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Translators on Mt. Pleasant, Utah

Translators on Mt. Pleasant, Utah. (Photo: Kent Parsons.)

Rural translators threatened with loss of their frequencies

Originally published in Current, Jan. 25, 1999
By Steve Behrens

Translators — the lonely relay-runners of broadcasting — are a rural institution under siege. While pubcasters use hundreds of them to reach remote pockets of their audience, they are being bumped off, one by one, by competitors for the frequencies that they use.

In both radio and TV — particularly radio — they're sitting ducks, vulnerable to being shoved aside by any applicants for full-service stations on the same frequencies. And religious broadcasters are filing apps by the hundreds.

In TV, many translators will soon be knocked off the air as sheriffs, fire companies and DTV stations start using the UHF channels the FCC has given to them.

As signal-extension advocate Wayne Bundy says, translators are the endangered spotted owl of the broadcast menagerie.

Unstaffed, repeating transmitters are a major tool for pubcasters to reach rural areas. On the plains and in the South, high-power repeaters typically send out a single service for a whole state, beaming it from tall towers up to 2,000 feet high.

The little translators - low-power transmitters of 1 watt, 10 watts or 100 watts, which traditionally have no rights to FCC interference protection - take over in hillier areas. Many stand atop ridgelines, where they pick up a distant TV or radio signal, "translate" it to another channel and send it out again, down the other side of the mountain. Some are so remote that they must get their electricity from solar panels.

"Daisy chains" of translators pass the signal hundreds of miles across a state, though broadcasters sometimes use point-to-point microwave links to reach deeper into the outback.

Signals from some stations like Denver's KRMA-TV are repeated by dozens of translators built by and licensed to counties, other governmental units or even service clubs. Other translators may be installed with the help of local donations but are licensed to the station, as in the case of Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore. (You can tell translators from regular stations by their call letters - instead of three or four letters, they have five characters, including numbers, such as KO7JZ.)

Local viewers sometimes lend a hand to maintain their translators. The translator site pictured above, at Mt. Pleasant in Utah, shows evidence of citizen input. Local people erected the big chicken-wire fence at right to screen out interfering channels, says Kent Parsons, who has been maintaining translators for Salt Lake's KUED since 1957. Does Parsons vouch for this use of chicken wire?

"That's a subjective thing," he replies. "I was never successful with that type of thing."

The ideal: universal service

The big concentrations of population already are served by public radio and TV. Now the increments of signal extension are smaller and smaller. This month KGOU in the Oklahoma City area, asked PTFP to cover the typical 75 percent of the cost for a new repeater station in the western part of the state, which will cover seven counties and 51,000 people, says General Manager Karen Holp. In some mountainous areas, a new translator adds mere hundreds to a station's coverage area.

Though stations typically aim to serve only their metro areas at first, many adopt the ideal of universal service - often because rural leaders beg them to bring PBS or NPR to their towns.

For some stations, repeaters bring enormous growth. Northwest Public Radio now reaches 1.5 million people across Washington state, compared to about 200,000 in its hometown of Pullman.

Jefferson Public Radio's repeater system serving southern Oregon and northern California - 36 translators and 11 full-power stations - has doubled the population it can reach by expanding outside of Ashland.

KUED in Salt Lake City gets about 29 percent of its TV and radio audience from a vast statewide web of repeaters outside the four metro counties, says General Manager Fred Esplin.

But for KNPR in Las Vegas, building two repeater stations and 10 translators add less than 10 percent to its covered population, and keeping up the scattered hardware takes as much staff time as the main station, says General Manager Lamar Marchese.

When critters chew through the wires at KNPR's Tonopah translator, engineer Warren Brown must drive four hours and climb a mountain to make repairs.

And if one translator goes out, so do any other translators that are farther out the daisy chain. To isolate the problem, KNPR phones around. The designated listener in one remote Nevada town is a brothel, says Marchese. "We know they're always open for business."

"The pieces no one wants"

Washington State University's Northwest Public Radio has grown statewide from its start in Pullman. The network put its 12th station on the air this month at Omak, near the Canadian border, and now reaches from Idaho on the east to Port Angeles on the west, almost to the Pacific.

"I'm out trying to serve the pieces no one else wants," says Dennis Haarsager, g.m. of the network. Where an area already has public radio, Northwest can bring in a different format; it operates both a news/information network and a larger classical/jazz/news network.

Temple University's WRTI had a similar reason for creating an equally large repeater network in the East: to bring jazz to jazzless parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Starting in 1987, then-General Manager Ted Eldredge (now at WLRN-FM in Miami) expanded from one transmitter in Philadelphia to 12 in three states.

In 1989, Eldredge and other managers got a blueprint for further expansion - an inch-thick study of national pubcasting coverage, compiled by the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program. When WRTI asked for PTFP aid in building the next repeaters, Eldredge could cite specific gaps in service east of Philly.

Wayne BundyThe godfather of many of the western repeaters, and their parent stations, is Wayne Bundy, executive director of Rocky Mountain Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Albuquerque.

Bundy, a familiar crusty figure in pubcasting, with his pipe and bolo tie, received CPB's Edward R. Murrow Award in 1991 for his long signal expansion work. "He's been the architect for public radio in the mountain West," says John Stark, g.m. of KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz. Bundy guided KNAU's three new repeaters through the FCC and PTFP paper mills.

When pubcasting was first expanding into the West, Bundy found that translators and the topographic realities that require them weren't understood in Washington, D.C., where the FCC routinely calculated coverage areas as if the whole country was flat.

Now Bundy and his teammates face new tribulations that threaten translators for both public radio and public TV.

Stalemate with religiocasters

FM noncommercial spectrum is an especially vulnerable place to operate a translator because that's the only place in the FM band where the FCC will let an operator feed translators via satellite - an economic cornerstone of several vast religious networks, says Haarsager of Northwest Public Radio.

Competition with religious radio has probably stymied Jefferson Public Radio's translator plans a dozen times, says Ron Kramer. The conflict is so severe that he says Jefferson may challenge the legal right of religious groups to use reserved noncommercial educational FM channels.

In the last two years, religious broadcasters have bumped off two Jefferson Public Radio translators, and they're threatening three more, says Chief Engineer Darin Ransom. When the pubcaster filed for another frequency in Grant's Pass, they filed a competing app. The translators step aside under FCC rules.

Many pubcasters try to switch their translators to full-service stations that can't be bumped by new applicants, but those moves also can result in stalemate: the FCC now has no method of choosing among competing noncommercial applicants. The result is gridlock.

The FCC has proposed lotteries to end those stalemates (Current, Oct. 26), but pubcasters prefer a point system. "If the FCC can't find a rational basis for deciding on any other basis than chance, then our federal regulatory system is bankrupt," says Kramer. NPR and APTS will file comments on the commission's rulemaking Jan. 28.

Stations that escape competing applications tend to be located where there are still some unclaimed radio frequencies. In northern Arizona, Flagstaff's KNAU-FM has been able to start up three full-service, 100-watt repeating stations in Prescott, Page and Show Low without a fight for the channels, says KNAU's John Stark. The Prescott outlet replaces a translator that was about to be displaced by a new religious station.

And it's worth keeping a good signal in Prescott. The town adds some 40,000 potential listeners to the 135,000 in KNAU's own coverage area.

The squeeze on TV channels

The disenfranchisement of TV translators amounts to a series of "almost cruel, unyielding" decisions by the FCC, says Byron St. Clair, president of the National Translator Association in Westminster, Colo.

Years ago, the commission took away Channels 70-83 to make room for cellular phones, says Fern Bibeau, a consulting engineer in Albuquerque. Many translators were moved below 70. "Guess what?," says Bibeau. "Now they took away 60 to 69."

The FCC has reallocated 63, 64, 68 and 69 to police and other public-safety users of two-way radios, and decided that 65-67 will be auctioned off eventually. The only good news, says St. Clair, is that translators can keep operating on those channels through the end of the DTV transition, or until the cops call "interference," whichever comes first.

Licensees of a quarter of the 1,200 translators in that band have submitted applications to get new channels, says Hossein Hashemzadeh, an FCC engineer.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other translators may be bumped off the air with the sign-on of DTV channels, which have precedence. And it gets worse: under long-range FCC plans, translators and other TV transmitters will have to leave Channels 50-59 after the DTV transition, so those channels can be auctioned off.

One result: more rural viewers will go to DirecTV and other satellite services.

In Utah, where there are 600 translators and the University of Utah maintains many of them for KUED-TV, 135 of them will be displaced, says Kent Parsons, the university's head field engineer. But Parsons has a plan to reshuffle the frequencies of many of them and keep them all on the air.

What he and other translator operators cannot do is provide a gentle DTV transition for rural viewers. There are no transition channels available for DTV, so the best they'll get is a sudden switchover from analog to digital.

"I think rural people are going to be on [analog] for a long time," Parsons predicts.

Web page posted Feb. 11, 1999
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.

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