Radio Days — The Snowbound Satellite Dish

This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.

I grew up and went to college in a state that hurls mighty tests of fortitude at the citizenry during the months that surround the turning of the calendar. To paraphrase a pillow that famously sat on the couch of Bette Davis, Wisconsin winters ain’t no place for sissies. Luckily, I had a broadcast booth to keep me warm. However, my obligations to the effective continuous running of the radio station that booth served occasionally meant venturing outdoors in the most ridiculous places at the most treacherous moments.

During my undergraduate years at college radio station WWSP-FM, we were proud subscribers to various services of the Associated Press. Our in-house newsbreaks relied heavily on the stories that were feed to use by the wire service, typed out on a dot matrix printer in the news studio closet, and we often threw to an AP audio feed at the top of the hour for a five-minute recap of the latest happenings nationally and internationally. That audio came to us by satellite, pulled in by a hefty dish on the roof of the Communication Arts Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The technology was sound. The only thing that could thwart it was an accumulation of ice crystals dropped from the sky.

Invariably, the AP feed went down a couple times per winter, and we were always certain of the culprit. After a particularly sizable snowfall, there would be enough accumulation in the dish to impede receipt of the signal. Unlike other times the equipment acted up, there was no broadcast engineer coming to our rescue. Us radio kids were on our own, and the solution was far from elegant. There was a third-floor storage room in the Comm building that provided access to the portion of the roof where the dish was bolted into place.

Because this dilemma often occurred during winter break, when the radio station staff were the only people in this particular academic building for weeks on end, accessing the locked storage room often meant breaking into the Communication Department main office and borrowing the building master key that were probably weren’t supposed to know about. Then it was up on the rooftop, click-click-click, trudging through a thick blanket of snow to flail at the dish with a broom until we felt that maybe we’d cleared enough of the white stuff away to again grace Portage County listeners with the mellifluous tones of Thelma LeBrecht, Camille Bohannon, and other AP Radio Network anchors.

Like every other aspect of my tenure as a student broadcaster, I view these frigid missions with deep nostalgic affection. Maybe it wasn’t all that daring of an adventure, but it was an adventure nonetheless. To this day, seeing flakes flit through the air can make me think of prying open that window and bounding to duty.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.

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