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Storms knock W.Va. public TV off the air statewide

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A combination of Friday's "derecho" storm and additional thunderstorms Sunday knocked West Virginia public television off the air statewide, said Bill Acker, director of broadcasting and technology for public broadcasting.

"At this point, there is no West Virginia public television in the state," he said Monday afternoon.

Later Monday, power was restored at WNPB in Morgantown, providing broadcasts to cable viewers in the Morgantown area, as well as feeds to translator towers in the Eastern Panhandle, he said.

Strong, sustained winds produced by Friday's storm knocked microwave dishes on the tower of WSWP in Grandview/Beckley out of alignment. That facility is where the signal for the two other West Virginia public TV stations originates.

Having worked at television stations in the Midwest, Acker said it is almost unheard of to have sustained winds powerful enough to knock microwave dishes out of alignment.

"This storm, obviously, was very strong," he said.

By Saturday, WVPB engineers had jerry-rigged a system to originate public TV broadcasts at WNPB Morgantown, then transmit it by fiber-optic cable to a tower in Weston and microwave the signal from there for broadcast on WPBY in Charleston-Huntington.

Transmission by fiber-optic cable was necessary because WNPB's antenna was destroyed in a plane crash June 22.

The jerry-rigged system worked for a day, until a second round of storms hit Sunday evening, knocking out the tower at Weston, as well as the fiber-optic link from there to Morgantown.

That knocked public TV off the air statewide around 9 p.m., he said.

Among technical crises he's dealt with in a 30-plus year career in broadcasting, Acker said, "This is about the most difficult, complex one."

Engineers were working with technicians with Verizon to get both the Weston tower and the fiber-optic link to Morgantown restored, in hopes of getting WPBY back on the air possibly as early as Monday evening, Acker said.

Meanwhile, he said, West Virginia public radio is hit-and-miss, with some towers on the air and others out of commission.

Charleston is out, but Huntington is operating on generator power, he said. If electricity remains out, he said another concern is about getting fuel to radio towers operating on generator power.

Acker said contractors are expected to arrive next week to install a temporary antenna for WNPB.

That should restore an over-the-air signal sufficient to get public TV back on cable systems in Clarksburg and other areas in the vicinity of the tower, located in Coopers Rock State Forest.

A permanent replacement antenna probably won't be in place until the fall, he said.

The antenna, struck by a private plane in June, is insured through the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management, Acker said.

The outages come when West Virginia Public Broadcasting has been dealing with financial issues, a result of recession-driven cutbacks in corporate underwriting and viewer contributions -- as well as a projected 5 percent cut in state funding for the 2013-14 budget year.Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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