9/11 Recovery Continues

The collapse of the World Trade Centers on Sept. 11, 2001, set many New York City broadcasters scrambling to resume transmitting while mourning the loss of some of their finest talent. They recall that day, and how it changed the course of their operations...
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NEW YORK: The collapse of the World Trade Center crippled New York City TV broadcasters. Today, these stations have restored on-air signals, but have not fully regained their pre-9/11 coverage. They continue to deal with the fallout from that horrific event.

Besides the loss of the WTC transmission site and its multimillion dollar broadcast facility, New York City broadcasters lost somewhere in the range of $50 million to $60 million in advertising revenues, said Mark Fratrik, vice president of BIA Financial Network in Chantilly, Va.

“This is because these community- spirited broadcasters ran commercial-free news programming for several days, while actual ad sales stopped,” he said.

One of the few stations that suffered the least impact was WCBS, since that station had kept its lease on the Empire State Building and maintained full-power analog and digital transmitters there.

“The WCBS-TV analog Channel 2 signal was off the air for 20 seconds while we switched from World Trade to Empire State Building,” said Bob Seidel, vice president of engineering and advanced technology at CBS. “The DTV transmitter experienced no down time. As a result, we experienced no economic fall out and no DTV delays.”

New York PBS member station WNET-TV was not so fortunate. Dr. Bill Baker, CEO of WNET-TV, said the economic impact was “devastating.”

“We lost $25 million in transmission equipment, the ability to broadcast over the air, and a big chunk of our audience,” he said. “Then there was the personal cost, especially the loss of our WTC engineer Rod Coppola. I don’t think you ever really recover from that kind of psychological shock.”

New York City broadcasters learned a lot from surviving 9/11. These lessons have shaped how they run their stations today.

A DAY OF INFAMY
Bill Beam, vice president of engineering at WABC-TV, was working at the station when the airliners hit the World Trade Center. WABC-TV lost WTC transmitter supervisor Don DiFranco in the tragedy, and its staff had to scramble to restore the station’s on-air capability.

It came back in stages after the event; first through a low-power antenna on the historic Armstrong tower in Alpine, N.J., then by re-using sister station WPLJ-FM’s Empire State antenna spot while WPLJ moved to a shared antenna with another New York FM.

Today, WABC retains the Alpine antenna as a backup transmission site, and is currently beefing up its news bureau in Rutherford, N.J., to handle other backup duties.

“We have learned that any single location can be a point of failure,” Beam said. “This is why we are now equipping the New Jersey bureau to serve as an alternate point of program origination. Should something happen to our main facilities in NYC, WABC will be able to continue producing and transmitting from the other side of the river.”

Communications is another problem that WABC faced on 9/11.

“We had a really hard time keeping track of where our news crews were and confirming that everyone was safe,” Beam said. “Today, we have made sure that we can do so, using a number of redundant communications paths. Besides cell phones and BlackBerrys, we are maintaining our own 450 MHz two-way radio system. If the telephones jam up again, we can keep in touch by radio.”

Matthew Braatz, senior vice president of technology and operations with NBC Local Media Division, was working at 30 Rock on 9/11. He went straight to WNBC’s master control, where station staff members were trying to cope with the loss of their main signal and the station’s WTC transmitter engineer, William Steckman.

“We heard from him right after the plane hit,” Braatz said. “Then we never heard from him again.

Like WABC, WNBC first got back on air from the Armstrong tower, then made its way onto the Empire State Building.

“We started with two sets of antennas on the 81st floor; one set pointing southeast, and the other northwest,” he said. “Today, we’re up on the mooring mast above the 102nd floor.”

Again, like WABC, WNBC is now using Empire as its primary transmission site, and Alpine as its backup.

“We got DTV back on air initially using a small antenna mounted on 30 Rock, and now we’re on Empire,” Braatz said.

The station has also increased its fiber-optic links to local cable TV companies, ensuring that its signal gets out even if over-the-air broadcasts are suspended. WNBC has arranged backup studio facilities with other companies inside the city, and outside as well.

“If we ever need to broadcast from an alternative location, we’ve taken steps to ensure that our signals get to local cable TV headends,” Braatz said. “We have also beefed up our two-way radio system, so that we can count on it if commercial cellular networks get jammed.”

“The key lesson we’ve learned is to be prepared for anything. Had anyone ever told us that we could lose the Twin Towers before 9/11, we would never have believed them,” he said. “No one in a million years would have ever expected them to fall down.”

A TERRIBLE REALIZATION
Baker was out of the country at a meeting in Toronto when he learned of the 9/11 attack.

“When we turned on the TV, I saw that the smoke was coming from the tower with our antenna on it,” he said. “I got to thinking about Rod Coppola, our engineer there. He was a friend of mine.”

Coincidentally, Baker, WNET’s board, and some of the station’s major vendors had been together at the WTC exactly two months earlier.

“We were celebrating our new digital transmitter with a meal at Windows on the World,” he said. “We shot a picture of all of us together on the tower roof, standing happily in front of the WTC transmission tower.”

Although not in that photo, Coppola was captured in another photo shot onsite during the event. After the second plane hit, Baker knew that this was no accident, and that New York was likely under terrorist attack.

“I got on the phone with our people, and said that this would be a test of how important we are, as far as being able to serve our community,” he said. “Either we will not deserve the public support we’ve had, or we will, depending on what we do now.”

Baker then rented a car and sped back to the stricken city.

“I drove back in 12 hours,” he said. “I managed to get through the border before they closed it.”

While opening its 33rd Street headquarters to the local Red Cross to serve as a phone center, WNET struggled to get back on air. It was a long fight; a month elapsed until a transmission site could be launched at the Armstrong tower. In the interim, WNET transmitted through the facilities of the city-owned station WNYE, and Long Island public broadcaster WLIW; neither of which replicated WNET’s pre-9/11 coverage.

Now based at the Empire State Building, WNET has since merged with WLIW, giving the channel access to two transmission and production centers in two widely separated locations.

“We equipped WLIW to house a backup master control for WNET,” Baker said. “We are creating backups for our cell phone communications as well.”

STROKE OF FATE
Known as Pax TV in 2001, ION TV’s WPXN-31 was also knocked off air when the Twin Towers came down. But a stroke of fate saved the station’s WTC engineer, said David Glenn, ION’s president of engineering. Glenn was at his office in St. Petersburg, Fla., when the attack took place.

“We were having some due diligence work done at our WTC site on Sept. 10, which resulted in our engineer working all night,” Glenn said. “As a result, he decided to go into work late on Sept. 11. This decision saved his life; otherwise he would have been trapped in the tower.”

Unlike other NYC broadcasters, WPXN turned to W23BA, its LPTV station in West Orange, N.J., to put its signal back on air. The FCC also gave WPXN permission to reactivate WPXU-LP, an unused LPTV in Amityville, Long Island. Today, WPXN is on the crowded Empire real estate, but the company is looking for another way to reach viewers over-the-air.

To that end, ION TV has been testing the SFN (single frequency network) concept, where a market is covered using a series of low-powered transmitters operating on the same frequency; much as a cellular telephone network does.

“The SFN approach does not rely on a single point of transmission, and does not necessarily require the very highest point in the market to do the job,” Glenn said. “Given what happened when the World Trade Center came down, and the problems we’ve seen in replacing it with the Freedom Tower, SFN is an alternative worth exploring.”

Patrick Smith, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Television Alliance, which is also involved in SFN tests, said the networks aren’t considered a permanent way to cover New York City.

“The New York market is home to the networks’ flagship stations,” he said. “Given how competitive the market is, stations here will not run the risk of not having the best possible signal. That is why they will stick with the mast planned atop the Freedom Tower.”

The MTVA, which represents local TV broadcasters in their dealings with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has not signed any deals with the Authority regarding space on the new transmission tower. Its president, Paul Bissonette, announced earlier this month that he would retire.

“Negotiations continue,” Smith said. “But when the Freedom Tower is completed, local broadcasters will be there.”

The 1,776-foot tall Freedom Tower is expected to be completed sometime in 2011.