Extreme broadcasting

Sixty years ago this year, Summit County residents gathered excitedly at the Old County Courthouse on Lincoln Avenue to watch TV until the gas ran out in the generator powering a translator high on Bald Mountain. The year was 1957, and television was taking hold across the country, featuring black and white programming from late-night talk shows to sitcoms and westerns.

“People all over, people in Denver, were watching TV,” said John Mirro, president of Summit Public Radio & TV (SPRTV), but “living in a valley surrounded by mountains, people in Summit County couldn’t get radio or TV from the Front Range.”

“Television signals coming out of Denver don’t bend when they go over the mountains,” he explained. So to get that first signal broadcasting into Summit, the progenitors of today’s SPRTV rigged a 4WD International Travelall with an antenna, power source, and field signal meter and drove high into the mountains to test the reception at various locations with line-of-sight to Denver’s towers. They settled on a shoulder of the 13,690-foot Bald Mountain east of Breckenridge, and ran a month-long trial.

“An incandescent light bulb was visible from Breckenridge to let people know the generator was running to make television watching possible,” explained Leigh Girvin, SPRTV’s outreach coordinator. When the light bulb went out, someone would have to drive up the hill with gasoline to keep the generator going.

“It was quite a tedious job but it worked until power was run up to the top,” said Mirro, who is leading the charge to “Power the Towers” for a new generation, as the nonprofit organization seeks to install a state-of-the-art power line to replace the current cable, which is more than 40 years old.

For many years, SPRTV was the only source of television and radio for Summit County residents. Today, with a skeleton crew of nine volunteers and a budget of only $50,000 annually, the group rebroadcasts six FM radio stations and 10 over-the-air television channels, free of charge to anyone with an antenna who can see the towers on Baldy.

The TV channels include Denver’s ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX affiliates, in addition to Rocky Mountain PBS and Colorado Public Television. Radio stations include the all-jazz KUVO, all-classical KCME, the Spanish language station KQSE, and country and western on KSKE.

As of this summer, SPRTV also rebroadcasts KUNC’s popular new public radio station, “The Colorado Sound,” on 94.3 FM. The commercial-free station delivers diverse alternative music with an emphasis on emerging Colorado musicians.

“We certainly would be bereft of radio stations if it weren’t for those towers on Baldy, and if it weren’t for this volunteer-run organization,” said Girvin, a longtime community activist who joined the SPRTV staff last year.

Of course, SPRTV’s role has changed over the years. No longer does it serve as the sole conduit to the outside world aside from print communications. Instead, in an era where we can get all the television, movie, and music entertainment we want, access to public radio and TV helps us stay connected to content that is largely insulated from commercial interests.

“NPR and PBS have consistently rated high as credible news sources,” Girvin said. “That is so important today.”

“This is a public radio community,” added Robb Woulfe, CEO of Breckenridge Creative Arts, which partnered with KUNC and SPRTV to celebrate the launch of “The Colorado Sound” at the Breckenridge Town Party in June, in addition to co-presenting David Sedaris, Garrison Keillor, The Moth Mainstage, and other NPR programming live in Breckenridge.

“There’s also a cost factor,” added Mirro. “This is a tough community to live in. It’s expensive. The cost of cable TV or satellite TV is prohibitive to a lot of people. Just like in the old days in the 1950’s, all they have to do is put an antenna up on the chimney and it’s free.” For second home-owners, he said, it’s a great way to keep the TV on without paying for cable when the house is unoccupied. The group hopes to increase program offerings moving forward, although that is predicated on having enough power and frequencies to do so.

This year as SPRTV celebrates its 60th anniversary, it also hit a milestone $150,000 in its fundraising efforts for the new power line—enough to fund the first phases of the project, which include installing a metering box and switching cabinet on the Laurium Open Space. Approximately $300,000 remains to be raised for the new power line, which will be installed underground; SPRTV is seeking additional board members to help drive the effort.

Meanwhile the hardy crew continues the day-to-day work of keeping television and radio signals broadcasting into the county—which is no small undertaking considering the fact that the towers lie at 12,600 feet up a rocky mining road that isn’t much better today than it was 60 years ago.

When the towers require maintenance, SPRTV technician and longtime “Summit County character” Gary Peterson heads up there by any means possible. For years, winter conditions required him to snowshoe up to the site. Now, SPRTV has two snowmobiles for winter access.

“You need a hefty 4WD vehicle to get up that road in summer, and we have to wait until the snowbanks are navigable,” Mirro said. “Once they are, you’ve got to hope the road has not been eroded so terribly that you can’t get through. If the road is not good, Gary gets out and fixes it. He may lay out stones or wood. It’s a challenge.”

“The electronics are the easy part,” Mirro added. “Sometimes it’s as simple as resetting a router—you turn the tower off and turn it back on.” The station is designed to be fairly self-sufficient, so if the power goes off in Breckenridge, for example, batteries charged by solar panels keep the site running a while longer. But sooner or later, a high country, hands-on maintenance mission is required.

“It’s quite a feat what this organization pulls off,” Girvin said. “Just the difficulty of maintaining the towers at 12,600 feet is a challenge for any organization—and certainly for an organization that runs on a pretty small budget with mostly volunteers to bring all of these services to the community in a very harsh environment. I’m really impressed with what Summit Public Radio & TV does.”

Summit Public Radio & TV // sprtv.org/summit

Photos: John Mirro and others, courtesy of SPRTV.