On this Halloween, we present a collection of true tales from across the U.S. that are guaranteed to make any TV station engineer gasp in fright — and perhaps in recognition of a similar situation. Read on ... if you dare.
Boo! Seven Really Scary Station Tech Stories
There’s plenty that can go wrong at a TV station. So in the spirit of Halloween, I set out to find the “scariest” moments at stations across the country.
It wasn’t easy. I sent out hundreds of emails, tweeted out pleads to my followers, then hit the phones. Some engineers and station managers in the smaller DMAs — 170s on up — didn’t know what TVNewsCheck even was, and were confused about why I asked for their scariest moment. Others were excited to contribute.
Some of these stories are pretty spooky, but you might have some better ones to share in the comments section below or send to me via email. We may make this an annual feature.
Watch Out For Power Lines In A Microwave Truck
While working as the chief engineer at KSBW Salinas, Calif., Jim Grimes was sitting at home on a Friday night when the news director called him with five words he didn’t want to hear: “You’re not gonna believe this.”
A photographer put the microwave truck’s mast into a telephone line, the news director said. But it turned out to be a bit more serious.
The line that the mast hit was the neutral for the power lines running along the road, Grimes says. The operator had been driving the truck with the mast up through a farm field. When the mast hit the line, it broke into three pieces and was lying on the ground behind the truck. A reporter experienced some discharge from the electrical line, and needed to go the hospital to be checked out.
ENG trucks and power lines are serious business and have a deadly history in the business. Since 1985, 11 news professionals have been killed, five due to electrocution, according to ENGSafety.com. Dozens more have been seriously injured.
Remember, all employees in the truck are part of the news crew and are required to have the proper safety training for its operation.
Bandwidth Crunch Cuts Out National Theater Shooting Story
KUSA Denver News Production Manager Brian Willie was the photographer during the first court appearance of James Holmes, the Aurora Theater Shooter. Being on the story was scary enough, he says. “This was a worldwide event with scary images of a scary image.”
KUSA filed and was granted expanded media coverage by a judge in Arapahoe County, but due to the courtroom being on an upper level of the courthouse, no cabling was allowed inside. So the station used its LiveU bonded cellular transmitter.
For hours leading into the appearance, the signal was strong and the picture was clear. But when Holmes appeared in the courtroom, everyone started using their cell phones and available Wi-Fi, diminishing the bandwidth and eventually wiping out the signal.
About five minutes of the 15-minute-long hearing was lost due the bandwidth crunch. Making matters worse, the shot was being shared live on every major market in the U.S. and several worldwide.
Anchorage’s Big Idol Moment Almost Never Happened
Though its ratings have dwindled over the years, American Idol is still one of TV’s most popular shows, and its finale episodes pull in many millions of viewers. No affiliate wants to lose even a minute of those broadcasts.
Twenty minutes prior to the start of this year’s finale, Fox affiliate KYUR Anchorage went dark. Scott Centers and his engineering team ran through the tech core and found an alarm on the station’s Mosley radio, the piece of equipment that pushes the signal through the station tower link to the tower site. Everything appeared in order at the station, so Centers knew the problem had to be at the transmitter site, located at The Hilton Hotel in Anchorage. The clock was ticking.
It was especially important to get everything working by the time Idol started because one of the top 20 finalists performing for the big show was from — of all places — Anchorage, the city’s first-ever contestant on the signing competition.
The race against time quickly intensified.
“With eight minutes to spare, we arrived and headed to the elevator, got to the top floor, took the stairwell up to the transmitter room only to realize we had no keys,” says Centers. “A quick call to security led to us gaining access and to our amazement found that someone had unplugged the Mosley Radio.”
Fortunately for the station, the problem turned out to be as easy as plugging the radio back in. With two minutes to spare, the channel was back on air, and Anchorage was able to watch Alaska’s hopeful, Adriana Latonio, perform.
WEAU Tower Collapses Due To Icing
It was a call that Gray Television VP Technology Jim Ocon says required sitting down. On March 22, 2011, Ocon received word that the 2,000-foot broadcast tower at WEAU La Cross-Eau Claire, Wis., had collapsed following cold weather and heavy icing.
“It ruined my night, ruined my weekend,” says Ocon. “I think I was on the phone every day of every week with concerns about the tower for nine months until Dec. 24, 2011 when we changed back to our channel.”
In the story WEAU ran, Chief Engineer Ron Wiedemeir said he needed to pull off to the side of the road when he heard about the tower. “It was gut-wrenching.”
WQOW, the Quincy Broadcasting station in the market, leased WEAU space on its subchannels while WEAU built a new tower.
Fixing A Transmitter In The Dead Of Winter
Working overnight in steady snow and near-zero degree weather, Phil Switzer, now the director of technology at KFOR Oklahoma City, needed to replace a pump module that had gone out at KFSM Fort Smith, Ark. As if the extreme cold wasn’t enough, gloves weren’t an option because the nuts holding the phase monitor on were too small.
“I worked overnight with the help of a Harris engineer on the phone and the creaking of the old transmitter building,” Switzer says. “I had little light to work with and there were a ton of shadows that were cast. All in all, I was scared out of my mind and the only thing I wanted to do was get the transmitter back online — not for the station’s benefit, but so I could get some heat.”
A Transmitter Scare From The 1970s
While working at a small TV station in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Andy Laird, VP, CTO of Journal Broadcast Group, walked into the transmitter room only to see a couple inches of water flooding throughout the entire room. One of the vapor phase cooling units had busted and begun leaking.
Now a flood in a home basement is only an annoyance and requires a solid cleanup. A flood in a transmitter room in the 1970s could be dangerous.
“We were dealing with voltage peaks of 25 kilovolts,” Laird says. “Our team’s immediate reaction was, ‘Oh my God, we have to go through the water to just turn this off.’ We feared we could be electrocuted. All of this water was just rolling out in front of a high-power transmitter across the floor.”
After some strategic planning, Laird says his team was able to safely wade through the water and power down the transmitter without anyone getting hurt.
“I don’t think most people with modern transmitters today would even have to worry about a problem like this happening,” he says.
WBNS Deals With Rare CBS Satellite Rain Fade
For more than 30 years, WBNS Columbus, Ohio, had never experienced a problem with its CBS satellite, until earlier this year.
Pat Ingram, director of engineering, says the station lost its network satellite transmission signal on both the main and back-up systems. The folks in New York were called, but said they weren’t experiencing any operational problems.
“Were we missing an important piece that could cause a dual failure?” Ingram thought. “Routing distribution, fiber systems, power, the ‘CBS’ rack were all checked, yet all three CBS receivers showed no signal. Not just a low signal, but no signal.”
Ingram concluded it could be only one problem: atmospheric conditions were bad enough to actually block the C-band signal from CBS. He was right. About four hours later, the main dish came back on, followed by the backup.
“Fortunately, this was in the late evening to overnight hours,” Ingram says.