Going to great heights to build new WKAR tower

Okemos, MI – Here at WKAR, our new transmission tower is complete, and the new antennas are in place. That means no more periods of reduced signal on our FM station, and WKAR-TV is now broadcasting to some viewers who couldn't pick up the station before.

For the people who are working on the tower, going to work means going straight up 1,000 feet. | SKIP down to article

You can get to the top of WKAR's new tower two ways, in a basket or climbing a ladder that runs up the inside of the tower. Madison Batt is a tower consultant. He's making final inspections, looking for loose bolts, paint chips, anything that's not installed correctly. Batt goes up in a basket and comes down the ladder. He says it isn't scary for him.

"I'm not afraid of heights, but for people who like to keep their two feet on the ground it is," says Batt. "They couldn't get up five feet on that thing. Everybody realizes I'm a little different. I just don't mind it. It's just one of those things. I don't mind the heights."

Of course, Batt wears a harness, and he's tied to a safety line. He got interested in towers because he loved rock climbing.

"I was living in Seattle, and I had climbed Mt. St. Helen's before it blew back in 1980," says Batt. "The company I used to work for said they knew I was a rock climber, and they had a tower that needed to be inspected. That's how I got into the business."

Up until now, WKAR has been broadcasting from a tower built in 1953. The new tower looks a lot like the old one, but it has a more modern base. It sits on a pin, which allows it to rotate in rough windy weather.

Gary Blievernicht is WKAR's Director of Engineering. He says the crew started building the new tower about four months ago and as of today, it's fully functional.

"Television's on a brand new antenna that's got about eight times as much power as the other antenna had, and radio is on a new antenna," says Blievernicht. "A lot of good has come out of this project, but it's been painful because both have been at low power for a lot longer than we'd like as we were moving the new antennas into place."

With the new antenna, the TV signal is more powerful with a larger coverage area. It's also stronger in the Lansing area. Blievernicht says viewers who had trouble getting the signal with their indoor antennas could be able to pick it up now. FM Radio listeners won't notice much difference, but the signal will likely be more reliable, particularly during the winter months.Blievernicht says all that's left to do now is to finish dismantling the old tower.

"As we speak, the tower that went up in 1953 is coming down, and it looks to be about 500 feet," says Blievernicht. "A few weeks ago, it was a thousand feet, and now it's 500. So it's coming down at about 30 feet at a time as the crew works to bring it down."

Project manager Shawn Knotts says the biggest challenge was working on the new tower with the old one right next to it.

"They had to stack one right next to the other one," says Knotts. "They do sway. Not a lot, but they'll sway a little bit as far as the give in the wires and everything else."

"And if you look down the wires, you can see the wires moving," says Tom Stilliman. He's CEO of Electronics Research, the company that built the tower. He says they call that sensation "creep". It's when you're standing at the top of a tower and all of a sudden you're in a different spot. It's the wires moving in the wind.

"Moving up and down and as they move up and down, you're moving back and forth maybe five or six feet," says Stilliman.

In spite of "creep", Stilliman says he's never been afraid of heights. In the more than 40 years he's been climbing towers, he's never had a fall or had to rescue anyone.

That's also true of Madison Batt, the tower inspector. And he really loves climbing towers.

"When you get up there, it's really cool," says Batt. "The views are great, the feeling is great. You go "Wow! This is neat." There are a lot of good things about it as long as you're working safe."

Batt and the crew still have a lot of work to do at the site. They have to finish dismantling the old tower and haul away the debris and equipment. They expect to be finished in about a month.