Translator system in disarray
March 18, 2002
A recommendation from the manager of the system that beams radio and television signals into homes around the valley has some experienced radio engineers scratching their heads and others shrugging their shoulders.
Terry Newland, longtime manager of Pitkin County’s FM/TV translator system, has written a memo indicating that 11 of its 32 FM translator signals are experiencing legal difficulties of one sort or another.
Newland’s memo was written for the March 19 meeting of the Pitkin County commissioners. In it she suggests several strategies to deal with the fact that more than a third of the county’s translator system is operating in violation of the Federal Communication Commission’s rules and regulations.
The translator system is a network of antennas that rebroadcasts FM radio and television signals into all the little nooks and crannies around the valley. Each antenna requires a license from the FCC, which manages the allocation of frequencies across a number of communication spectrums.
If Newland’s recommendations are followed, the direct impacts are likely to be relatively minor for local public radio stations like KAJX and KDNK, and a bit more substantial for privately owned local stations like KSNO and out-of-area stations like KJYE from Grand Junction.
Translator signals are not the same as standard broadcast signals. Translators allow signals from radio and television stations to be rebroadcast into specific geographic areas.
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The county-owned translator system has been in a state of disarray for several years. Several of the signals used to rebroadcast television signals were never licensed and are in jeopardy as a result.
The translator department, which is funded with a dedicated property tax, was run with very little oversight for years. As problems began to surface, the county fired longtime employee John Dady and gave Newland more responsibility. Dady has subsequently sued the county over the firing.
Newland presented her recommendations for dealing with the radio translator problems on Tuesday to the appointed board that advises the Pitkin County commissioners on the translator system, the Advisory Board for Broadcast Systems, formerly known as the Translator Advisory Board. She said the Advisory Board got behind her plan once they realized “it’s not that big of a deal.”
Newland is recommending that one working but unlicensed translator signal be abandoned completely, even though it has been in use continuously for more than 20 years. The signal in question is used by KJYE, a Grand Junction-based adult contemporary station that broadcasts on 102.3 FM, to reach listeners in the upper Fryingpan River Valley.
KJYE general manager Jim TerLouw said the problem came as a surprise. He reckons his station has been reaching Thomasville and Meredith on the unlicensed translator since the late 1970s or early 1980s.
TerLouw also recognized the county has no other option but to abandon the signal.
Newland is also recommending the county surrender eight licenses to operate translators around the valley because they have been off the air for more than a year. FCC rules state that a license is void if its corresponding signal isn’t used over the course of a 12-month period, according to Newland’s memo.
The recommendation, if accepted, means abandoning KSNO’s upper-valley translator signal on 103.5 FM. The signal was originally appropriated to KSNO in the early 1990s to boost the station’s reach in the Aspen area, according to KSNO general manager Dave Johnson.
Johnson expressed disappointment with Newland’s recommendation. He has pointed out that the county has no record of when the 103.5 signal stopped transmitting from the translator antenna on Red Mountain. Without a record, there is no way to prove that the signal has gone unused for an entire year.
Johnson raised the point to no avail last Tuesday night before the Advisory Board for Broadcast Systems. “My argument was if you can’t tell me when they went off, then you don’t know when they went off,” he said.
Johnson said he first contacted Newland in December about bringing the 103.5 FM translator back into KSNO’s broadcast program and was told it shouldn’t be any problem. Johnson said he was told in January that the equipment necessary to broadcast on that signal was not even in place. This month he learned that Newland was pushing to discard the license altogether.
“It’s an asset to the county that was thrown away last night,” Johnson lamented.
He suggested that the county fire up the eight idle translators and send a letter to the FCC explaining the situation and the translators importance as community assets. He said the translator signals should only be abandoned if they interfere with existing signals or the FCC orders it.
TerLouw isn’t so sure Johnson’s plan to begin rebroadcasting on the eight idle translators and send the FCC a letter of explanation would work. “If there was a legal way to do it, I’d be all for it,” he said. “But it sounds to me as if they’ve talked it out with their attorney.”
TerLouw explained that the FCC has become reluctant to grant licenses for translator signals. He said the agency shut down all opportunities for private entities like KJYE to obtain licenses four or five years ago and has yet to reopen the process.
Newland is also calling for the county to make adjustments to other translators, in order to bring them into compliance with the terms of their licenses, and reapply for signals in the Thomasville area whenever the FCC begins accepting applications again.
Newland’s recommendations don’t appear to affect KDNK, the community station in Carbondale that broadcasts on 90.5 FM and rebroadcasts via translator signals at 88.3 FM and 100.1 FM. Station manager Mary Suma said, “It doesn’t have any effect on our coverage. We aren’t going to be losing any of our audience.”
Aspen public radio station KAJX also appears to be escaping unscathed. Station manager Tom Eirman admits that he came away from Tuesday’s Advisory Board meeting feeling much better about Newland’s recommendations. “I think the mandate from the county commissioners is for the translator department to get their licenses in order,” he said.
The station will lose one of its signals – 90.9 FM – in the Basalt area, but listeners there have other options to pick up the signal. KAJX transmits on 91.5 FM and can be found on the translator system at 88.9 FM in Glenwood Springs, 89.1 FM in Carbondale and the midvalley, 90.9 FM in Snowmass Village, Redstone and Thomasville and on 91.1 FM in Snowmass Village, Aspen and Woody Creek. It is simulcast on KPVW’s transmitter at 107.1 FM, which can be picked up through much of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Most of the translators in the mid and upper valley are owned by the county. The Advisory Board for Broadcast Systems collects over $400,000 a year in dedicated property taxes to spend on the system. Newland is paid more than $50,000 a year to manage it.
The county commissioners are expected to discuss the translator system’s woes on Tuesday.