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Fire forces TV staff back to the basics

June 14, 1988

By Tom Sowa
Spokane Chronicle

KXLY-TV, minus teleprompters, satellite weather maps or commercials, gave viewers a different version of live news Monday evening.

From 5 to 5:40 p.m., KXLY producers, directors, technicians, anchors and reporters sat in a parking lot across the street from the station, reading wire copy borrowed from a nearby radio station or watching hand-printed cue cards to know which camera to watch next.

They were tossed back 40 years to the most elementary form of TV news after a roof fire Monday afternoon closed down the station and left the staff without tape machines, editing consoles or studio hardware.

In a van near the makeshift station studio, producer Robin Briley Cowan didn’t have the headset and microphone that normally link her directly to Channel 4’s anchors. Instead, Cowan’s microphone put her in touch with a floor director standing 20 feet away, watching anchors Elaine Murphy and Karen Kelly read the news.

Cowan would speak a command to the floor director, who took a sheet of paper and wrote down her message – like “TOSS TO WEATHER” – and held it near a broadcast camera for the anchors to see.

Not having access to the building, the staff also needed to deliver the news straight-through, without any ads.

“That’s the hard part here, not having commercial breaks,” explained Frank Baymann, special projects coordinator for KXLY. “Those breaks are when we can usually pause and regroup and figure out ways to get something we missed.”

Viewers were able to watch KXLY’s stripped-down newscast thanks to several hundred thousand dollars worth of high-tech gear just off camera.

While anchors Murphy and Kelly sat uncomfortably at a borrowed table, two station trucks nearby were converted into a control room and console board.

In one, Cowan and a newscast director watched a three-screen monitor to select sections of videotape to be shown.

On top of the other vehicle, a microwave amplifier was sending the video and audio signals to Mount Spokane, KXLY’s transmission source. From there, the signal was broadcast in standard fashion.

“The remote units and the microwave gear we have made it possible to operate the TV station out of the parking lot,” said Steve Herling, KXLY’s general manager.

“It was wild,” admitted Cowan after the broadcast. “A lot of it was fly by the seat of your pants. The one time I felt anguish was two minutes before 5, when I couldn’t find Ron Langley,” the reporter who was supposed to deliver the first report.

“Luckily he showed up just before we went on.”

The station finished the truncated newscast at 5:40 p.m., not by design. “We wanted to do it as long as it took ‘til it got done,” said Steve Johnson, KXLY news director. “There was no point in belaboring the point. We wanted to make the statement by doing it, which was a monumental effort under the circumstances.”

By 6 p.m. Channel 4 viewers could again watch ABC News and the rest of the network’s lineup, thanks to microwave equipment and assistance from KSPS-TV. The signal arrived in Spokane from the Tri-Cities, relayed across a series of microwave towers to the KSPS studio on the South Hill.

That station had agreed with KXLY to send the ABC signal to Mount Spokane, where it was beamed to viewers.

KXLY also relied on help from several other competitors. Both KREM and KHQ provided office equipment for handling and editing videotape before the 5 p.m. newscast. Radio station KPBX and The Associated Press provided copies of daily wire stories to KXLY, which had virtually no access to its studio or equipment after the fire.

By 7 p.m., investigators came into the building and found the TV equipment undamaged. At that point, the station started beaming network programs directly to Mount Spokane and started planning a normal 11 p.m. newscast.

KXLY’s AM and FM radio signals were both cut off when the station shut down its power shortly before 2:30 p.m. Using remote broadcasting and a booth lent by KGA-AM radio, KXLY resumed its AM transmission at 4:30 p.m.

By 6:30, KXLY’s FM signal was turned back on By today, both AM and FM stations were carrying normal programs, said radio news director Doug Raper.

Tuesday, June 14, 1988

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From → KXLY

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