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SNG: Stories From The Trenches

By | December 10, 2000

      By James Careless

      They’re the unsung heroes of the news: the dedicated, hard-working, and often ingeniously inventive people who operate SNG (satellite newsgathering) trucks out in the field. Never mind if that field is host to war, natural disasters, or overly-tough security guards: these SNG soldiers are out there in the trenches, getting the pictures out to a waiting world.

      In tribute, Via Satellite has spoken to a few of SNG’s top engineers, to get their accounts of life in the field. The stories they gave us are both funny and sad, deadly serious and bizarre.

      Sng’s First Engineer

      Ray Conover, vice president and director of engineering for Conus Communications, claims to be the first-ever SNG engineer. That’s because Conus was the first company to build an SNG van, launching entirely new forms of newsgathering and satellite services.

      “It was a natural outgrowth of what we were doing in ENG (electronic newsgathering) back in the 1970s,” he recalls. “It got kind of nutty in the TV news business using helicopters to relay stuff. Satellites just seemed the more logical way to get the stories out.”

      However, back in the ’70s the satellite industry wasn’t ready for SNG. In fact, it wasn’t until 1984 that the necessary match of suitable Ku-band capacity and small satellite antennas became available. Once it did, Conus hired Hubbcom–a subsidiary of Hubbard Communications–to build the world’s first SNG truck. Based on a Ford van chassis, it was christened 2.4m GT/AC‚ by Hubbcom’s engineers.

      “The 2.4 stood for the size of the antenna,” says Conover. “Meanwhile, the GT/AC‚ was their little joke. Because this van had a roll-down steel door–which opened to roll out the antenna–it looked like a small garbage truck. Hence the acronym GT/AC, which they claim stood for ‘garbage truck/air conditioned.'”

      Loaded with room for some racks and a single operator, Conus’ 2.4m GT/AC was soon on the road, advertising the possibilities of SNG. To drive home the message, Conus took the truck first to NAB 1984, then to TV stations across the United States.

      However, it wasn’t until a tornado wiped out the small town of Barneveld, WI, that the 2.4m GT/AC got its first taste of battle. Ironically, as the truck’s operator, Conover himself reached the scene before Conus’ SNG van did. “I flew in on an airplane,” he explains. “Meanwhile, the 2.4m GT/AC didn’t get there until several hours later, because it had to drive in from Chicago.”

      As it turned out, Ray Conover’s early arrival turned out to be a blessing. Because the local phone company had been destroyed in the storm, “AT&T had set out a table of telephones, for use by the residents,” he says. “Since I didn’t have anything to do until the truck arrived, I soon found myself helping people use these phones. And since I was the only person who wasn’t covered in mud, they soon assumed that I was the person in charge.”

      Conover’s aura of authority, coupled with a drop-off in demand for the phones, helped 2.4m GT/AC get its signals out to the rest of the world. That’s because the 2.4m GT/AC was only equipped to send out audio and video. There were no channels or equipment available to provide two-way communications between the truck and any broadcasters.

      “Faced with this, I responded by assigning myself a telephone line for two-way communications,” says Conover. Not only did this allow 2.4m GT/AC to do its job, but it also set the standard for SNG engineers improvising in the face of chaos: a necessary tradition that exists within the profession today.

      Since that early broadcast, 2.4m GT/AC has covered many news shoots. In fact, “it’s been recently retired from service at our Florida bureau,” says Ray Conover, “and is going to be donated to the Newseum in Washington, DC.”

      To say the least, the contribution of this “garbage truck, air conditioned” to the world of TV news and satellite services can’t be overstated. Like the Wright Flyer and the Sputnik satellite, 2.4m GT/AC was the first of its breed, and a true pioneer.

      Life On Sng’s Front Lines

      When it comes to the image of the globe-trotting, danger-daring SNG engineer, Eddie Maalouf fits the bill. That’s because Pacsat’s Engineer in Charge has been in the world’s hot spots during his career, from the Gulf War to Bosnia and beyond.

      Ironically, Maalouf’s endurance stint in the Gulf War–at 5.5 months, one of the longest served by any SNG operator or journalist–was entirely unintentional. He had gone in there for PVS (Professional Video Services) to set up links in Kuwait when war was threatening. However, the fast pace of events not only stranded Maalouf over there, but kept him on the move. By the Gulf War’s end, he’d hauled his 1.8-meter antenna right out into the desert, and then deep into southern Iraq.

      Along the way, Maalouf captured the first-ever video of a U.S. Patriot missile taking down an Iraqi Scud over Dhaharan, Saudi Arabia. “I was shooting using my home video camera, when all at once I got the Patriot hitting the Scud,” he recalls. “On the tape, you can see the explosion and bits of debris falling around.” That footage was eventually beamed worldwide by CNN.

      This said, the Gulf War wasn’t as bad as Bosnia, says Maalouf. Caught in the endless Sarajevo firefight, he and his crew had to take shelter by a Sarajevo television station. “We chose a location by an overhang for parking the SNG van,” Maalouf says. “When the shrapnel and bullets started flying, we could pull down the antenna and park underneath, to get some degree of protection.”

      “We never used the SNG van to drive around Sarajevo or out of the city,” he adds. “The van was kind of disabled. [Instead] we pushed it around from one position to another depending on the satellite we needed to hit or whether there was too much shelling or not. We used the van really to store and protect the transmission equipment from the weather.”

      Thanks to the Serbian blockade, Sarajevo was a hellish location in which to work. The only way in and out was by UN planes; and, when the Serbs blocked these, the only alternative was a road into the mountains surrounding the city. Because international journalists were accredited to both sides of the conflict, Maalouf could in theory drive out for supplies. However, the trip was long and dangerous, requiring the use of either an armored Opel or armored Land Rover which, thankfully, didn’t have to be pushed.

      As bad as this was, it was “the human factor” that made Bosnia even worse for Eddie Maalouf. “Although the press could move back and forth to buy supplies, the local people couldn’t,” he says. “For people who needed medicine–from kids with diabetes to seniors with heart conditions–the situation was critical. Officially we weren’t supposed to help by bringing in supplies. However, there were times when you just had to.”

      Of course, not all of Maalouf’s SNG experiences are so grim. For instance, while working in Jordan, he discovered that the one critical pin in a 32 pin connector had broken, thus depriving his uplink amplifier of power.

      “Desperate, I went around looking for a dressmaker’s shop in order to find a pin that might work,” he says. “I found one, bought a pin, cut it to size, and shoved it in the connector. Thankfully it did the trick, and we got the video out.”

      Still, with so many tough assignments under his belt, one wonders what keeps Maalouf in the SNG business? The answer is two-fold, he replies. “It’s the excitement, and also the client asking for you because they know you can get the job done. Mostly it’s the excitement: just the rush you get from going from zero to full operation as fast as you can in difficult circumstances.”

      Live From “The Rock”

      Satellite newsgathering isn’t always a bleak experience. In fact, sometimes it can be downright glamorous, as PSSI president Rob Lamb discovered when he uplinked the premiere of the movie “The Rock.”

      The year was 1996. The location: Alcatraz. That’s right: the famed island prison in San Francisco Bay. Since the film starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage had been filmed on “The Rock”–in fact, Alcatraz itself had been the movie’s central “character”–it only made sense to premiere the movie there.

      Of course, since Alcatraz is on an island, driving PSSI’s SNG van there was out of the question. Instead, the company had to take it out there by ship, says Lamb. “To do the job, we had to put the satellite truck on a barge that had its own crane. The crane lifted the truck on board, then the barge sailed over to Alcatraz. Once there, it had to lift the truck ashore.”

      Alcatraz isn’t the only unique location in which Lamb has found himself. He also used the van to supply uplinks for Geraldo Rivera’s live specials, including those that covered drug busts throughout the United States.

      Because these busts were well-guarded secrets, the best PSSI could do was to park their SNG trucks within five to ten minutes of flying distance. The reason? They didn’t want to tip anybody off that something was “going down” in the neighborhood.

      “Back then satellite uplink trucks and TV production vans didn’t have great flexibility and long-term battery power when utilizing portable cell phones for remote, on the run, portable IFB and PL-intercom interfaces,” Lamb explains. Still, “all the systems worked wonderfully, except once when the generator was tripped in the production van as we were pulling in front of a drug bust. All cell phone coordination went down, as well as our microwave link to the circling helicopter.”

      Responding quickly, “we asked that the drug enforcement officers hold back on entering the location until systems could be quickly reestablished,” says Lamb. “They waited as long as they could, not to endanger us further, and New York cut to us just as we were approaching and entering the front door.”

      As well, Lamb found himself in the SNG van for events like Michael Jackson’s response to sexual abuse allegations, and to uplink the famous “live” episode of “ER.”

      The first event found PSSI trucks admitted to Jackson’s secretive “Wonderland” ranch, the only crew the reclusive pop star allowed in.

      As for “ER?” Actually, this was just another job for Lamb. That’s because all the action was taking place onstage, he says. Back at the truck, it was just business as usual uplinking the feed.

      Not Always Perfect

      Normally, things go just fine for Mike Lemieux, vice president of operations for New England Satellite. But then, sometimes you just have one of those days.

      Unfortunately for Lemieux, that kind of day occurred the first time he had to operate an SNG truck by himself. He was covering basketball in Knickerbocker Arena. “This was my first solo run after six months on the job, and we were having a lot of power problems in the van,” he recalls. “Eventually, the only way to keep the waveguide doing its job was for me to ride the power levels manually. So there I was, for the entire game: riding the HPA’s power up and down, trying to keep it within acceptable limits. Worse yet, because I was on the road, I had to do this for several more assignments before the truck went back into the shop.”

      “One Of The Best”

      Ask James C. “Woody” Horan to describe himself, and he replies, “Well, people say I’m one of the best in the business, or at least that’s how they introduce me. But if you need my title, I’m a satellite operator at WFLA in Tampa, FL. In other words, I’m a truck driver.”

      But Horan is more than just a truck driver. A Navy veteran who specialized in electronics, he joined satellite equipment manufacturer MCL after retirement.

      One thing then led to another, and Horan found himself providing engineering support at WFLA. “I ended up working in the maintenance department until they got their first satellite truck,” he recalls. “Due to my Navy RF experience, they asked me if I’d like to drive it, and I said, ‘Sure, I’m a road warrior. I work better without direct supervision.'”

      Being FL-based, Horan has covered a lot of storms over the years. “The most striking was Hurricane Hugo,” he says. “We’d parked ourselves in Charleston, SC, down by the waterfront, and it was the first time I’d ever been through the eye of a hurricane. We were sending out transmissions until 11:30 p.m., until Hugo’s winds got too strong. Then we just sat inside the van, watching things fly by the window until 1 a.m. At that point, the winds died right down, and we all drifted out of the truck to an eery silence. Overhead, we could see the stars as Hugo’s eye passed over.”

      Of course, the peace couldn’t last. Within minutes, the wind started to pick up, and Horan and his crew returned to the safety of WFLA’s SNG truck. “This time around, we watched things fly from the other direction,” he says. “When morning broke and Hugo calmed down, we noticed that a huge church steeple had smashed into pieces on the ground just 100 yards away [from us].”

      Despite all his hurricane experience, Horan doesn’t consider those natural monsters to be his toughest assignments. No, that particular honor goes to NFL security guards, who he’s run up against at professional football games. “I’d rather deal with the Secret Service,” he says. “At least with them you know where you stand. But the NFL guys, they change their rules every five minutes.”

      The Unsung Heroes Of News

      It’s clear from the handful of stories here that SNG operators truly are the unsung heroes of news. Whether dodging shells in Sarajevo or surviving hurricanes in Florida, they’re the ones who make the medium happen.

      So the next time you see a reporter live from God-Knows-Where, think of the SNG operator off-camera. Without them, you wouldn’t be seeing a thing.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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