For the most part, the digital TV revolution is not being televised in Denver -- and with a series of disputes over broadcasting towers in varying states of gridlock, this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Nevertheless, the clock continues to tick. Several years ago, the Federal Communications Commission directed American TV stations to switch their signals from analog to digital -- also known as HDTV, or high-definition TV -- by 2006; in theory, this change will produce better picture quality for consumers who own the proper equipment even as it gives the FCC a chance to auction off vacated portions of the telecommunications spectrum to phone companies, Internet endeavors and the like. As part of this mandate, Denver outlets were ordered to be HDTV-ready by November 1999.
Over two years later, the city is not even close to completing this task. Channel 31 has a digital antenna on Lookout Mountain that will begin broadcasting an HDTV network feed with this year's Super Bowl, but several other stations are relying on stopgaps: Channel 7 has a low-power digital antenna on its building, and channels 4 and 6 are using similar devices mounted on downtown's Republic Plaza. As a result, says Channel 6 president and general manager James Morgese, Denver is the only one of the top fifty U.S. markets not on board the digital express.
Why not? The biggest factor is the failure of a pitch by the Lake Cedar Group, a consortium of area broadcasters that includes channels 4, 6, 7, 9 and 20, to build a digital "supertower" in a jam-packed nest of antennas on Lookout Mountain, west of Denver. Jefferson County commissioners snubbed the concept after local residents raised concerns about health, safety, lifestyle and visual-impact issues ("Something in the Air," April 6, 2000).
"It was a long fight," says Deb Carney, attorney for Canyon Area Residents for the Environment, or CARE, a collective of Lookout Mountain-area inhabitants that led the protests. "And it's not over yet."
She's right. The Lake Cedar Group responded to the commisioners' thumbs-down by filing a suit in Jefferson County Court to reverse the edict and by petitioning the FCC to overrule Jeffco in what could become a precedent-setting showdown between the federal government and a local municipality. But Lake Cedar withdrew its suit last year in the face of almost certain defeat, and while the complaint to the FCC is still pending (Carney calls it "the sword hanging over the commissioners' heads"), Fred Niehaus, a consultant and spokesman for the group, says the focus now is on a new tower proposition to be unveiled sometime this spring.
"I think we can bring together a reasonable, rational approach," Niehaus says. "It won't be all things to all people, including the stations, but it has the potential to take steps forward in every area."
Lake Cedar's tower scheme is hardly the only one on this track. Three more are scheduled for presentation to Jeffco officials in the coming months, setting up scraps at a trio of broadcasting sites: Lookout Mountain; Eldorado Mountain, a scenic mecca a few miles south of Boulder; and Mount Morrison, near Red Rocks. That leaves Squaw Mountain, a Clear Creek County property that neighborhood groups tout as safe but many broadcasters aren't sold on, as the only significant antenna farm in the area that's not about to become major combat zone.
Regarding Lookout Mountain, Clear Channel is readying an application to replace a tower that broadcasts KDFM, popularly referred to as KISS-FM, in an attempt to return the station to full power; right now, KISS is broadcasting at only 38 percent of its permitted wattage in order to prevent the creation of so-called hot spots -- areas on the ground where radio-frequency emissions are over FCC limits. Meanwhile, Florida-based Pinnacle Towers Inc. is set to appear before the county planning commission on February 6 with an altered version of a plan to erect towers on Eldorado Mountain that the same commission rebuffed in November. Finally, on March 13, Public Interest Communications (PIC), an alliance featuring Channel 6, Colorado Public Radio and KUVO, is tentatively slated to offer tower initiatives for Mount Morrison. Among PIC's suggestions is the installation of a horizontal tower -- a strange-looking, jungle-gym-like contraption that doesn't jut into the sky, but runs along the ground in a manner that's supposed to be tougher to see from a distance than its vertical cousins.
"We believe we've discovered a way to make the structure less visible by placing it on its side," notes Channel 6's Morgese. "It's a surprise to me that it would work, but all the engineers I've talked to have said it will."
No one will know for certain if assorted community groups get their way -- and thus far, they have. CARE opposes the placement of any new towers or antennas on either Lookout Mountain or Mount Morrison, and its allies in the cause include the Genessee Foundation, which is trying to organize a boycott of PIC stations, and the Friends of Red Rocks, a gaggle of dedicated music lovers who were instrumental in preventing radical changes to Red Rocks Amphitheater ("Red Alert," September 16, 1999). At the same time, the thought of more towers on Eldorado Mountain -- home to the antenna of just one commercial station, KBCO -- has fired up a slew of savvy neighborhood factions such as the Coal Creek Canyon Homeowners Association.
Despite their philosophical kinship, however, CARE and the Eldorado crowd don't always see eye to eye. Carney was particularly outraged over testimony before the Jeffco planning commission last year by Claire Levy, a onetime Jefferson County assistant attorney and present Eldorado-area resident who emphasized that Lookout Mountain remained a viable spot to place a digital tower. For her part, Levy feels she was misinterpreted. "I didn't mean that it was a good idea," she says. "I don't really have an opinion on that. I just meant that it's still possible legally and practically, and I didn't want the commissioners to view Eldorado as a solution to Lookout Mountain."
Chris Wood, a trustee with an association affiliated with the Coal Creek Canyon HOA, feels that tension between the groups was fostered by Pinnacle Towers. "From the very beginning, they tried to pit the communities against each other. For one thing, they presented a study that tried to show that the property impact of a tower on Lookout Mountain would be higher than it would be in Coal Creek Canyon -- the implication being that they should put the tower on Eldorado Mountain. But to me, that type of approach is incredibly counterproductive. We just wish they'd focus on the issues."
The attorney for Pinnacle, Joseph Benkert, insists that his employer is doing just that, and he rejects the charge that anyone has tried to undermine neighborhood groups by tricking them into distracting squabbles. But whatever the case, there's no doubt that the anti-tower bloc has been uncommonly effective -- and experience has played a large role in its success. In 1981, Boulder's Flatiron Sand and Gravel Company applied to mine land near Eldorado Mountain, but the request was denied two years later in the face of widespread community objections. Golden-based Asphalt Paving eventually asked Jefferson County for permission to build a quarry in the same spot, but it, too, was rebuffed after participants in the Coal Creek Canyon HOA, including Wood and numerous veterans of the Flatiron struggle, raised a stink ("Digging In," October 7, 1999).
These same players, all of whom want to preserve the beauty of the mountain backdrop, are currently staring down Pinnacle, and Benkert acknowledges that their efforts to date have been primarily responsible for the chilly reception his firm has received from the planning commission. For instance, the tower challengers individually contacted every local TV station in an attempt to learn if any of them had made a deal with Pinnacle to put digital antennas on Eldorado Mountain, and they received negative replies from each. (Benkert says that "broadcasters have committed to our site," but he won't say which ones or how many.) Opponents received another boost from Boulder congressman Mark Udall, who fears that transmissions could disrupt a "quiet zone" over Boulder that's maintained for testing by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And they also managed to convince the Coal Creek Canyon Fire Protection District to line up against the Pinnacle plan on the grounds of potential fire danger exacerbated by the relative ruggedness and steepness of the road leading to the site.
Benkert believes these concerns are considerably overstated, but Pinnacle's new bid takes several of them into account: The number of towers has been reduced from three to one (but with an option to put up two more in the future), a heliport has been eliminated, and the size and capacity of a proposed 40,000-gallon diesel-fuel tank have been cut in half. Despite these changes, Benkert still regards approval from the planning commission to be "an uphill climb. After all, its earlier decision represented more the perception of the facts shown by the people testifying than what we were actually proposing. Ultimately, though, I think we'll prevail, because I believe we have the best proposal of any of the sites in the metro area, and the one that best serves the health concerns of citizens in Jefferson County."
Health dangers are the most difficult aspect of the tower controversy to quantify. Since nonionizing radiation has been shown to be harmful at intensities that heat the body (scientists call it "the thermal effect"), the FCC upholds safety standards for radio frequencies, or RF. But there's no consensus about the risks inherent in RF exposure at lower levels, with some studies showing no detrimental consequences and others hinting at connections to numerous maladies, including several virulent forms of cancer. Numerous Lookout Mountain residents have either become sick or died from some of these illnesses, but such evidence is considered anecdotal.
More definitive information may be provided by an ongoing Colorado State University study of 300 Lookout Mountain residents that should be completed in 2004, and the folks at CARE have urged broadcasters not to push ahead at either Lookout Mountain or Mount Morrison until its conclusions are published. But Jack Lambiotte, chief engineer for Clear Channel-Denver, who predicts that the application to replace the KISS tower won't go before the Jeffco planning commission because it fits within Clear Channel's permit for the site, sees no reason to wait. "A new tower will improve the RF situation," Lambiotte says. "We're up against the FCC limits now, but a new tower will not only get us up to full power, it will substantially reduce the RF." He adds, "I want to be as good a neighbor as possible."
Like Lambiotte, Channel 6's Morgese is confident that existing RF standards are safe. But he's just as certain that further tower delays aren't feasible. "We're starting to run out of time," he allows. "I take the federal deadline seriously -- and if you gamble on that and lose, you lose your license, too."
For that reason, Morgese is sticking with the Lake Cedar Group but hedging his bet with the Mount Morrison plan. A co-venture between PIC and Bear Creek Development, which owns the Mount Morrison site, the proposal aims to let commissioners choose between a 260-foot vertical tower that's slightly smaller than one it would replace, and the horizontal model, which wouldn't need to be lighted and painted to specifications dictated for towers by the Federal Aviation Administration because of its squat design. "They've got the option," says Leo Bradley, Bear Creek Development's president. "They can go with whichever one they like best."
Neither notion thrills Mike Ballard, a spokesman for the Friends of Red Rocks who's afraid the towers may become eyesores for visitors to the amphitheater and the park in which it's located. "We're more interested in being proactive about finding solutions rather than just being obstructionist," he says. "But we are concerned."
Considerably more revved up is Paul Dempsey, a law professor at the University of Denver who serves as board president of the Genessee Foundation Home Owners Association. In October, Dempsey mailed a letter to 800 Genessee households asking residents to "join us in a boycott of future financial contributions to Rocky Mountain PBS [Channel 6], Colorado Public Radio and KUVO-FM. During their next fund drives, call them and tell them why." Dempsey says he didn't do so lightly, having previously thought of the members of PIC "as being dedicated to the highest principles of public interest. But they seem instead to be as money-hungry as any private-enterprise entity."
To Bear Creek Development's Bradley, this contention doesn't justify Dempsey's actions. "I was absolutely appalled when I saw his approach," he growls. "The very thought that a law professor who's probably teaching future lawyers would try to get his point across by boycotting public radio and TV stations is appalling to me."
As this comment indicates, the broadcasters embroiled in this seemingly endless war are beginning to lose their patience. In the past, Channel 6's Morgese has avoided public criticism of community groups, but now he declares, "I've been doing this for ten years, and I haven't seen a willingness for those who are crying out against the proposals to accept anything but clearing Lookout Mountain of every tower. You can't negotiate with folks like that."
Likewise, the neighborhood activists can find little nice to say about the TV and radio executives. "We're facing three zoning hearings," says CARE's Carney, "and each of them is a bad business decision. Because the science is eventually going to establish that the emissions are harmful, and they'll all have to get out of here."
Race to the finish line: Prior to October 26, columnist Gene Amole, who's worked for the Rocky Mountain News since the late '70s, was appearing in print infrequently. But after that day, when Amole dramatically revealed that he intended to document his own looming death in diary fashion, far more prose than anyone expected has flooded out of him. Recently, pieces by gossip columnist Penny Parker had to be moved to the back of the paper to make room for his latest update.
At this point, some of Amole's columns are more typing than writing: January 15's heartrending "Pain Becomes Ugly Companion" was followed a day later by a compendium of random observations that concluded with the news that his wife had picked up copies of Planet of the Apes and Moulin Rouge at Blockbuster. But the knowledge that Amole won't be around much longer adds resonance to even his slightest efforts, as does the disclosure of how the diary is helping him come to grips with his fate.
"Yes, I am writing more," Amole conceded in an e-mail sent last week. "For years, my assignment was writing three columns a week, but as I began this diary project, I found myself writing more. For some strange reason I don't understand, this project seems to be energizing me. It is so strange. The weaker I get, the more columns I am able to crank out. Right now, for example, I am exhausted and about to bed down for the day. I shall probably wake up later and write another column. I know I'll probably be able to file it sometime tonight.
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"I think, though, that I won't be able to keep up this pace much longer," he continued. "I have about six columns in the pipeline now. I told [News editor] John Temple yesterday that I won't be able to keep up this pace much longer, and he understands how I shall probably be back to three a week and then dribble to fewer. I am going to keep writing until I am no longer able to write. This has become my raison d'être, or something like that."
One more thing: "Yes, I have written a final column to be published when I die. I have filed it with John, and he and I are the only ones who will see it until the end."
Which will come too soon.