Adventures In The Clarke Belt
An Uplinking Diary
From David R. Busse
1 February 2001
I'm now a satellite uplink operator. And I love it.
Fellow KABC-TV news photographer Mike Juhas and I spent nine January days training in our station's new satellite truck, under veteran engineers Dave Putnam and John Bush. We discovered a number of bugs and fixed them. Organized all the associated gear (camera, lights, cable reels, etc.) into a manageable system. Installed and tested the video editing system. Activated the truck's two cell phones and two satellite phones. And we began to understand all the complex little nuances of beaming a microwave signal 22,500 miles to a geo-stationary satellite out there in the "Clarke Belt" instead of aiming at a little receive dish on the top of several Southern California mountains, as we do every day with any of our 32 "terrestrial microwave" minicam vans.
The satellite technology's not new. Our new uplink truck replaces a well-worn one that is 12 years old.
What's new here is the fact that the station insists on manning the
new satellite truck as if it were one of our standard news microwave vans--with
(Mike or me) rather than engineering technicians (a common-but-changing practice at most stations and networks). And our new truck utilizes compact digital
electronics, stuffed into a Ford van. Older satellite trucks are huge, heavy-duty trucks, requiring drivers with commercial licenses and limited by many federal
over-the-road truck regulations.
In typical engineering fashion, we planned for Friday, January 26 to be "final exam" day, with a shakedown of all the truck systems in the friendly confines of the station parking lot.
In typical news fashion, a panicked call from the assignment desk that morning told us to pack-up, ship-out and head for the mountains. It was snowing in southern Kern County, in an area un-reachable by any of our station's microwave vans. We'd do the "final exam" for real--as live shots in our 4pm, 5pm and 6pm newscasts.
Not exactly earth-shattering news here...showing a reporter in the snow and telling the world "...it's snowing in Frazier Park near Mount Pinos..." but that was precisely the perfect shakedown cruise. A few bugs were encountered along the way, but we pulled it off without a hitch. And I'm happy to report that Mike, my fellow "student"--whose technical knowledge greatly surpasses anything I will ever know--tutored me in several of the more confusing aspects of the operation. We got on the air without any problems. Mike did much of the work, I paid rapt attention. When it was all over, I felt pretty confident.
Then I got back in LA and found I was going to Indio on Monday...alone...with the truck, to uplink a court appearance by bad-boy actor Robert Downey, Jr., (former college roommate of my friend, KCAL-TV reporter/pilot Larry Welk, but I digress).
Monday, January 29...a 120-mile drive to the desert past Palm Springs
seemed like a ten-minute jaunt up the freeway as I reviewed mental checklists
reminding myself not to screw up. Hoped to fill up with gas as I arrived in Indio, only to find the familiar Unocal station (Clark's Truck Stop) now a cash-only
independent. Finally found a place to accept my "76" card. Rule #1 of satellite news gathering is to always ARRIVE with a full tank, because you never know how long you'll be there, running your generator (it burns 1/4 tank of gas every 12 hours and sat trucks sometimes spend weeks in one place without leaving. Betcha you don't know any fuel dealers in your town who deliver--we have to).
Got to the court house several hours before Downey's scheduled 1:30
pm appearance, and was directed by court staff into a media parking lot
where satellite trucks
from NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN and several private uplink services were setting up. I knew most of the people involved...these events are like a reunion of nomadic circus workers who move from venue to venue. Many were surprised when I showed my new truck and introduced myself as the newest "and greenest" uplinker in the land...
Met our reporter, Bob Banfield, and cameraman Tim Danson from the Riverside
Bureau and thanked God that my job description today didn't include shooting
editing the story itself...merely getting it into the hands of KABC-TV and the ABC affiliates who might be interested. I would set up the signal, the other guys would get the pictures for me.
Our assignment desk called with something called "coordinates and windows." That's the critical information: what satellite you are using, which microwave frequencies and at what times the common-carrier who owns the satellite will allow you to beam up to "the bird." ABC's news satellite cooperative, Absat, leases transponders on two satellites and brokers their usage. When we want to feed something, the station calls New York to "book time," which is purchased in five-minute increments (cost is $35 for each block). This process takes just a few minutes, and as the time is logged, the "coordinates" are assigned.
Our news ops manager, Jim Hattendorf, passed along the important information via cell phone, with the precision and calm demeanor of his Air Force training. "You're on tee-four, kay-twelve, dee-oh-five...first window is three forty five to four-ten, pacific, then four forty five to five-thirty, pacific, with a live shot for KGO after ours, then a five fifty to six ten pacific for us...have a nice day."
"Tee-four" is shorthand for the name of the satellite, better known as Telstar 4, upon which ABC leases 20 digital channels in the Ku band. Think of these as pipe lines each capable of handling one story feed at a time, but emitting signals receivable ("pulled down" as they say in the biz) by any station who wishes to carry them.
"K-twelve, dee-oh-five" means KU band microwave, transponder 12, digital channel 05.
Now the challenge: find "the bird."
(You know from the charts that Telstar 4 is 89 degrees off Zulu longitude,
which makes finding the satellite a cinch if you are covering something
England. The 89 degrees Zulu heading translates to about 140 degrees from California. And another chart, developed by many predecessors in this game, lists "T4" at elevation 38.5 degrees if you're looking in the Palm Springs area).
I grabbed the compass from the front seat. The 140 degree heading lined up with a tall palm tree. The inclinometer (a part of the compass) revealed the upper east wall of the courthouse to correspond with 38 degree elevation. I was figuring something called "look angle."
So I fired up the generator, placed the jacks to stabilize the truck, powered the electronics, deployed the five-foot satellite dish on the roof and focused my attention on the spectrum analyzer, a little green screen in the left center of the rack that plots what radio signals look like. The screen displayed green hash in a fuzzy horizontal line.
Then I pushed a few buttons and aimed the dish, very scientifically, at the top of the courthouse wall. Done. Then I turned toward the palm tree. True rocket science. I looked at the spectrum analyzer.
Voila! The green hash suddenly jumped into a strange shape of peaks and valleys, buttes and gentle slopes. Signals from space, but what were they? Telstar 4? Or T4's neighbor, another satellite just a few degrees to the east? Gotta be certain, because firing up my signal to the wrong "bird" could knock someone else off the air, a cardinal sin.
Then my training in this exacting science kicked in, as if on auto-pilot.
"Look for Dolly Parton...that's T-four's trademark" a small voice said,
sounding very much like
On the spectrum analyzer, I swept through the signals coming from space. On the lower end of the KU band, in vertical polarity, there they were...two massive and well formed....um, big, um...humps. Scrambled signals from God-knows-what source, but in uplinker's eyes, they were the most memorable part of Dolly Parton's anatomy staring me in the face.
I found it!
NEXT: FAMILIAR FACES "ON THE BIRD"
So I found Telstar 4. Now it was time to confirm it.
I tuned in some analog channels on the satellite, which appeared like
flickering Disneyland castles on the spectrum analyzer. Suddenly in the
monitor, The Florida
Channel appeared. This is one of the "regular" features on Telstar 4, and just another way to confirm that I was, indeed, on the correct satellite. Flipping to an active
ABC transponder frequency, I saw color bars from Red Dirt Communications, a very active freelance uplinker based in the midwest. They were doing an ABC News feed.
Then I switched to the digital demodulator, and entered the downlink frequencies I'd be using on my "window." Expecting to see just black, I suddenly saw a picture. It was more black, really, but you could see snow on the ground and a building in the background.
Then a guy appeared in the frame, and picked up a microphone. Just another reporter somewhere on this continent getting ready to do a live broadcast.
Except his cameraman could be heard off camera.
"Bobby, we need an audio check...just start talking..." he said.
So the man started talking...about anything.
He was an older fellow, with gray hair and, as the late sportswriter
Jim Murray once said, "that been-there, seen-it-all-twice look normally
found only in the faces of
homicide detectives and White House correspondents..." He looked familiar.
"Just in case someone is watching on the West Coast, you might be interested
to know that I'm standing in central Maine, where it's 15 degrees below
zero, and I'm
about to do a live shot about two guys who have been convicted of shooting a horse right between the eyes..." he said.
"Now this is Maine, and shooting horses is serious stuff. Of course you could just walk up to a moose and shoot him and have no problem, but horses...naaaah."
Remember, I was sitting in Indio, Calif., watching all this, laughing. It's 80 degrees. And I had my air conditioner running.
So I called Absat control in New York. "Who's on 12D05?' I asked.
"WCMW in Portland Maine...they'll be clear in a few minutes..."
Then it hit me. The guy in the screen was an old ABC News correspondent named Bob Dyk, who quit the company years ago and "retired" to a cushy local news job in Maine. And, in the late sixties, this guy worked for my station, KABC-TV, as the assignment desk guy.
So I grabbed the Absat book and found the WCMW truck number. Waited until Dyk's remote was over. As soon as he signed off, I called the truck.
"This is the KABC uplink in California. Can I talk to your reporter?"
"Sure, he's right here" the voice said.
So I introduced myself to Bob Dyk and told him I was watching him while sitting in a brand new uplink truck; there were indeed people on the west coast watching him freeze his butt off and, just for his entertainment, it was 80 degrees outside my truck in Indio, California.
"That's great. You know I used to work at KABC. What's story are you covering?" he asked.
So I told him what I was doing, the who, what, where and who's doing what.
"Bet you're working with my old friend Bob Banfield..." he said. (I was!)
"Tell him Bob Dyk sends his best from chilly central Maine..."
So I passed along greetings to Banfield (who was in the adjacent KABC-TV truck editing his story).
Then the goofyness of the technology struck me. Cell phones, satellite phones and geo-synchronus satellites made people in Maine and folks in California feel like they'd been at a brief cocktail party. Indeed, it was more like waving at a passing car on the freeway, but these cars were about 4000 miles apart and we still were able to see each other...and chat.
Think I'm gonna like this satellite stuff.
NEXT: THINGS ARE GOING WELL. THAT MEANS THINGS ARE NOT GONNA GO WELL
13 February 2001
Notes To Myself
I've been doing the satellite "gig" for three weeks and things are going smoothly.
Except I am having nightmares about the inevitable day when things don't go well.
So is Mike Juhas. The dreams are the same...can't "find" the satellite
under deadline pressure; knocking someone off the air by "illuminating"
to the wrong bird, at the
wrong time; or screwing up some other way and missing a time slot or a story altogether.
Funny, but the satellite stuff keeps landing in my lap. Mike keeps getting
requests to shoot and supervise a bunch of two-camera, high-profile interviews.
No time for
SNG work. So "...I'm their guy..."
An early highlight in my satellite career involved some uplinks I did for Seattle affiliate KOMO-TV. I didn't dare tell them I was a rookie, only that the truck was new. Did two days of work with no mistakes. Next day, I did stuff for KABC-TV and the Seattle crew was using another truck imported from their "sister station" in Fresno.
At the end of my day, the Seattle guys were shooting a live shot. I took a break from my truck and stepped over to watch. The reporter, cameraman and producer all looked frazzled. They were having problems with their uplink, and the problems apparently started early in the day. The reporter looked at me, pointed and said in an angry tone "...if my bosses want me here another day, I am only doing uplinking with YOU and YOUR TRUCK!" A compliment, delivered in news-speak. Wow.
Then I thought about what had happened. The truck operator obviously heard that, too. Poor guy, I thought. Don't wanna be in his shoes, ever.
I spent three days at the opening of Disney's California Adventure theme park. Fun time with long hours and hard work. No major technical problems...just problems with communications among co-workers who can't communicate.
Item: Disney's a media-savy bunch. As I park my truck in an alley ay 4am, the media liaison looks at me and says "...what bird you using?" I respond "Telstar 4"...and he points into the sky and says "right over there." He was in the ballpark, anyway. Scary.
Now my "regular" minicam truck is laid-up with generator problems, so
I am assigned the satellite truck, now called "unit 30," as my regular
news vehicle until further
notice. I'm happy, because it gives me a chance to understand all the little electronic ins-and-outs of this truck.
Some days, I don't do any satellite work. I just shoot stories, edit
them and feed them to the station on the normal microwave system using
a 30-foot mast and dish
arrangement commonly found on the regular minicam trucks. During down-time, I do deploy the satellite dish and hone my skill at "finding the bird." I'm getting pretty