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Translators: The Complete Story

by K.M. Richards

When the FCC issued the 1952 table of television channel allocations their goal was to distribute service as widely as possible to all communities. Unfortunately, the table used a highly simplified physical terrain model which predicted coverage in a smooth radius from the transmitter location outward. This ignored the laws of physics and in reality obstacles such as mountains completely blocked reception.

Ed Parsons with his eight-tube "receiver-sender"
in the April 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics.

TV "boosters" began as a practical self-help solution to this problem. The first booster operator is generally credited as being Leroy E. "Ed" Parsons, owner of KAST/1370 Astoria OR, who spoke of it in an address to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1949; Parsons designed and installed equipment to receive KRSC-TV/5 Seattle -- which had only gone on the air Thanksgiving Day the previous year -- from 125 miles away across a 3000 foot mountain range using an antenna on the roof of the John Jacob Astor Hotel in downtown Astoria, then outputted the station on channel 2 "via private lines" to approximately 30 homes throughout the community. Parsons would have been the father of translators if he had been able to proceed as intended, retransmitting the KRSC-TV signal for anyone in town to receive but the FCC "turned him down flat" when he asked for permission to do so. One could reasonably consider Parsons' system to be an early cable television system, though, as it improved the technology over that used by what are regarded as the first cable systems in the country which began in 1948 in Mahanoy City PA and Tuckerman AR. Parsons' experiment apparently triggered booster operations in the Pacific Northwest over the next few years for direct off-air reception of stations blocked by terrain, and in October 1954 FCC inspectors looking for the source of interference to aeronautical and other non-broadcast services went to Bridgeport WA in the Chelan National Forest. The inspectors shut down and sealed four boosters operated by a local appliance store that were rebroadcasting KXLY-TV/4 Spokane; Broadcasting reported that shortly thereafter "the seals on the boosters were broken and they were put back into operation by 'persons unknown'."

In 1955, the FCC heard oral arguments on those unlicensed boosters in Washington; representatives of the booster operators pleaded with the Commission to permit some type of subsidiary service. They simultaneously granted the Manson Community TV Company, about 25 miles away from Bridgeport, an experimental license station to "rebroadcast signals of distant VHF stations" on channel 16 with 200w ERP (they ultimately chose to translate KXLY-TV full-time). In January 1956, the FCC began to address the issue by proposing "fill-in" translators operating on channels 70-83, with 10 watts radiated power. Initial concerns that community antenna television (cable, or CATV) operators would object were "probably unfounded" according to an editorial in Broadcasting, because translators would be most feasible in marginal areas where a wired system would be uneconomical. They were completely wrong: The CATV industry fought the establishment of translators and was still trying to have restrictions placed on them more than a decade after they were established.

Shortly after issuing the notice of rulemaking to invite comments, the FCC issued a "cease and desist" order against the operators of the unlicensed Bridgeport boosters, now claiming they caused interference to both KXLY-TV and KHQ-TV/6. That action reversed the decision by a hearing examiner that boosters performed a public service and caused no interference, and the booster operators received a stay in the appellate court. One week after the order, Manson Community TV filed applications for 15 watt translators to rebroadcast KREM-TV/2 on channel 70 and KHQ-TV on channel 76, but their applications were rejected as being premature while rulemaking was still in process. (They refiled in 1956, specifying 171 watts for each; ultimately KXLY-TV ended up on channel 75 in 1958, replacing the experimental channel 16 permit, KREM-TV on channel 70 around the same time, and KHQ-TV on channel 79 in 1960.)

At same time, the Senate Commerce Committee, conducting its own hearing on VHF/UHF issues heard a proposal by Jerrold Electronics for a "co-op" system combining translators and CATV, whereby translators would use directional antennas to pick up VHF stations in fringe coverage areas, translate them to UHF channels and "beam in" the UHF signals to a CATV headend for downconversion to VHF and cable distribution. (A week after the Senate hearing, Jerrold delivered the same proposal to the FCC.) The Senate committee also heard from John H. DeWitt, Jr. of WSM-TV/4 Nashville urging the establishment of translators to create an incentive to purchase UHF-capable receivers.

There were many comments received at the FCC on its translator proposal as well: KIMA-TV/29 Yakima (which also operated KEPR-TV/19 Pasco-Kennewick and KLEW-TV/3 Lewiston ID as satellites and held a construction permit for KBAS-TV/43 Ephrata, which was also intended as a satellite) wanted translators restricted to areas with no local signal available otherwise and force discontinuation when a local service began operation. The Bridgeport group wanted the option of using VHF channels as the translator output. A CATV system in Roseburg OR wanted translators to be used only as common carrier relays, similar to the Jerrold proposal. Another CATV equipment manufacturer wanted a four-year "grace period" for any CATV system then in operation before "subjecting" them to translators, and wanted them governed by the community served instead of by the FCC. A third manufacturer dismissed the entire idea of UHF translators as being "less feasible and less economical" and favored on-channel boosters. CBS said use of translators should be restricted to "shadow areas" in station coverage areas; NBC had a similar position but used the phrase "economical and simplified method to provide TV to areas inadequately served." WSM-TV suggested any technically usable UHF channel be made available, proposing 100w operation; the residents of Montana's Flathead Valley in Montana agreed, saying a ten-watt limit was unfeasible in areas like theirs with a population spread over a wide area). KFXJ-TV/5 Grand Junction CO also suggested using any available channel -- UHF or VHF -- and recommended operation at any distance from the originating station if there was a demonstrated need for service and also proposed unattended operation (the FCC was proposing a restricted permit operator be on duty) and waiver of live monitoring if the station assumed responsibility and originated the translator's station ID.

Jerrold asked permission in April to conduct a 90-day test of its hybrid system in Ellensburg WA by translating KXLY-TV and Seattle stations KOMO-TV/4 and KING-TV/5 (the former KRSC-TV) Seattle to channels 72, 74 and 76 and then carrying the translators' output signal on VHF channels via cable. The Commission rejected the proposal two months later.

Washington Congressman Don Magnuson introduced a bill in April to force the FCC to license boosters and translators, saying they "never will get around to licensing ... on [their] own initiative." As if to prove him wrong, by month's end the FCC authorized translators on channels 70-83, with 10w transmitter output and a maximum 100w effective radiated power. Translators could have no local origination or be used for subscription television, but there were no limits placed on ownership or the number of translators for any community. The interests of the CATV industry were rejected as being "unfair to potential remote area viewers" in the process. Magnuson, not to be pushed aside, issued a statement that if the Bridgeport case was to be overturned by the courts the Commission would "attempt to proscribe these facilities one way or another". Ultimately, he was embarrassed by that statement as well, as the court ruled the FCC had jurisdiction even as it failed to find the operators of the Bridgeport boosters guilty.

The first two translator applications were in Bishop CA, where KIBS/1230 licensee James Oliver filed as the rulemaking took effect in July for 83w ERP on channel 70 (rebroadcasting KNXT/2 Los Angeles) and on channel 72 (for KRCA/4). At the time of his filing Oliver said 500 local residents had pledged $7,594 toward construction and up to $5 per household per month to cover operating costs and "as he [did] not wish to make more than costs of operation, voluntary support [would] be reduced when possible." The Mt. Grant Television Booster Service Corporation filed the following week for channel 70 at Hawthorne-Babbit NV, retransmitting KRON-TV/4 San Francisco, and up in Washington the Manson Community TV Company filed for channels 70 and 76 nine days later for KREM-TV and KHQ-TV. The Bishop (K70AA and K72AA*) and Hawthorne (K70AB) applications were approved September 6, 1956 and Oliver had his two translators operational just over one month later.

(*-Translator call signs, then as today, consist of "K/W" depending on whether they are located west or east of the Mississippi River, followed by the channel number in two-digit format and a two letter sequentially issued suffix; the only change was adding the suffix "-D" beginning in 2009 to designate translators operating in digital mode. When FM translators were authorized in 1970, they followed the same convention; e.g., K288AA would have been the first such on channel 288, 105.5MHz.)

In August, Colorado Governor Edwin C. Johnson took it upon himself to "authorize" six on-channel boosters in his state, and was immediately told by FCC Chairman George McConnaughey that the federal, not state government controlled the radio spectrum. Johnson's rebuttal was that translators were "fine in the east but not necessary in the west because of terrain differences." He was proven wrong by history ... as noted in the previous paragraph, the first translators were in western states and the first seven eastern translators did not begin operation until 1957, in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. The 1958 Broadcasting Yearbook showed 82 translators operating in the west, with 23 in Oregon and 17 in California; Johnson's own state of Colorado had 11. 26 permits had been issued in the west on channel 70 alone when K70AZ Gallup NM was authorized in November 1957; KIMA-TV even allowed a translator to augment its own network of full-power satellites when it gave permission in August 1956 for K71AA in Ellensburg WA to retransmit its signal.

UHF translator manufactured
by Adler Electronics. This is likely
similar to the model Benjamin Adler
used for his 1956 test in Quincy.
(Courtesy Byron W. St. Clair, who
was research and development
director at Adler at that time.)

Near the end of 1956, Benjamin Adler, owner of translator manufacturer Adler Electronics (and the engineer who had coordinated the construction of the nation's first UHF station KPTV/27 Portland OR four years earlier) conducted a side-by-side test of on-channel reflectors and UHF translators at Quincy WA using KXLY-TV as the source signal, with Congressman Magnuson and FCC Broadcast Bureau assistant chief James Barr in attendance. The reflector reportedly delivered a snowy picture "easily jittered" by man-made and natural interference, with 40- to 100-foot towers needed for reception, while a channel 78 translator operating at 200w ERP had no interference using nothing more than ten-foot corner reflectors. Nothing further was heard from Rep. Magnuson on the subject, but the FCC started granting translator applications for higher than 100w ERP "upon special showing by the applicant" shortly after the Adler demonstration.

In December 1957, the first translators were authorized to rebroadcast a Canadian station, both in Montana ... K78AH in Joplin and K76AG in Shelby (both retransmitting CJLH-TV/7 Lethbridge AB). One year later, the first translator to retransmit a non-commercial educational station, K73AI in Redwood Falls MN (originating station KTCA/2 St. Paul-Minneapolis) went live, as well as the filing of the first translator ownership change, as W79AA Claremont NH was transferred from Springfield Television to WCAX-TV Burlington VT; the sale came after the FCC denied Springfield's petition to change channel allocations in six communities and delete sole allocations in four others in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in order for them to operate a group of translator stations, all on channel 72, throughout that part of New England. 200 translators had been authorized by the end of 1958, and the 1960 Broadcasting Yearbook contained almost three full pages of translator listings (over 300 total).

In 1960, the FCC allowed on-channel boosters to remain in operation while it considered allowing translators operating with one watt on VHF channels. After Congress passed legislation that year allowing "illegal" boosters to be licensed, the Commission authorized VHF translators but required different input/output channels; the existing repeaters were required to file for interim operating authority by October, comply with the new rules, and file for licenses by the following February.

The first VHF translator grants were on November 30, 1960 for K03AA and K13AA in Mexican Hat UT, retransmitting KGGM-TV/13 and KOB-TV/4 (both Albuquerque NM), respectively ... but it took until March 1965 for them to go live. The first operating VHF translators were K08AA Wyodak WY (retransmitting KTWO-TV/2 Casper), K10AA Baker MT (KDIX-TV/2 Minot ND) and K12AA Troy MT (KHQ-TV), all of which were formally licensed for operation May 18, 1962. In the east, W07AA and W09AA White Pine MI were the first translators on VHF channels, licensed August 14, 1962 to retransmit KDAL-TV/3 Duluth MN and WDSM-TV/6 Superior WI, respectively. The first authorized channel 9 translator, K09AA Thayne WY, never did get on the air due to extenuating circumstances; its originating station -- KTLE/6 Pocatello ID -- suspended operation three months before the translator CP was issued in 1961, and while the FCC granted extensions until KTLE could resume, it was still dark in 1967. Because the permittee had established several other area translators in the interim, he already had every other station covered and surrendered the channel 9 CP unbuilt.

In March 1965 the FCC floated a proposal to allow translators "on special showing" to operate on any unoccupied channel in the allocations table with up to 10kW ERP, later revised to allow use of any technically feasible channel upon specific application, either with local program origination or as satellites of other stations. It took until September 1971 for the Rules to be amended to allow use of any channel, but the higher power limit and local origination authority was absent from the final version.

One reason it took so long for that change was that in June 1967 the Commission heard a proposal from the NAB to give channels 70-83 to land mobile users, forcing translators to move off of those channels (the FCC was hesitant, as it had been formulating a plan to use those channels for a new class of low-power community TV stations). In 1969 it proposed the sharing of channels 14-20 with land mobile and authorizing translators to move anywhere within channels 14-69 in order to clear the upper UHF channels for full land mobile use, which it hoped to accomplish by 1980. The Association for Maximum Service Telecasting's comments on the proposed rulemaking requested that translators stay on 70-83, on the basis that the UHF band was becoming crowded; it said the FCC needed to "undertake a thorough analysis of future growth trends and demand for translators and regular UHF stations" and its plan was deficient because of the lack of mileage separation standards for moved translators. The Commission approved the plan over those objections in September 1970 but didn't formalize the rulemaking until the following May (and even then, only allowed translators to use channels 55-69).

The other difficult matter hindering the FCC plan was the construction of the World Trade Center. After hearing from the New York City VHF stations transmitting from the Empire State Building (which was all of them) that they expected reception problems during construction, FCC Commissioner Robert E. Lee launched an inquiry which predicted interference for up to two years, especially to the north where the VHF signals would bounce off the WTC's frame and create a "dark stripe down the center of the picture." That led to a test in late 1968 by city-owned WNYC-TV/31 in which a channel 71 translator was operated using program feeds from all seven affected stations to compare signal reception between their regular channels and high UHF ones; the result was favorable and the FCC prepared to authorize translators for all stations transmitting from the Empire State Building in mid-1970, requiring a waiver of the rules because the translators would put signals completely within the stations' full-power coverage areas.

Channel listings in TV Guide, September 21, 1974, showing the translator channels used by New York stations
with transmitters atop the Empire State Building to continue serving viewers affected by multipath
interference during construction of the World Trade Center. Their actual call signs were W53AA (WCBS-TV),
W71AK (WOR-TV), W73AP (WPIX-TV), W75AM (WNET) and W79AW (WNYC-TV). (Courtesy Jim Ellwanger.)

The interference was ultimately mitigated to an eight month period when the builders agreed to rush construction on the first tower so the stations could relocate there before the second tower was raised; the move to WTC was approved April 18, 1974 and required the VHF stations to maintain their former facilities at the Empire State Building as backups. As the stations began broadcasting from the World Trade Center, translator use was gradually discontinued, with the last "interim" translator finally going dark in 1981. (WNYC-TV's W79AW went dark first -- on February 24, 1975 -- as it appeared to have the least interference, being a UHF station in the first place.)

Meanwhile, in January 1972 authorization for translators on lower UHF channels began, the first five being W56AA Orocovis PR, W60AA San German PR, W69AA Hollywood FL and two moves: W74AG and W82AB Darlington WI, to W69AB and W56AB. The last two applications for translators in the "old" band were granted in July of that year (Beowave NV on channel 78 and Elko NV on 75) but neither went on the air; most translators originally authorized after 1970 on channels 70-83 either changed to a lower channel before construction or let their CPs expire unbuilt. The last new high-channel translator, K78DB Weed Heights NV, was licensed March 30, 1973; a large number of translators either went dark or switched to lower channels by 1980.

As that last channel 78 translator went live in 1973, Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, Jr. began investigating the idea of allowing translators to broadcast a limited amount of local programming and authorizing low-cost, low-power UHF stations. While that investigation was proceeding, the FCC in September curiously rejected a request from the Consumer Electronics Group of the Electronics Industry Association to eliminate channels 70-83 from UHF tuners on the basis that future land mobile expansion would replace "all except the most remote translators" on those channels (the Commission said there would be an unnecessary financial burden on non-profit/community-supported translators if they were moved by force) and perhaps less curiously denied a request in June 1974 by K07AP Prescott AZ for authority to originate local announcements soliciting or acknowledging local public financial support.

In March 1975 the FCC finally proposed rulemaking to preclude the authorization of on-channel UHF boosters, of which there were only nine left in operation (they were grandfathered) and for which no new applications had been received since 1966. They also partially reversed themselves on local origination by translators that July, allowing K79CE Norfolk NE to generate emergency tornado warnings. That apparently caused a rethinking of the Prescott decision, as they proposed legislation the following February that would authorize translators to originate a "limited amount of local programming." They did not go so far as to grant a petition by a CATV operator in Manchester VT requesting that a translator's originating television station be required to announce when the translator was off-air or malfunctioning; perhaps the cable system went too far when they suggested the announcements also be made on local radio stations and in local newspapers.

October 1976 brought further attacks from the CATV industry, as the National Cable Television Association suggested that no more VHF translators be authorized, minimum-spacing requirements (15-mile adjacent channel, 50-mile co-channel) be established and enforced, and that networks and station owners be prohibited from owning translators or providing financial support to them (and enforcing multiple ownership rules for translators ... but practically in the same breath, NCTA said that cable systems should be allowed to own translators to serve low-population areas of their franchise areas). By the next February, they were also objecting to out-of-market signal importation by translators if the local cable operator was restricted from doing so, waiving blackout rules on network and syndicated programming if the affected station was a translator, and extending Copyright Act payment requirements to translators. A rebuttal came quickly from the National Translator Association, calling the NCTA comments "propaganda" and calling their white paper an attempt "to avoid the competition translators can offer to cable," further pointing out that competition was in the public interest but that CATV wanted "to preserve their monopoly in any town where there is no station."

1977 invited a mixed bag of comments solicited by the FCC as they prepared a position paper for presentation at the upcoming World Administrative Radio Conference in 1979. The NAB said UHF should be "reserved exclusively for television broadcasting," AMST, still advocating for translators to go back to channels 70-83, wanted the Commission "to unequivocally and unamiguously commit" to an exclusive allocation for broadcasting of channels 14-69, while NCTA and the land mobile interests urged "flexibility" in spectrum sharing. AMST could not have been happy when in September the FCC denied a petition from the Council for UHF Broadcasting to restore channel 70-83 translator assignments on a secondary basis, nor could they have been encouraged by a new petition filed by NCTA against the application for 25 translators in Monroe County FL -- five each in five cities between Miami and Key West -- to deliver programs from the Miami stations to the Key West area, once again objecting to multiple translator ownership.

In 1978, filing levels for new translators dropped off significantly. One filer, Spanish International Network, expressed frustration with FCC inaction on their translator applications from the previous year for Denver and Bakersfield (retransmitting SIN's KMEX/34 Los Angeles), Philadelphia (WXTV/41 Paterson NJ-New York City), and Austin (KWEX/41 San Antonio); the apparent delay was that SIN proposed to feed the Denver translator via satellite, and they said they would apply for more translators in areas with large Spanish-speaking populations on the same basis if their existing applications were to be granted. Even as they grappled with the issue of "satellators" the Commission received Sen. Baker's report and began its own inquiry into allowing translators to operate with full local program origination -- broadening the scope of permissible local origination in the interim -- at the same time denying various CATV industry petitions. At year's end, 1,151 UHF and 2,408 VHF translators were on the air, with another 465 construction permits outstanding.

The NCTA had to be aghast at an application granted the following year from the property owners' association in Bear Valley Springs, a gated community southeast of Bakersfield, for a total of 14 translators to carry practically every station in the Fresno (on channels 20, 35, 45, 56, 60, 62, 66 and 68), Bakersfield (33 and 39), and Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo (48, 51 and 54) markets plus KNXT/2 Los Angeles on channel 41.

Bear Valley Springs must have thought it was in Alaska, where translators were popping up in villages left and right, with the FCC having to issue waivers in order to cope with the geography of the state and the remoteness of those villages. In many cases, Alaska translators had to be fed by other translators, and in several cases origination was by video tapes from the originating stations; at least one translator -- K12KS Nulato AK -- was licensed in 1977 to retransmit the Armed Forces TV station at Galena Air Force Station, some 30 miles up the Yukon River. (One of the consulting engineers for the earliest Alaska translators was none other than Ed Parsons.) In November 1975 another exception to the translator rules as they applied in the lower 48 states came into effect, as the Alascom "Aurora" Project sent programming via satellite on tape-delay from four Anchorage stations (KENI-TV/2, KAKM/7, KTVA/11, and KIMO/13) and most new Alaska translators were authorized to use that feed from then on; Aurora evolved into the Rural Alaska Television Network (RATNet) 14 months later. Existing translators switched to the satellite feed and state-funded new translators in the years that followed did likewise. The count of Alaska translators was estimated at 175 as of the end of 1982, over half of all translators in service nationwide at the end of 1987 were licensed to the state of Alaska and the network grew to over 230 by 2013. (The village translator licenses were also eventually transferred to the state government, operated by Alaska Public Broadcasting and programmed by a state-appointed panel, the Alaska Rural Communications Service.)

1980 was the year of the satellite and LPTV. In February, Spanish International Network's K31AA Denver CO went on the air as the "first" satellite-fed translator (everyone, including the FCC, conveniently ignored that Jim Bakker's PTL Network had circumvented the rules a couple of years earlier by acquiring WJAN/17 in Canton OH, carrying their satellite feed on it 24/7, then encouraging local religious groups to apply for translators "indirectly rebroadcasting WJAN" by using the PTL satellite feed); later in the year, Trinity Broadcasting Network followed SIN's lead -- or was it PTL's? -- and applied to use a satellite feed of its KTBN-TV/40 Santa Ana CA to feed translators nationwide. But it was Sears Roebuck & Co. which surprised everyone by teaming up with the permittee of KUSK/7 Prescott AZ and applying as "Neighborhood TV Co." for 124 translators over a six week period in October and November to rebroadcast KUSK via satellite, forming an ad-hoc LPTV "mini-network" revolving around country-themed programming. (Ironically, KUSK had itself displaced translator K07AP which had been denied permission to air announcements to raise operating funds six years previous.)

Call it the "Sears Network" if you want; the retail giant's Allstate Insurance subsidiary backed the applications for a nationwide network of 124
translators, using a full-power VHF station in Prescott AZ as the origination of what was envisioned as a nationwide low-power television network.

SIN asked for an immediate freeze on "mass filings" such as the one by Sears until minority and local community groups could have an opportunity to file for LPTVs. It said Sears had exploited a loophole by filing for translators "on a station that isn't even built yet" and suggested a maximum of 14 LPTVs owned by a single entity ... even though SIN already owned six translators retransmitting its San Antonio station, held five more CPs and had 12 applications pending at the time.

For once, the FCC acted quickly, issuing a cut-off date notice of January 16, 1981 for mutually exclusive applications against the 223 LPTV applications that had been filed in the last half of 1980 by Sears and by other entities. Among those filing multiple applications was Satellite Syndicated Systems, parent company of cable's Satellite Program Network, which not only filed for translators retransmitting stations in Ann Arbor MI and Tulsa OK it had ownership interests in but also announced it would approach existing community-owned translators and suggest upgrading to LPTV status to carry SPN. By April 9, the flood of LPTV applications (4,748 as of that date) forced a freeze on new LPTV and translator applications, excluding areas with fewer than two full-service TV stations, existing translators seeking to move from channels 70-83, and existing translators seeking to change channels to resolve interference problems. The Commission then waded through the (literally) tons of paperwork to grant LPTV licenses.

One applicant who filed on September 19, 1980 was John W. Boler, who was a 48-year veteran of broadcasting and founder of the first TV station in North Dakota, KXMC-TV/13 Minot. Facing no competing applications, he received a grant relatively quickly for channel 26 in Bemidji MN (on the western edge of the Chippewa National Forest) the following May and put K26AC* on the air December 12, 1981 with local programming, off-network reruns, syndicated programming and CNN Headline News. Boler reportedly spent $600,000 in equipment and facilities, $150,000 of that going toward a mobile unit for covering high school and college sports. However, after subsequently adding a simulcast LPTV on the other side of Leech Lake Indian Reservation -- K18AI Grand Rapids MN -- he cut his staff from twenty-four to four, reduced local programming from three hours a day to one daily news program and operated a subscription television service using SelecTV as a programming source after 7:00pm. K26AC thus was not only the first LPTV in operation, but also the first to go "pay-TV" for any part of the day; at an industry conference in November 1982 Boler said that the simple answer to the question of how to make money with LPTV was "go to full-time STV operation." He also said at the time that he would be in the black in one month if he dropped his daytime ad-supported program schedule. (He did exactly that not long afterwards.)

(*-Initially, LPTVs carried the same type of callsign as a regular translator; it wasn't until 1994 that the FCC allowed four-letter calls with the suffix "-LP".)

UHF digital LPTV transmitters manufactured circa 2002
by Emcee Communications, the descendant of an early
translator manufacturer. This unit takes less than 10%
of the equipment rack space that was needed to
achieve the same output power 50+ years ago.

For those LPTV operators who decided not to go STV, there were options besides trying to operate a completely local operation: Programming services going by the names Channel America, Network One, JPD Television Network, General Television Network, Country Music Network, American Television Network and Genesis Network all approached LPTV applicants even before they were granted construction permits, trying to sign enough affiliates to attract national advertising. Also, as noted above some lesser-known cable networks such as SPN were happy to have LPTVs as affiliates and CNN was equally happy to have its Headline News service carried by the new low-power stations. None of the original LPTV-oriented networks had much staying power; some came and went in less than two years and the longest-lived was Channel America, which didn't pull the plug on its service until 1996. (For that matter, so had SPN seven years earlier.)

The FCC had decided to solve the LPTV application logjam by conducting a lottery for mutually exclusive applications, causing Neighborhood TV to request a stay of those rules by the U.S. District Court of Appeals in September 1983, contending that the lottery's racial and ethnic preferences violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law. What they didn't say -- but Broadcasting did, in reporting the court filing -- was that the National Black Media Coalition and National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting had challenged the entire slate of Neighborhood TV's applications. Neighborhood TV faded from view with no fanfare around the end of 1985 after the appellate court upheld the FCC limit of 15 LPTVs per owner during the freeze processing, and the abandonment of the traditional "first filed, first considered" policy.

Broadcasting's February 3, 1986 issue reported that K26AC/K18AI and WNUV-TV/54 Baltimore were the last two 24/7 broadcast subscription television operations, as WFTY/50 Washington DC prepared to go commercial on March 1; WNUV-TV threw in the towel itself not long afterward, and Boler continued to deliver Starion Premiere Cinema (the former SelecTV) to what he described as "several hundred" subscribers, until Starion itself called it quits on January 31, 1991, almost two years following its last full-power affiliate (KWHY-TV/22 Los Angeles) switching to a Spanish-language format evenings and weekends. Boler's LPTVs then became translators of KVRR/15 Fargo ND.

LPTV stations have found no shortage of programming sources, even as the early networks noted above came and went; with the switch to digital multicasting more niche-oriented networks exist today than the total of all those that have gone defunct over the years. Many of those networks feed not only LPTVs but the subchannels of full-power stations as well; there are Spanish-language services, as well as networks for other ethnic groups, religious organizations, home shopping channels, and general entertainment networks. In the latter category, one company -- Luken Communications -- offers more than a half-dozen networks, each with a specific focus ranging from classic television series and children's programming to country music and outdoor activities. Luken also owns low-power WOOT-LD/6 in its home city of Chattanooga TN and calls it the flagship of its Heartland, Retro TV, PBJ and Tuff TV networks; in 2010 it also acquired 78 LPTVs and translators nationwide that were previously owned by TBN (who apparently didn't want to spend money upgrading them to digital operation).

But even as low-power television developed over the years into miniature TV stations, there are still a large number of translators performing the original function of the service into the 21st Century, which was -- and is -- to carry the signals of full-power television stations into areas which would not otherwise be able to receive broadcasts.

Scroll of translator station identifications for KFDA/10 Amarillo TX circa May 1995.


KUSK/7 Prescott went live in the midst of the Neighborhood TV controversy on September 1, 1982 and built a smaller network of translators within the state of Arizona. It filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of 1997, emerged in mid-2000, and became KAZT-TV under new owners April 1, 2002. Its Phoenix translator on channel 27 took the calls KAZT-CA (now digital KAZT-CD, transmitting on RF channel 36) shortly thereafter and the two stations continue to operate under the brand "AZ-TV" with additional translators K17DA-D Lake Havasu City, K30DT Flagstaff, K20ID-D Kingman and K24DK-D Bullhead City (all are PSIP-remapped to display as "channel 7"). At its height, KAZT-TV was seen on eight translators throughout Arizona.

Channels 70 though 83 were finally eliminated from new television receivers in 1983; early cellular telephone calls could be eavesdropped on using older sets until wireless phone transmission converted from analog to digital in the 1990s.

The first two translators in Bishop CA (by that time, licensed to Mono County) and the massive group of translators in Bear Valley Springs CA remained in service until 1998, according to the FCC database, although the licenses were not cancelled until 2004.

K26AC changed channels in October 1982, becoming K34FC when full-power station WFTC/26 Bemidji signed on, then went dark July 26, 2001 when Bemidji was reassigned from the Fargo-Grand Forks television market to the Twin Cities market. K18AI similarly changed channels, becoming K29EB October 7, 1999 when it was displaced by KAWE/9 Bemidji's pre-transition digital companion channel; it is now a translator of KQDS-TV/17 Duluth.

The last known translator in the upper-UHF channels was K70DR Blue Earth MN, which was verified by Doug Smith (W9WI.com) as still rebroadcasting KTTC-TV/10 Rochester MN after the digital TV transition in February 2009; it finally went dark December 29, 2011.

Alaska's rural translators in the villages were (mostly) converted to digital broadcasting, at an estimated cost of $5.3 million, largely funded by USDA Rural Development grants earmarked for public television translator upgrades through the Public Television Digital Transition Grant program. In late 2014, the state filed for renewal of its analog translator licenses and simultaneously filed for authorization to "flash-cut" those licenses to digital operation. ("Flash-cut" means the translators were to cease operation in analog and immediately begin operation in digital, without a transition period of operating in both modes. It is essentially the only option open to translator licensees, although it had never been done on such a widescale basis by a translator operator before.) On June 21, 2021 the FCC granted the State of Alaska an extension of analog operation (until January 10, 2022) of 15 translators located in lightly populated rural villages, due to the remoteness and extreme weather hampering the conversion to digital. Most of those stations met the deadline (some of them, literally the day before the extension was due to expire, and at least one going dark instead) but the deadline was later extended to July 11, 2022 by the FCC Media Bureau for those stations which could not meet the January deadline due to terrain issues and other factors. The FCC finally cancelled most of the outstanding flash-cut authorizations and requests for additional time to comply on November 14, 2022; three days later they approved tolling (a legal method of "stopping the clock" on construction permits due to circumstances beyond the permittee's control) for two of the stations, which as of that date were still apparently transmitting in analog. All of the still-outstanding permits for the rest of the Alaska translators were cancelled or dismissed February 9, 2023.

The National Translator Association is still in business and spent considerable energy lobbying to ensure that translators would still have channels available for their operation after the FCC repacked digital television broadcasting into the tighter range of channels below 36 (channels between 52 and 69 were previously removed from television use in the 2009 transition to digital broadcasting). Their testimony before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee in July 2014 is available for reading at their website (see external links, below). It changed its name to National Television Association at the end of 2021, to "reduce the confusion of folks thinking we are in the language business," said retiring president John Terrill.

Byron W. St. Clair passed away May 20, 2018 at age 93, of brain cancer. In addition to serving as president of the National Translator Association for 19 years, he was (as mentioned in the caption of a photo above) director of research and development at Adler Electronics, later founding both Emcee Electronics in 1960 and Television Technology Corporation seven years later.

My thanks to Darren Bjerke, Chief Engineer/Engineering Manager at KVRR for his assistance in tracking down the post-LPTV history of Boler's stations, to Jim McDonald, President (at the time of my research) of the National Translator Association for providing some early history which was missing from Broadcasting's coverage back then, and to Jim Yard at Emcee Communications for allowing the use of the modern-day LPTV transmitter picture.


© World Radio History. Original site concept by Clarke Ingram. Site design and management by K.M. Richards.