Helping out the Ukiah community: TIA TV
About ten years ago I reached that age where I wanted to figure out what I could do to give back to our local Ukiah community. After all, that's what I like about Ukiah. It's a small town where people care about things and everyone pitches-in to make it a better place to live. (In fact, Ukiah was rated in the top ten of best towns to live in the USA.)
Here in Ukiah, a lot of folks help out by cleaning up the rivers or preparing food for the less fortunate. I thought, "Yeah, sure, I could pick-up trash along the freeway, but is that the best use of my talent for the community?"
In my quest I discovered that the TV stations I had been watching for several years were run by a local, non-profit group of volunteers. It was called TIA, the Television Improvement Association. It came on the air in 1956 and had been running ever since.
With my background in electrical engineering and life-long love for radio frequency (RF) technologies, I figured TIA was my calling to help out the Ukiah community. It was a custom fit.
So, I contacted the chairman, Jim Dietz, and told him I could assist if he needed help. Jim was in his late 70's at the time, and was still trekking up the nearby mountain on his own to maintain the TV transmission equipment.
At first, Jim was suspicious of my motives. He had been burned before by people with good intentions that made a mess of things or tried to take TIA in the wrong direction. But, over time, he began to trust me and accept my help and ideas.
I had high admiration for Jim's persistence in his duties. There were times when we'd find our way up the mountain on foot, carrying our electronic gear and toolboxes, in the dark, in the rain, with 50 MPH winds blowing, using weak flashlights, while at all times keeping alert for hungry mountain lions that roam those remote parts of the California coastal range.
A few years ago, at the age of 82, Jim passed away, and TIA eventually became my responsibility. I have to admit I was a bit reluctant to take it on; after all, so much of my time goes into REBOL and its related software and Internet technologies. But, would I rather volunteer to pick up trash on the freeway? No way!
Yes, I do like it when TIA just runs smoothly... when the transmitters just keep humming away... those months when the antennas don't blow down, the mice don't eat through the RF cables, nothing catches fire or burns out. Normally, it doesn't take that much of my time, and I know a lot of folks in Ukiah depend on it. Besides, the top of the mountain is inspiring and refreshing.
And then, there are bad times like last month, when a power pole broke in a major wind storm, knocking off our stations for a week. And, when power was finally restored via a helicopter setting up a new pole, poof! All of our major TV channel translators (transmitters) went up in smoke.
Fortunately that same month, and with oddly amazing timing, the next county over was shutting down several of their TV channels, and was selling their TV gear. We put it online this last weekend, and so far it's humming along, just as we like it (and hope it to continue that way). Of course, it was no small feat. Each transmitter had to be retuned to the appropriate channel; a process that can take about a day per channel, if things don't go smoothly (and in the world of RF, much like the world of software, smooth is the exception).
Anyway, the stations are back up now... and also with amazing timing, one of the larger north-coast California newspapers, The Press Democrate of Santa Rosa, ran this story: Embracing low-tech TV, by Glenda Anderson.
Yes, that is the next challenge: digital TV (DTV). I must admit that it's one of those Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde technologies. Fantastically sophisticated and full of promise, while at the same time fundamentally problematic, complex, and less reliable. I don't look forward to the digital switch-over a year from now. It's going to be expensive and there are no guarantees how well it will work in our remote Ukiah village (being 110 miles from the San Francisco Sutro transmission tower.)
If forced to pick, I think I'd rather hike up the mountain in the dark, in the rain, with the wind and the lions. But, hey, it's DTV. Progress. Got to love it, right?