What About This . . .? By Wayne William Cipriano

 We watch a lot of Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television on channel 21. Or we used to (on our antenna television) until that wind storm blew the television tower over that 21 used to send out their signal.

After we noticed that the commercial television station that owned the tower (I think it was Channel 3) was back on the air, we looked for 21, but couldn’t find it. So, we waited. And waited. And it never came back. So I called 21 and asked why they were not on the air.

Surprise, surprise, surprise, 21 WAS on the air, but only in Springfield City area, broadcasting, they told me, on a low-power transmitter. And when I fought my way through the maze of bureaucracy at 21, left many call-back messages, and finally spoke with the station manager, she told me the reason they were not wide- area broadcasting was that the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) was giving them a lot of trouble regarding their licensing. That was what everyone else at 21 had told me – the “party line” I guess.

Suspicious me, that just didn’t sound like the truth. Why would the FCC block 21 from getting back on the air after an accident like a massive tower failure? Especially a PBS station. It sounded wrong.

I waited a month or so, and called 21 again. And again I doggedly worked my way up to the station manager who I don’t think remembered me. She told me the same story. I emphasized my disbelief, she doubled down on her story. When I mentioned how being off the air would interfere with their frequent requests for contributions, she suggested that transmitting locally (just the city of Springfield) would probably be enough to get them over. I asked her for a telephone number at the FCC, she gave me one, I called it.

The gal at the FCC listened to my story about what 21 said the FCC was doing to inhibit 21’s broadcasting and expressed the same doubts I had but said she would send me to the Licensing Department who would know the “real skinny.” The Licensing Department gal also listened politely to my story, but told me they didn’t really handle that sort of stuff, and the place I should go was, I think she said, the Media Bureau.

The guy at the Media Bureau listened to the problem and asked me for the call letters of 21, which I did not know. He looked them up. Sounded like I was on to someone who might know or find out something – was my quest bearing fruit? 

KOZK – Ozark Public Television was the center of his research, and after a few moments he opined the problem might stem from a procedure I think he called “Station Sharing” (like 10..1 and 10.2, 27.1 and 27.2, etc.). But after we discussed it a bit more we agreed that didn’t explain why 21 was not back on the air on its assigned frequency after the tower collapse.

Alas, the guy said, those who would really know were those in, I think, the Video Department. By now, as you can tell, I was getting Department-Drunk, but I could sense this guy was really trying to help. He said he had a buddy over there that he could call and get back to me by E-mail. I told him I don’t have a computer or a cell phone, but would be happy to call him back in a while to get the results of his work. He said, since I was on the phone now, if I didn’t mind waiting on hold for a while, he’d call his buddy using his cell phone and get right back with me. I said, “Sure, I’ll wait, and thinks.”

How about that? A federal employee going the extra mile, trying to get an answer to my question. Me, just a regular guy with no pull anywhere.

I was holding 10 or 12 minutes. The guy came back apologizing for the long wait. (Long wait? Ha! This guy has never called the Social Security Administration.) He said his buddy was out sick, but another guy took his call and helped him out. What follows is a combination of what I know first-hand and what I was told. It sure sounded a lot more credible that “the FCC is blocking our licensing” or something to that effect, but as I said, you can try to ferret out the information for yourself and see if what I learned is true. I was making notes as I listened and this is what I wrote:

When the tower that 21 was using fell over, the entity that owned the tower and allowed 21 to broadcast from it, Channel 3 I think, was back on the air very quickly. It happened months ago, but as I remember Channel 3 was back in just a couple of days. Which makes sense in that as a commercial television station, if it doesn’t broadcast commercials, it doesn’t make any money. 21, which says it is commercial-free, but has commercials before and after every program it broadcasts, survives financially on grants and the like, but mostly on donations from us, the viewers.

21 had previously made plans and was granted approval to go to a different channel (16, I think) beginning in March, 2019 and would have moved from 21 to 16 at that time (although the guy I was talking to said I might still get the programming on 21 with my antenna eventually). Evidently, 16 is now being used by some other entity and is not available until March, 2019 or something like that. When the tower fell over, 21 could have made repairs and continued to broadcast widely on Channel 21 about as quickly as Channel 3 did. I have come to believe that 21 did not use funds for a repair that would be obsolete in March, 2019 when channels would be changed from 21 to 16 as was planned.,

The guy was trying to avoid a lot of technical talk, which I appreciated, and lost me anyway. But, it still looks like 21, rather than fulfill its responsibility to broadcast PBS to those of us in rural areas has decided to use only a low-powered transmitter that would cover the city of Springfield more or less, but not reach the rest of us. That’s the story as it was told to me.

We are good enough to supply donations for station operations when we are asked for them every twenty minutes or so, but we are apparently not important enough to spend some of those donations to repair the wide-range facilities and broadcast to us.

People watch PBS and Channel 21 for a lot of reasons: great children’s programming, excellent documentaries, and, as far as I’m concerned, the most even-handed, fact-driven presentation of current events and “news” available to me, an antenna television viewer. We miss PBS and Channel 21. I think it is a flagrant evasion of their responsibility to no longer provide PBS to those of us who, in good faith, donated to 21 and live outside Springfield city limits just to retain the funds we gave for such expenditures as this one.

What about a special pledge drive for those repairs? Well, if 21 only asked for money once a year, it would probably work for them, but, as they seem always to be asking, another in a never ending series of requests might not.

Aren’t there federal agencies that would lend 21 the funds to get back on the air quickly? I’ll bet there are. Are there businesses, especially banks, that would be willing to fork over some cash or make very low interest loans as “Friends of 21” to get 21 back on the air, and “bask in the warm glow of Public Service?” I’ll bet there are. Aren’t there ways to raise the money to get back on the air that wouldn’t reduce their present capital reserve? Of course there are – lots of them.

I think what’s needed at 21 is an administration willing to do the work required to solve this continuing problem, and judging by the months of silence from Channel 21, there doesn’t seem to be anyone there up to it. Meanwhile, I just re-scanned my television decoder box – no 21, no PBS, month and months after that tower fell over. I wonder, if the Station Manager and the engineers at 21 (the real power) were only paid when the station was back to full-power broadcasting, how long it would take?

I’m really looking forward to the next time I’m contacted for a donation to PBS. I hope it’s on the telephone. I’m going to have a few choice words for the volunteer who calls. Should all of us rethink our contributions to 21? Of course, it would be much better to save those words for the station manager. Maybe we should try to get her on the phone. 

Good luck with that.