the “Sound of Walker County,” has served thousands of listeners in Alabama since the mid-1950s, Elmore said. The AM station plays a daily 8 a.m. church program, midday talk shows from local broadcasters and live high school sports coverage.
That was until last Friday, when the landscaper arrived at a WJLX property for cleanup work, only to find the tower that had once jutted far above the greenery surrounding the site was nowhere to be found.
The padlock was also missing from the small equipment building near the tower, and the door was left open, Elmore said. Walking inside, the landscaper also found that the station’s AM transmitter, which sends the signal through the tower, was gone.
“They had wiped out everything,” he said.
The station could still broadcast from its FM frequency, which had equipment at a different property in Jasper. WJLX’s 101.5 FM is a classic-hits station.
But the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees communications including radio, denied Elmore’s request to do so, citing a rule prohibiting FM translators from operating when the AM primary station is off air.
After receiving that FCC notification, Elmore filed a request with the agency for WJLX to remain silent. The FCC requires radio stations to get permission to remain silent for a certain period of time, and it only grants requests if the reasoning cited is “beyond the control of the licensee.” If stations remain silent for more than one year, they are considered expired.
In the week since the tower and transmitter disappeared, WJLX listeners have missed out on the regular programming. Elmore and his colleagues have resorted to streaming programs online.
Elmore told listeners the tower was gone in a Facebook post last week.
“I have heard of thieves in this area stealing anything,” he wrote. “But this one takes the cake.”
Sharon Tinsley, the president of the Alabama Broadcasters Association, said the station outage creates a public safety issue.
“What if there were a crisis going on right now that the community needs to hear information from local sources on a local radio station and they can’t,” she said, according to ABC 33 40 News.
As of Thursday night, Elmore was awaiting updates from authorities about what might have happened to the tower. But he suspects it won’t be recovered in one piece.
“If the tower is found, it’s probably in a million pieces,” Elmore said. “If I had to imagine, it’s probably been cut up. That’s probably the only way they can transport it.”
For now, Elmore has turned his attention to reaching his listeners again.
“I’ve got to get back on the air yesterday,” Elmore said.