Of all things, please don’t let it be the tube

Posted on Current.org Jan. 21, 2008
By Steve Behrens

When you've been nursing specimens of broadcast equipment that are older than several key staff members, you don't want the electronics to sputter out and demand replacement just 14 months before the country abandons analog TV.

And especially you don't want it to happen on a Sunday, two days before Christmas.

But that's when the analog transmitter had the bad manners to stop working at WCTE, the little public TV station in Cookeville, Tenn., according to Becky Magura, the g.m.

"I was praying it wasn't the tube," says Magura. The klystron tube inside the old Townsend transmitter was nearly six feet tall, as well as expensive and scarce.

But the tube was the problem.

The consulting engineer had just flown home to Vermont. All the broadcasters who might have one of these very scarce tubes were not answering their phones. And there was reason to fear nobody would have one anyway. They would be officially obsolete on Feb. 18, 2009.

Magura's hopes rose when a colleague from North Carolina called to say he might have the thing. Even though it turned out he didn't have one, it was heartwarming to get the call, Magura said.

Magura was surprised that so many viewers were receiving WCTE over the air, when she thought more were getting the signal through cable or satellite.

And she was alarmed that so many callers had the impression that free TV was going away. The station's website had answers to many of their questions about DTV, but these callers didn't use websites or have computers.

"It was a great opportunity to do consumer education," she recalls. First priority, however, was finding the big tube.

The first option to arise was a brand new tube, which cost $47,000 and would be used for little more than a year.

The next choice was a rebuilt tube for $27,000, but it wouldn't be ready for a week.

Finally, the manufacturer, E2V Technologies, offered to lease a tube to WCTE for about $2,000 a month. Magura sent a check by overnight express.

The station's visiting engineer, Wayne Rosberg, former engineering director at Vermont Public Television, flew in for an all-day installation marathon on New Year's Day.

Part of the process, judging from Rosberg's photos, resembles the lowering of nuclear fuel rods into a reactor, only it's a 430-pound tube, suspended by a chain from a hoist, that has to be lowered into an assembly that looks like R2D2 on a mail cart.

The tube was putting out a strong signal by Jan. 2.

Web page posted Jan. 21, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current Publishing Committee

E2V klystron tube about to be installed at WCTE

A person might want to gaze all day at a 5-foot-5 klystron tube hanging from a hoist, like this new one about to be installed at WCTE. (Photo: Wayne Rosberg.)


WCTE is an independent nonprofit station but is based at Tennessee Technological University

The staff spotlight column is on engineer Wayne Rosberg.

Wikipedia on klystron tubes.

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