Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tech radio station set to reach more listeners

After two years of work and about $156,000 in donations, a new signal will allow WUVT listeners to get a clear signal into most of Giles and Pulaski counties and the town of Floyd.

Kevin Sterne, who recently finished a term as chief engineer of Virginia Tech student radio station WUVT, sits in the station's studio in Squires Student Center. Sterne says getting a stronger signal for the station will be

Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

Kevin Sterne, who recently finished a term as chief engineer of Virginia Tech student radio station WUVT, sits in the station's studio in Squires Student Center. Sterne says getting a stronger signal for the station will be "awesome." "It's always a funny thing, any time I take a trip out of town, somebody from the station calls us when the transmitter goes bad," Sterne says. "And they'll give me a call 10 minutes after I get out of town."

VT radio coverage

WUVT footprint

Predicting exactly where WUVT’s new, 6,500-watt, 90.7 FM signal will reach is an inexact science. As former WUVT chief engineer Kevin Sterne explained, it’s "kind of an engineer’s worst nightmare around here. The mountains kind of really play funny games." But the maps below estimate where the station’s old, 3,000-watt signal from Lee Hall reached and where the new signal from Price Mountain is likely to reach. Listeners anywhere inside the red line should receive a consistently clear signal while those inside the purple are likely to get spotty reception. WUVT has been broadcasting a weak, 25-watt signal, since university renovations forced it from Lee Hall in mid-May.

BLACKSBURG -- Kevin Sterne is looking forward to the day when Virginia Tech's student radio station breaks free of the current 25-watt signal that confines it to Blacksburg and blows right past its former high mark of 3,000 watts.

After two years of work, a new signal, more than twice as powerful, broadcasting from an antenna atop Price Mountain, is coming soon. WUVT listeners should get a clear signal into most of Giles and Pulaski counties as well as the town of Floyd some time in July.

"It'll be everything to me, it'll be awesome," said Sterne, a graduate student at Tech who recently finished a term as the station's chief engineer that spanned more than two years. "It's always a funny thing, any time I take a trip out of town, somebody from the station ... calls us when the transmitter goes bad. And they'll give me a call 10 minutes after I get out of town."

Over the past two years Sterne has had more important things to worry about than WUVT's broadcasting ability. He was an undergraduate at Tech when he was wounded in the April 16, 2007, shootings that resulted in the deaths of 33 students and faculty.

A photo of Sterne being carried out of Norris Hall after he was shot twice in the right leg in German class became the iconic image of the tragedy. Despite the injury, Sterne returned to Tech and is on pace to receive a master's degree in electrical engineering in December.

Kelly Wolff, general manager of the Educational Media Co. at Virginia Tech Inc., said she's seen many students become hooked on working at WUVT, "but Kevin was even beyond that."

For the first four months of 2007, he spent every free night he had atop Tech's Lee Hall, trying to repair Harriet -- the station's 1984 electronic transmitter. It had frequent problems for years because of overheating and went down about Christmastime 2006.

"They literally took Harriet apart piece by piece, replaced almost every single piece trying to get her back up and working," Wolff said about Sterne and other engineers at the station.

They couldn't fix Harriet, but Sterne said he thinks they got the station's signal up to 1,000 watts, about a third of its normal power, holding emergency fund drives throughout the winter.

Speaking in a laid-back, mellow tone, Sterne isn't prone to hyperbole. But he admitted that, yes, he did ask about WUVT when he came out of surgery the day of the shootings. The station's annual spring radiothon fund drive ended at midnight April 15.

"How did we do last night?" he asked a couple of the station disc jockeys who showed up at the hospital to see him.

In previous years, the station typically raised about $10,000 combined, much of it through fall and spring radiothons. But WUVT was about to receive donations out of scale with any gifts it had ever received. The media coverage of the shootings, and the photo of Sterne, called the station to the attention of donors and people in the industry. WUVT raised about $26,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007.

Steve Davis, senior vice president of engineering at Clear Channel Radio, orchestrated several gifts of time and equipment that got WUVT's signal back to 3,000 watts in May 2007 and cleared the way for new equipment and location that will bring it to 6,500 watts. At the moment, the signal is greatly reduced and broadcasting from Squires Student Center because of university renovations to Lee Hall that began this past May.

In the past two years, about $156,000 in donations in the form of equipment and cash have poured in, along with in-kind aid. Professional engineers helped with equipment repairs and construction companies helped relocate a former state police building to Price Mountain in Christiansburg -- site of WUVT's new equipment. A San Francisco law firm worked pro bono to help the station apply for a stronger signal with the Federal Communications Commission.

Wolff said many people and companies gave generously, but Davis was the driving force that brought it together.

"It's great to have a chance to help with something like that," Davis said. "In my line of work, I don't often get to work with college folks, but it was a wonderful opportunity."

It all helped turn what Sterne called, "an impossible situation" into a legacy that future students can benefit from as the 61-year-old station's music and programs reach a wider audience.

"The work we're doing is for everybody that has been involved with WUVT, that's been touched by WUVT," Sterne said. "It's also keeping it going, it's keeping it going for everybody who is yet to come. So kind of leaving that ... for everyone who will come along afterwards will be pretty nice."

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