When a Signal is a Beacon of Hope after 9/11

September 8, 2016

A satellite image of the smoke plume from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Photo by NASA.

A satellite image of the smoke plume from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Photo by NASA.

On the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, THIRTEEN looks back at the events, aftermath, and healing since September 11 with new documentaries, reporting, remembrances from THIRTEEN staff, and by sharing its company newsletters from 2001. For an overview of related programs and articles, see Remembering 9/11.

A report from the archives of The Voice, THIRTEEN’s employee newsletter. Fall 2001.

Among the many businesses and organizations that were destroyed on
September 11th was the technical heart of Thirteen/WNET.
The question is: Where do we go from here?

THIRTEEN's broadcast antenna on the North Tower of the World Trade Center, seen through the smoke on 9/11. Photo by WNET/Thirteen, taken from its headquarters on West 33rd Street in New York City.

THIRTEEN’s broadcast antenna on the North Tower of the World Trade Center, seen through the smoke on 9/11. Photo by WNET/Thirteen, taken from its headquarters on West 33rd Street in New York City.

The massive loss of life and the cruel decimation of families has filled most of the coverage about the events of September 11th – and rightly so. However, in New York, America’s media capital, virtually every broadcast media outlet – including three of the four major commercial networks and Thirteen/WNET – had the core of its broadcasting equipment swept into the snarl of rubble that had been the World Trade Center.

For Thirteen, it was a particularly crushing blow. The station suffered a deep personal loss in the death of one of its key engineers, Rod Copolla. In addition, New York’s leading PBS station lost $20 million in high-tech equipment, including its analog transmitter and antenna – the equipment traditionally used to beam Thirteen’s signal to far-ranging portions of the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania – and its new digital transmitter and antenna – the sophisticated centerpiece of Thirteen’s three-year fundraising and planning program to bring the station into the coming mainstream of digital and high-definition broadcasting. This equipment was installed at the top of Tower 1 / North Tower, the first to be hit, and the second to fall.

Consumers who are wired for cable – 65 percent of Thirteen’s viewing audience – barely skipped a beat, since the matrix of underground cable preserved transmission, and therefore their viewing. But 35 percent is not an insignificant portion of the audience, especially since it often reflects those who need the station most: the elderly, the poor, and those in particularly rustic locations. “For millions of households, Thirteen is free via standard broadcast, and is literally a beacon of hope for programming beyond the mediocre and the mundane,” says Mack Privett, the station’s Director of Engineering.

In addition, the same department areas that are responsible for Thirteen’s exterior equipment – Operations and Broadcast Engineering – also govern the station’s complex studios, telephone banks, and other internal technical areas. Those first few days after the disaster were hugely difficult for the tech staff. They had to cope with their personal grief, exterior technical problems, implement Thirteen’s uncustomary nightly live broadcasts, and facilitate the many operations Thirteen had donated use of to help master control of the disaster.

But, like everyone else at Thirteen, they rallied with vigor. Thirteen was back on the air via broadcast signal after a new, temporary location was found in Alpine, New Jersey. Alpine is not a viable permanent location, since it is not high enough to meet Thirteen’s needs. Still, an aggressive communications campaign – including public service announcements that encouraged cable viewers to pass the word to unwired friends, and a thorough distribution of press advisories – soon returned Thirteen to a portion of the 35 percent – albeit a little fuzzy. As well, New York City’s WNYE (Channel 25) is airing Thirteen’s prime time fare from 7:00 p.m. to midnight daily. And most recently, Thirteen hooked up with Echostar Satellite TV (Channel 237), which also enhances viewership.

Perhaps the most heartening part of this sad technical tale is that Thirteen’s regular high-tech vendors were calling to offer replacement equipment before Thirteen even had time to phone and request it. “It was amazing,” says Privett, “Like something out of a movie. It wasn’t that they didn’t expect to eventually be paid for it, but the spirit was one of genuine assistance and concern. They wanted us to be back on the air as much as we did, and until we found Alpine, we didn’t even know where to send them.”

Now, like its commercial cousins, Thirteen is eagerly looking for a new permanent location. Sufficient height and lack of interference are the issues, and the options are limited. Plans are in development and negotiations are ongoing – but no one’s sending any signals about progress in the midst of this delicate operation.

In addition, Thirteen’s Development Department, in tandem with others, is seeking government and private funds to supplement the insurance coverage for the highly expensive equipment that was lost. “Many art treasures were lost that day,” says Privett, referring to the works by master painters that also perished in the blaze. “We can’t allow the art of Thirteen to be lost to anyone for too long. This isn’t just about technical availability – it’s also about freedom of expression, it’s about what Thirteen stands for to a lot of people. You can’t go without that any longer than necessary.”

Tribute plaque to THIRTEEN engineer Rod Coppola, who was killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11. Photo: WNET/Thirteen

Tribute plaque to THIRTEEN engineer Rod Coppola, who was killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11. Photo: WNET/Thirteen