Going Digital in a Small Market


In April 2002, WHKY-DT (Hickory, N.C.) signed on the air. The new digital broadcast station is operated by WHKY-TV, a small independent locally owned UHF station with less than $1 million in annual revenues. Although this sounds like a major challenge, we beat the FCC's original deadline and became one of the first 300 stations in the United States to get a digital signal on air while larger network-affiliated stations are still scrambling and trying to justify extensions. How did we do it? We learned from our past, prepared for the future, and proceeded.


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana, U.S. philosopher, poet, 1863-1952).

In 1948, while operating WHKY (AM) in Hickory, a decision was made by my father and grandfather to build an FM radio station. Foreseeing superior improvements in quality and coverage of FM vs. AM, they built a state-of-the-art transmitter facility for WHKY-FM, poised for the future of radio on a monster scale with a 210,000-watt transmitter reaching seven states! They set up demonstrations at area events showing the public the comparison of FM to AM. Folks told them how much better it sounded and were just amazed. A few years later, reality began to set in. FM radio had not caught-on, few people could listen because they didn't race out and purchase FM radios and the power company printed dividend checks every time the transmitter was turned on! By 1951, a decision was made to take the failing FM station dark. By 1959, a lower-power FM antenna was sidemounted on an existing AM tower and aired a "commercial-free" background music format over the next 20 years. The commercial-free idea was not a promotional gimmick; it was reality!

Back on their feet financially by 1968, my father and grandfather again prepared for the future by building a UHF TV Station. A new building was constructed, tower erected, equipment purchased and installed for WHKY-TV. On the air and here we go again: The majority of viewers' television sets were VHF only! There was no mad rush to purchase a new expensive set or even a set-top converter box! Then the education process began, including the giveaway of loop antennas. It was a long and expensive process over many years until viewers finally accepted this new technology and it became profitable.

Fast-forward to 1999: My father and I made the decision to construct a digital television station. The similarities of the previous endeavors were obvious in the DTV project: no equipment, no receivers, no audience, no revenues, no guarantee! However, we have learned from our history, so we were not doomed to repeat it (we hoped).


The first task was the FCC application. Just a few simple boxes to check and blanks to fill in. Antenna manufacturers are more than happy to assist with the engineering section including free software. That wasn't so bad; turns out, it was about the only easy task.

Then came the sleepless nights. It looked like we were going to have to evict several companies leasing space on the tower to make room for a sidemounted DTV antenna and transmission line. I imagined my grandfather and my college business professors screaming down from heaven at me about replacing good dependable income-generating accounts with an unproven, non-revenue-producing apparatus!

It would require expensive new equipment because little to none of our current facilities would work with it. Prices and operational cost on new full-power digital transmitters were high. Should I call my stockbroker and buy a few shares of the local power company stock? Could we afford to absorb all this expense? Maybe I should have talked to my banker about a loan. I could hear his reaction to the plan: "Well, I don't claim to know a lot about broadcasting, but if I understand you correctly, you want to build another television station that no one can see, will not be available on cable TV, will carry the same shows you currently air, and will not generate any revenue for the foreseeable future? Personally, I'm not about to spend a pile of my hard-earned money on a digital TV set!"


After more studies on the tower, we decided to replace the current analog antenna that was pole-mounted at the top. In May 2001, it was replaced with new full-power NTSC and DTV antennas mounted on each side of the pole. No paying customers were kicked off the tower; things were starting to look up. With the new NTSC antenna, our current signal and coverage was greatly improved and should operate efficiently until we shut down NTSC in five years, seven years, 15 years, who knows when!

Then the FCC, in its great thinking, passed a rule to allow DTV stations to operate at reduced power. Stop that full-power transmitter order; burn the loan application! Transmitter vendors started offering "low-power DTV starter kits." Everything you needed in one rack to get up and running! Now this we could handle, even in our small-market operation. When we are ready to increase power we just add the building blocks, buy some power company stock and switch her on! My wife has gotten on to me about putting things off until the last minute, so this time I decided to beat the rush on orders and a Transmitter Starter Kit order was placed in November 2001.

The new DTV transmitter arrived in March 2002, installation was very simple, and we did it ourselves, including the proof. The transmitter was fired up and we were on the air April 6, 2002. It works! I caught a plane to Vegas the same day to attend the NAB convention and did a little bragging! Currently we are encoding our NSTC feed to standard-definition TV. The DTV transmitter just sits there consuming little power and producing a 200 W signal. All four of our viewers in Digital TV Land report a great-looking picture! We have built it, now we plan to wait for many years for more viewers to come. The future is starting to look encouraging, as there was recently more great thinking at the FCC: New TV tuners must include DTV reception capability.


Just one more great thought is needed at the FCC: cable must-carry for DTV. We no longer live in those good 'ole days of an antenna on every rooftop and one TV in every home. Cable is the conduit to the viewers. We have made the investment in digital television, and learned from our past: There is no guarantee it will be successful and if it is, it will not happen overnight!