Something in the Air

Lookout Mountain is a hot spot in the battle over broadcast emissions.

Mark Grueskin, attorney for Channel 31, declined to publicly discuss these issues, while Jeffco administrator Holliday did not return repeated calls for comment.

Why does the FCC care if stations are up to snuff, digitally speaking? Money has a lot to do with it. With digital established as television's next frontier, the commission wants to do away with analog TV broadcasting in order to auction off the existing spectrums to the highest bidders, be they Internet-related firms, telephone companies or communication operators of other sorts. This process has already started, with channels 60 through 69 having been reallocated for use by public-safety services such as police, fire or emergency medical agencies. That leaves a whole lot of other channels for commercial exploitation, but none of them can be peddled until there's at least 85 percent digital penetration in any given market -- meaning that consumers can receive digital signals by any method, be it over the air or via cable or satellite.

Denver isn't even close to fulfilling this dictate right now, and Ogden, whose station prides itself on keeping pace with technological advances, is feeling the heat.

Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.
Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.
Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.
John Johnston
Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.

"We're concerned about resolving this, and we have been for a long time," he says. "The clock is ticking."

After the Jefferson County Planning Commission recommended approving the Lake Cedar Group's rezoning request for the proposed digital tower in January 1999, the public-relations cage match between CARE and the broadcasters began in earnest.

In February, CARE held separate town meetings with Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Tom Tancredo, who later sent a joint letter to FCC chairman Kennard asking that the commission leave any decision about the tower to the county. (Kennard replied that the FCC preferred to let locals make land-use decisions -- a valuable statement considering the Lake Cedar Group complaint currently awaiting FCC action.) CARE also staged a demonstration at the county government complex, aka the Taj Mahal, complete with children wearing sandwich boards ("Use Your Power, Stop the Tower") and the presentation of a petition signed by about 3,000 residents. And at CARE's behest, the Jeffco school board urged the county commissioners to deny the tower proposal because of Ralston Elementary.

The group also whipped up a letter-writing campaign aimed at Channel 6, which had sent out a mailing the previous November under general manager Morgese's signature asking Rocky Mountain PBS viewers to support "the station's move to digital broadcasting" by backing the tower. (Benefits of digital noted in the letter include "a superior picture and sound," "at least four simultaneous program channels" and "broadcast data to home, school and workplace.")

In response, Morgese sent out lengthy form letters telling his correspondents they'd been "duped into believing the misinformation of this small but zealous group." But when he received a complaint from celebrity chef and longtime PBS star Julia Child, whose niece Phila Cousins lives on Lookout Mountain, Morgese made a few alterations in the boiler plate for his response to her. He opened with a thanks "for your tireless work and dedication" to stations like his, and concluded with an apology for having been "so blunt with a loyal friend of public broadcasting such as yourself. However, I cannot accept the kind of tactics being employed in opposition to this effort."

At hearings before the Jefferson County commissioners in June and July, the stakes rose accordingly, with CARE trotting out a veritable horde of Lookout Mountain dwellers to testify against the tower, and practically burying the decision-makers in medical data.

The Lake Cedar Group countered with experts such as Gerald Bushberg, a professor of radiology at the University of California at Davis, who spoke in favor of current FCC safety standards, and Dr. Philip Cole, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama, who said that, in his opinion, "not one single study of RF and cancer could be said to be strongly persuasive as to causality."

The conflicting medical opinions presented a conundrum for the commissioners, and they ultimately decided that rather than choosing one over the other, they'd set them aside entirely. According to Rick Sheehan, the head of the commission, "There was no definitive testimony to us that suggested that there are health-related problems at that location. We take immediate action on hot spots, and mark those areas out so residents aren't walking in them. But otherwise, health was not a specific factor in our decision."

Instead, the commissioners turned down the Lake Cedar Group on grounds that had been little discussed publicly: One of these was the safety of the tower itself. "There were residences below the tower," Sheehan says, "and we needed to be certain that there was a radius around the tower large enough so that if it fell, it would not land on residences or individuals. And there wasn't."

The broadcasters weren't completely blindsided by this issue, having secured the testimony of Howard Hill, a forensics structural analyst from Chicago who argued that the tower could remain unbowed in winds as high as 125 miles per hour, and Ray White, a structural engineer from South Carolina certain that the digital tower's design was an ultra-sturdy one. Also weighing in was attorney Ragonetti, who said that the issue was being overstated: "The Channel 4 tower has been standing at that height for fifty years and has not failed," he pointed out.

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