During every member drive, representatives of WDSE, Duluth’s PBS affiliate, make the tried-and-true argument to solicit financial support: Our great programming depends on viewers like you.
But now it seems the outstanding public television programming broadcast by WDSE is no longer available to viewers living in northwestern St. Louis and eastern Koochiching counties, whether viewers there support the station or not. It turns out, in this instance, WDSE’s great programming depends on WDSE investing a little of its own money to serve this remote region.
As we report this week, the small nonprofit organization that has operated a tower and transmitter on the Gheen Hill for decades has run out of money to keep it going, and when they turned off the power last week, people noticed, because the television programming they enjoyed suddenly disappeared. The region is too far from either Duluth or Hibbing to receive over-the-air broadcasts without assistance from the transmitter just south of Orr. And because the transmitter is a critical link in a daisy chain of transmitters serving the region, the loss of the single transmitter left the whole area in the dark.
While the power is back on, at least for now, it can’t remain on without help. The nonprofit, known as Orr Area Minneonto II, has no employees, just a secretary/treasurer who has done the work to keep the transmitter going for nearly thirty years. They’ve been assisted by Voyageur Communications, a three-person company based in International Falls that has helped provide maintenance at no charge for the past seven years simply to try to keep the service on the air.
For years, OAM II had two reliable sources of funding to pay the power bill, upgrade the service as necessary, and maintain the tower, which now needs a $7,000 paint job to remain in compliance with federal rules. But those funding sources have disappeared as have the minimal cash reserves the organization had once been able to maintain.
The organization has turned to the Duluth television stations that rely on the transmitter’s boost to help pay for it, to the tune of $150 a month. It’s not a big ask, and two stations, ABC and Fox, have already indicated that they view it as a worthwhile investment to reach viewers on the northern fringes of their coverage area. But WDSE has ruled it out, which is disappointing for an organization that should certainly understand the value of pitching in to make quality programming possible.
For years, WDSE has enjoyed the benefits of expanded reach for its programming, without having to invest in building or maintaining its own infrastructure. It’s no different from the television viewer who enjoys watching PBS, but doesn’t contribute to help keep such quality programming on the air.
For many isolated residents, particularly seniors, who live widely-scattered across northwestern St. Louis and eastern Koochiching counties, PBS is a lifeline. Many don’t have reliable Internet access and can’t afford the cost of satellite television. For them, PBS is a trusted, quality news source as well as their source of entertainment from nature documentaries to top-notch concerts, to Masterpiece Theater.
Perhaps the one saving grace in this recent episode is that it confirmed to WDSE that, in fact, it has many dedicated viewers up in this region. And it reminded residents who have been without PBS for the past several days, that it is programming they value, and may be willing to help support financially, once it’s back on the air.
If an entity like the IRRRB could provide some of the $7,000 needed to paint OAM II’s tower, the broadcasts should be able to continue to operate for years to come with a little help monthly from the television stations whose signals they carry. And that would provide benefits to everyone in this far-flung region.
Let’s make it happen.