November 17, 1998
by Dan Silver
Ron, a local engineer who maintains the transmission tower for Alabama Public Television station WEIQ, is a cheerful man, despite years of power supply problems and lightning strikes. As he unloaded his pick-up truck I asked him whether he often comes out to viewer's homes to check the station's signal strength. "Only sometimes,'' he said. "When they complain.'' He carried a 4-bay bow tie antenna on a tree- trimmer pole over to my garage, twisted it into a home-made wooden base, and started back to his truck to retrieve a small television set. "No signal-strength meter?'' I asked. "I would love one of those,'' he replied.
The basic problem with WEIQ's reception is the size of its transmission tower. The tower, which rises 600 feet above average terrain, is short compared to towers of area commercial stations. In fact, WEIQ's tower and transmission building, located in Spanish Fort, were given to the Alabama Educational Television Commission 25 years ago by WALA-TV (Channel 10) when that station moved to a better facility. The short tower causes special problems for WEIQ, which generates UHF, ultra-high frequency, easily blocked by obstacles in its path.
As Ron squinted at a snowy signal on his tiny television set I asked him why the station does not extend the tower. "It's in the glide path of Brookely Field,'' he explained. "Besides when you add on to a tower, you weaken it.'' He estimated that the cost of a new tower somewhere else would be more than $1 million. As he slapped at a mosquito he peered into my backyard. "You got an electrical outlet in back? Maybe we can try the antenna there.''
Although television signals are intended to be received with an outdoor antenna, commercial stations such as WKRG-TV (Channel 5) or even UHF station WPMI-15 (Channel 15) can be viewed clearly with a simple indoor rabbit ear antenna. Channel 15 has three advantages over its public television rival: a lower UHF frequency, a tower that is closer and almost three times as tall, and an effective radiating power that is nearly five times as great. Brian, an engineer for WPMI, admitted that his station is spoiling viewers. "They can pick up our signal more clearly than Channel 42, but they still complain that we're not as strong as Channel 5. What can you do?''
My neighbor's black lab barked furiously at Ron while he waited for me to run the antenna cord from the family room to the patio. "This pole should be higher, but let's see what we can get back here.'' The clarity of the picture surprised both of us. Ron declared victory. "You can buy an antenna like this for about $20. You can use a clamp to attach the pole to the house. Of course, you'll have to drill a hole through the wall to get the cord out here.''
When I was a child, living in New Jersey, every dwelling had a big aluminum antenna growing out of the roof. No drawing of a house was complete without a leafless metal tree on top. How many outdoor antennas do you see today? My friend Scott had one. ``It blew away during a wind storm. I should have attached it.'' Scott doesn't watch much television, but his wife, Huong, admits that their three small children try to watch Sesame Street and the Magic School Bus. "The reception is pretty good in the morning,'' says Huong.
I asked Judy Stone, Executive Director of WEIQ, whether the station was aware of the problems that some area residents have trying to pick up Channel 42 with only an indoor antenna. In an e-mail reply she wrote that "it is unreasonable to expect to receive a clear signal from Channel 42 or probably any other station serving Mobile without some type of receive antenna.'' She noted that an outdoor antenna costs only about $30. She added, however, "a preamp would need to be added to the antenna if the home were located more than about 25 miles from the transmitter.'' A preamp costs about $40. If you are handy, you can do the installation yourself. Otherwise, hire an electrician.
What about viewers living in apartment buildings or those unable to afford the cost of an outdoor antenna? I had to ask that question several times before getting a response. Ms. Stone suggested experimenting with various indoor antennas. "We have heard of one type of antenna that plugs into an AC outlet and uses the existing AC wiring in the home or apartment as the receive antenna and costs about $30.'' I have not only heard about such a device, I have tried it. And I have returned it to the manufacturer for a refund. Ms. Stone seemed frustrated with my question. She concluded, "So, you are right in thinking that over the air broadcast signals are not entirely free. Not only do you need to invest in a television, but you should expect to invest in some type of antenna that works in your location.''
The backyard was now thick with mosquitoes, but Ron didn't seem to mind. We gazed distractedly at the surprisingly sharp television image as we continued our conversation.
"People get spoiled,'' he complained. "Channel 15 just powers right over, so viewers ask why Channel 42 isn't just as clear.'' Times are changing, too. Television sets are now big, and they require a stronger signal for good picture quality. And then there is cable. Viewers expect over-the-air signals to be just as clear as cable TV.
As Ron pulled up the gate of his truck, I thanked him again for his advice. He is a nice guy. "Remember to ask for a 4-bay bow tie antenna. Just put it on a pole and run the lead through your wall. You should get a pretty good picture.'' He warned me to use a special tool for attaching the wire to the metal connector. "Once I saw someone just use a pair of pliers. That doesn't work.''
The black lab was quiet now, exhausted from barking. The neighborhood was so calm and peaceful. I went inside and spent the rest of the evening reading.